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Want to Help Earthquake Victims in Japan? Check the BBB First

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Local residents watch the devastation provoked by a tsunami tidal wave smashing vehicles and houses at Kesennuma city in Miyagi prefecture, northern Japan on March 11, 2011. STR/AFP/Getty Yomiurin Shimbun

Local residents watch the devastation provoked by a tsunami tidal wave smashing vehicles and houses at Kesennuma city in Miyagi prefecture, northern Japan on March 11, 2011. STR/AFP/Getty Yomiurin Shimbun

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ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Dramatic news videos of the devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Japan Friday have prompted many Americans to consider making donations to charities that provide relief to survivors.

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) in St. Louis warns consumers to be cautious because fraudulent charities often crop up to take advantage of their sympathy for earthquake victims.

“Whenever there is a major natural disaster, there are two things you can count on: The first is the generosity of Americans who donate time and money to help victims, and the second is the appearance of poorly run and, in some cases, fraudulent charities,” said Michelle L. Corey, BBB president and CEO.

“Donors want to be sure their money goes to competent relief organizations that are equipped to handle the unique challenges of providing assistance in a disaster zone.”

The best way to help is to donate money to a reputable humanitarian organization, like the American Red Cross, a BBB Charity Seal holder.

The American Red Cross has a long history of responding to local, national, and international disasters.

The BBB offers the following tips to help Americans decide where to direct donations:

  • Rely on respected experts to evaluate a charity. Be cautious when relying on third-party recommendations such as bloggers,

they may not have fully researched the listed relief organizations. Instead the BBB provides a Wise Giving Guide to charities at www.bbb.org/charity. The guide shows which charities are accredited by the BBB and whether they meet the BBB’s 20 Standards for Charity Accountability.

  • Be wary of claims that 100 percent of donations assist victims. All charities have fund-raising and administrative costs. Even a credit card donation will involve, at a minimum, a processing fee.
  • Be cautious when giving online to unfamiliar charities. Be wary of spam messages and emails that claim to link to a relief organization. After the tsunami disaster in 2004 and the earthquake in Haiti last year, many websites and organizations that were created overnight allegedly to help victims turned out to be scams.
  • Find out if the charity has a presence in the impacted areas. Unless the charity already has staff in the affected areas, it may be difficult to get new aid workers into the area to provide assistance. See if the charity’s website clearly describes what they can do to address immediate needs.
  • Find out if the charity is providing direct aid or raising money for other groups. You may want to avoid the middleman and give directly to charities that have a presence in the region. Check out the ultimate recipients of the donations to ensure that the organizations are equipped to effectively provide aid.
  • Gifts of clothing, food or other in-kind donations may not be appropriate. Unless the organization has the staff and infrastructure to distribute such aid, the donations may be more of a burden than a help. Ask the charity about their transportation and distribution plans. Be wary of those who are not experienced in disaster relief assistance.

For more information about charities or to get a BBB Business Review, check with the BBB at www.bbb.org or by calling 314-645-3300.

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