Q: I’ve been following the disaster in Japan and other places around the world. I would like to make a charitable contribution, but I don’t know if the charity organization is legitimate, or not. What should I be aware of, and what are some resources I can utilize to find out?

A: After a major disaster like the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, millions of people go online to find out how they can help. But, sadly, scam artists also go online to try to take advantage of the tragedy to divert much-needed contributions into their own coffers.

The best way for many donors to select worthwhile charities is to work with a local charity as a volunteer. This helps provide first-hand knowledge about programs that benefit your community. When solicited for charity, learn about the organization, its activities and fundraising practices.

If a commercial fundraiser is involved, ask the name of the commercial fundraiser and for proof of registration with the Registry of Charitable Trusts. By law, the commercial fundraiser must disclose the fact that the solicitation is being conducted by a commercial fundraiser, and the name of the fundraiser as registered with the attorney general. Also, ask what percentage of donations being raised is paying for fundraising expenses. California law requires fundraisers to disclose this fact if asked, either orally or in writing. Ask how much will be used for the program you want to support and how much will cover the charity’s administrative costs. And, if a commercial fundraiser is used, ask what percentage of the donation the fundraiser will keep. Again, California law requires solicitors to disclose this information if asked. If you didn’t know it, states cannot regulate the amount of money a charity spends on fundraising or administrative costs; state laws that applied percentages to determine the legality of a fundraiser’s fee have been held unconstitutional.

When in doubt, ask for as much information as possible. Confirm the charity’s name, address, telephone number, proof of exempt status and registration with the attorney general. A charity or fundraiser should give you materials outlining the charity’s program services, how your donation will be used and proof that your contribution is tax-deductible. Then call the charity directly. Find out if the organization exists and is aware of the solicitation. If the charity hasn’t authorized the use of its name, you may be dealing with a fraudulent solicitor. Ask the charity to send you written information about its revenue, expenses and programs before making a donation. If the solicitor tells you the donation is for your local police, firefighter or other public safety agency, check directly with the agency to ensure that it is actually participating in the fundraising appeal. Remember, some questionable organizations use names that closely resemble those of well-established charitable organizations.

Avoid clicking on any links in solicitations for money, even if they appear to come from an organization you know and trust. In most cases, e-mail solicitations are scams. If you want to give to that or any other organization, locate their actual web address and type that in, or look for them on a search engine. But also be careful about search engine results. Again, don’t give to organizations that you don’t know or haven’t checked out, regardless of how legitimate they may appear to be.

Also, talk with your kids about donating. It’s great to get them involved and they might be tempted to donate via their mobile phone. Make sure your children know that text donation services are not to be used without your guidance and permission.

I know these are a lot of steps to take when trying to donate your hard-earned money. However, you would feel much worse finding out your contribution went into the pockets of fraudulent scammers trying to earn an easy buck. If you do get what appears to be a fraudulent solicitation, report it to the National Center for Disaster Fraud. You can also report to the Internet Crime Complaint Center and to the Better Business Bureau.

Private watchdog organizations have created spending standards for charities and issue reports based on those standards. Three such organizations are:

• Wise Giving Alliance (www.give.org)

• Council of Better Business Bureaus’ Foundation (www.bbb.org)

• American Institute of Philanthropy (www.charitywatch.org)

This column was prepared by Neighborhood Resource Officer Richard Carranza (Beat 1: coastal, beach and pier areas). He can be reached at (424) 200-0681 or richard.carranza@smgov.net.