As Americans open their wallets to help earthquake victims in Haiti, a longtime charity watchdog warns givers to think twice about their "impulse donations."
Recalling the well-intentioned efforts of groups who sent coats and fuzzy winter scarves to victims of the 2004 tropical Asian tsunami, and the outright scams launched by the ill-intentioned, Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, advises givers to target groups with strong track records in the area. They should donate to aid organizations that know Haiti, understand the needs of Haitians, and have well-organized distribution systems for actually delivering that aid.
"We shouldn't repeat the mistakes of the Tsunami relief efforts" said Borochoff. With the outpouring of donations, there were still big problems coordinating between groups. Supply lines were frequently clogged with the wrong supplies and relief didn't reach the right places, said Borochoff.
An FBI offiical told ABC News that less than 24 hours after the Haiti earthquake the FBI had already received a handful of complaints about web sites that have been set up that could be a fraudulent. The FBI issued a statement Wednesday urging Internet users to be careful about giving on-line.
Given the difficulties of operating in a country where the central government and infrastructure had limited capabilities even before the devastation visited by Tuesday afternoon's quake, there are bound to be enormous problems distributing aid in Haiti. While modern technology makes it easy to give "impulse" donations – via the Internet, cell phones and other methods -- donors may actually want to wait and donate later, said Borochoff. Better relief channels will have been set up and aid groups will still need the help, since much of the immediate impulse giving will have evaporated.
Borochoff also warns those who want to help to watch out for Internet scammers. As in past disasters, they will try to play on the emotions of the public by sending out what appear to be personal e-mail appeals from individuals in Haiti. The messages may ask for the recipient's "personal" help or direct would-be donors to a Web site that is really just a front for a phony charity. Borochoff stressed that he had not yet seen examples, but is certain they will start popping up.
You can find more information about the ratings of individual charities from the American Institute of Philanthropy Web site, CharityWatch.org, which has now posted a "giving alert" on Haiti relief efforts. The alert lists grades for various groups involved in the relief efforts. Its top-rated charities spend at least 75 percent on program services, and spend no more than $25 to raise $100.
The site gives CARE, Catholic Relief Services, Operation USA and the Salvation Army an A, and the American Red Cross and Mercy Corps an A minus. World Vision receives a B plus.
The site also advises donors to send checks, not goods, and warns that "Disreputable, fly-by-night 'charities' always exist to take advantage of the public's generosity."
Other charity ratings are available via the Better Business Bureau and Charity Navigator.
Charity Navigator has compiled a list of almost 30 groups working in Haiti that it has given a four-star rating.
Alison Southwick, national spokesperson for the Better Business Bureau, told ABC News that her group did not yet have any examples of suspicious charity appeals. The BBB issued its own national warning today, urging donors to do their research before they give.
"Unfortunately, not all charity appeals come from trustworthy sources," said the statement. "While some charities are ill-equipped to help victims in foreign countries, others can be the work of scammers looking to make an easy buck."