Giving a bit of your good fortune to a philanthropic or charitable organization is one of the simplest ways to spread prosperity. Whether your passion rests in fighting diseases, hunger in your community, helping people learn to read and get an education, or solving any number of the problems facing the world today, there are thousands of worthy charities that are capable of turning your donations into real-life results.

However, not every organization that claims to do good is actually honest. Fake charities are an unfortunate reality, especially online; disreputable organizations effectively mask their intent by fishing for the empathy of well-meaning strangers. To ensure your donations benefit the right people, it’s important to learn to identify the signs that distinguish a scam from actual philanthropy.

  1. Do some background research. Carefully skimming search results may give you some idea as to a charity’s reputation, but be sure to check their website for a verifiable synopsis of what their program has accomplished as well as a board of directors page. You can also confirm whether a charity has tax-exempt status through the IRS’ website.
  2. Find contact information. Locate both online and offline contact information and ensure that it is valid. Be extremely wary of any organization that cannot provide a physical address.
  3. Check page dates. Donate through a website that hasn’t been updated in months or years and you risk giving your money to an organization whose goals have changed or that is no longer in existence.
  4. Make sure personal info is protected. Verify that the page on which you enter credit card info is secured and encrypted with an “https” URL in the address bar. If donating through a site that stores users’ personal information, find out what type of security software it uses, and confirm that the software is effective and up to date.
  5. Avoid third-party giving. Donating directly through a charity’s website guarantees all funds instantly move toward your cause. Donation aggregators will usually take a transaction fee, and may charge charities a percentage as well. Third parties might even seek to earn interest on donations by delaying fund transmission until users’ net donations accumulate to a certain amount.
  6. Guard your privacy. Before giving away any private information, examine site privacy policies. If you’re uncomfortable with your info being sold or given away, establish prior to donating that the charity holds an “opt in” policy, which requires obtaining users’ permission before distributing personal data.
  7. Stay away from spam. Sophisticated spamming techniques can sometimes manage to worm their way through junk mail blockers. Spam messages may contain links to legitimate-looking sites, or they may declare that forwarding a chain email results in donations to charity; these claims are false. Dodge malware and other forms of online misery by ignoring the requests made by unsolicited emails from unfamiliar services.

Online giving may seem risky, but taking protective measures has quickly become second nature for the millions who, thanks to the internet, can now donate easily, and contribute to positive change more efficiently than ever before.