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Whenever an earthquake, tsunami, or other natural disaster strikes, one thing that can always be counted on is the generosity of complete strangers around the world. Motivated by the plight of our fellow humans, and moved by media images of ordinary people in distress, there’s a natural tendency to want to rush out and help. But in order for this help to translate into the type of help that makes the biggest difference, people need to do more than give generously, they need to give smartly.

Beware of Scams
It turns out scam artists are also moved by this plight of empathy: moved towards trying to pocket as much of this generosity for themselves as they can. Following any disaster of substantial proportion, con-artists of all types crawl out of the woodwork to try and capitalize on the media coverage. Within mere hours of a disaster, dozens or even hundreds of websites can spring up soliciting donations for the relief effort. The problem is, many of these are fraudulent. The only effort these donations are going toward is usually the relief of providing some computer hacker in Germany a new BMW to sit upon. Here are some tips to avoid being taken:

1. Listen to instructions listed on official news channels, and make a donation using the phone number or address they give you. This should ensure your donation ends up with the legitimate organization.

2. Never give to an e-mail you received. One of the simplest tools at a thief’s exposal is to set up a spamming campaign, sending out emails to millions of accounts. It’s a fishing game, and they need only a fraction of a percent to respond to become rich. Real organizations do not spam, meaning they do not send out unsolicited emails asking for donations.

3. Be cautious about making donations to telemarketers. First, this is often a scam just like e-mail, and second, telemarketing campaigns are often run by private companies who take 50 cents or more on the dollar and donate only a fraction of the total sum to the charity. (Essentially, they are a legalized scam.) If you’re solicited, ask how you can make a donation directly to the charity that doesn’t involve giving over the phone, and then double-check the info to ensure it is legit. If they don’t want you to do that, it’s either a scam or a telemarketing company that wants their cut. Either way, it’s a bad donation.

Cash Only
Many people are tempted to donate tangible supplies, such as food or blankets. The problem is that this is often the most inefficient way to get aid to those who need it. The biggest cost in relief efforts is not usually the supplies themselves, but the logistical costs of transporting them to where those supplies are needed. When people try to donate supplies, you often end up with the expensive logistical problem of shipping various odds and ends across much larger expanses, rather than purchasing supplies that can be moved to the disaster area with the least amount of shipping and transport possible. It may feel better to give something tangible, since we imagine that blanket we gave being used for a family to snuggle up in. Yet these types of donations tend to hinder efforts rather than help, by utilizing precious manpower and costing more to get them there than the donations are worth. So stick to cash, unless directed to do otherwise by relief organizations.

Think long-term
Following a disaster, keep in mind that there is a strong tendency to over-help in the initial response, and then support sort-of peters out as media coverage dies down and people loose interest. Yet often times, the area of greatest need comes in the long-term recovery efforts. So its often better to make a donation to the various charities that are in the trenches everyday in that particular area. For example, Save the Children engages in both disaster relief efforts as well as ongoing child welfare programs in most areas of the globe. They are usually a safe bet to use your money wisely and think in long-term strategies.

Don’t forget the daily tragedies
Finally, don’t forget that children are suffering year round, all over the globe. Use this tragedy as a reminder that many kids are in a desperate plight for survival without any natural disasters contributing to their misery. Consider giving to their needs as well.

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