Disaster Planning: What to Grab in an Emergency

The only way to get what you are due is documentation. This is the most important thing, and the person responsible for making sure everything is on that insurance policy is you, not your insurance agent.

That's why I strongly recommend that once a year you walk through your house and note any changes. Have you done any home improvements? Did you happen to get engaged and now have a piece of expensive jewelry? Did you buy a new home sound system? Those things you want to make sure get on that policy.

It also doesn't hurt to take pictures of your home -- photos are great documentation of what was there.

For people who want to help those in Southern California impacted by the wildfires, what would you tell our viewers?

One of the most meaningful ways to help is to donate to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. Your donation will go directly to providing people with necessary shelter, food and even grief counseling.

Outside of writing a check, are there other things you can do to help?

Absolutely. In a disaster such as the wildfires, there is a great need for volunteers — everything from giving up a spare bedroom in your home, to helping with the disaster recovery efforts. One great Web site to check out is www.volunteermatch.com.

You can simply type in your location and specify an area of volunteer interest, such as disaster recovery, to learn more about ways you can give back.

When a disaster strikes, we often see the best in people. But, unfortunately, there are others who may try to take advantage of people's desire to help. How can you avoid a scam when looking for ways to help?

I wish I could say otherwise, but you are right — scam artists recognize the altruism of others as an opportunity to make money by approaching unsuspecting people. As such, it is critically important to research the organization to which you are giving money, as well as be wary of some red flags.

First and foremost, be inquisitive when you are approached by an organization soliciting your donations. All organizations, even newer ones, should have basic information available on their programs, as well as their finances. If an organization or solicitor is unable to provide this information, or even answer simple questions about how aid will be used and distributed, you may want to give elsewhere. Also, if a solicitor pressures you to make a quick decision, your antennae should be up.

Next, if you want your contribution to be tax deductible, be sure to confirm the tax status of the aid organization, which is available on the Internal Revenue Service Web site, www.irs.gov. In order to claim the deduction, the organization must be classified as tax exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

Finally, whatever organization you decide to give to, be sure to provide a secure donation. Generally, I would suggest you avoid making donations over the phone or e-mail via credit card. If you choose to use your credit card, be cautious, and if you are making your donation online, always make sure it is a secure site.

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