HARRISBURG, Pa. (ErieNewsNow) - The holiday season is known to bring out the spirit of giving. Roughly one-third of annual charitable donations are made during the month of December. But as millions of Americans open their wallets for good causes, scammers look to take advantage of their generosity. 

“This is peak time for scammers, some of them being professionals who do scamming as a full-time job. This means that all of us have to be on extra alert at this time of year,” said Laurie Styron, Executive Director of Charity Watch, a national charity rating and watchdog organization.  

Styron recommends doing some homework by checking the rating of a charity to ensure your donation will go where it should. 

“We have a list of top-rated charities organized by cause. If you want to support animals or veterans or breast cancer research, you can come to our site and find an efficient organization working in a cause that's important to you and direct your donation there,” said Styron. "If you're going to hand over money that could otherwise be spent on a fancy vacation or on presents for your kids or grandkids, if you're going to hand that over to a charity instead, you want it to actually accomplish something,” Styron added. 

Styron says the best advice she can give to avoid charity scams, especially during the holidays, is to be proactive. 

“Be proactive because when we're reactive, we make mistakes. The number one reason that people donate is because they're asked. But when you're asked and you're put on the spot, a lot of us have trouble saying no,” said Styron. 

State officials say charity scams occur year-round. But like the rest of the country, Pennsylvania sees a noticeable increase around the holidays.  

“Folks are certainly more apt to be generous with their giving, and therefore they should also be more vigilant,” said Kalonji Johnson, Deputy Secretary for Regulatory Programs at the Department of State. 

Johnson says generous givers need to know the signs of a charity scam and watch for red flags including: 

  • Similar sounding names to a legitimate charity;  
  • High pressure solicitation; 
  • Donation by wire transfer or gift card; 
  • A 100 percent guarantee

Johnson says a 100 percent guarantee that your money is going directly to a cause is often a red flag because every legitimate organization is going to have some level of administrative costs like mailing, printing, or other operating costs. Sometimes, even with a legitimate charity, those costs are more than they should be, which is why Styron says it's important to research and check ratings before donating. 

“A charity could spend $1 of your $100 donation on its programs and be operating perfectly within the law. It's not enough to know if the charity is, quote unquote, legitimate,” said Styron. “You have to take the extra step and find out if that particular organization is going to use your donations the way you intend,” she added. 

Experts suggest additional tips to avoid an inefficient charity or a scam:  

  • Don't feel pressured to donate on the spot;  
  • Do your homework and check websites closely;  
  • Avoid money order donations; 
  • Direct your donation to the charity itself, not an individual  

Styron also recommends using a credit card instead of cash, checks, or a debit card. 

"The reason for that is when you hand over cash into a bucket or you use your debit card, or even sometimes a check, you're really handing over a lot of personal information about yourself that's going to allow a scammer or even a legitimate, but highly inefficient charity, to take that money directly out of your bank account or out of your hand,” said Styron. “When you use a credit card, if you realize that you made a mistake, most credit card companies have processes in place where you can dispute that charge if the charity itself is not willing to refund your donation,” she added. 

With inflation and rising costs, Styron says it helps to give more this season if you’re able.  

“All charities, even the best organizations, are going to be under some strain to cover increasing overhead costs and even more expensive program costs,” said Styron. “If you are someone who is in a position to give a little bit more this year, I would encourage you to be generous because there's a lot more need out there than there are resources to fulfill them,” she added. 

If you believe you are the victim of a charity scam, state officials say to file an online complaint here and to also file a report with the Federal Trade Commission at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.