“Do the two of you have a minute to hear about a charity that feeds poor children?”

The solicitor (we’ll call him Henry) stood on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade. He was well-dressed, middle-aged, and wielded a clipboard with photographs of poor children. Around his neck hung a laminated lanyard with a government seal and his photograph.

Henry had engaged a passing couple whom he assumed to be tourists. The man had a camera, while both he and the woman carried shopping bags.

The couple stopped, shrugged at one another, and said they had a minute. Henry told them that with a $20 donation, a charity called Another Chance could feed two poor children for a week. Those familiar with the Promenade know that this kind of interaction is common; solicitors for charity hit up Third Street visitors practically every minute.

Nothing, however, was as it seemed during this particular minute. Henry did not work for a charity. He was a scam artist posing as an employee of Another Chance. Any money he collected went straight into his wallet. He was glad to take the man’s $20 bill.

But Henry’s two marks were not as they seemed, either. Their camera had no touristy photos on it. Their shopping bags were full of law books. They were not married or visiting, but working undercover for the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office.

For many shoppers at holiday time, charitable giving is a priority-a fact not lost on scam artists like Henry. Charity scams increase this time of year by telephone, Internet, and in-person solicitations in public places like the Promenade and Santa Monica Pier.

Consumers face two key questions when donating to a charity: Is the charity real, and how much of each donation actually goes to the cause?

Many bogus charities have names similar to real charities, or are just plain made-up. It’s often hard to tell the difference, especially during a sudden in-person solicitation.

Also, even with legitimate charities, you’d be surprised how much of each donation goes to “administrative costs,” and how little to the actual charity. Many well-known charities give only a tiny portion of your donation to the cause – while others are much better, giving nearly 100 percent. There is no law requiring a particular percentage.

For both of these issues, the best approach is to first do a little research, and then make donations to charities you select in advance. Charitynavigator.org is a handy place to find out how much of each charity’s donations go to charitable works, and how much to “administrative costs.”

Henry and two of his fellow scammers were arrested in the wake of the undercover investigation. They spent time in jail and later were convicted of theft, false advertising, and other crimes. Their sentences included some 300 hours each of hard labor and community service.

Giving to charity can make a positive impact. But with a little advance research, you can help assure that donations make the impact you intended.

– Gary Rhoades

The City Attorney’s Consumer Protection Division enforces the law and educates the public about tenants’ rights, fair housing, consumer protection and other issues. They can be reached at (310) 458-8336 or smconsumer.org.