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News 13 Investigates: How to avoid hurricane relief scams

In this geocolor image captured by GOES-16 and released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Hurricane Irma approaches Anguilla on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. The most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricane in recorded history has roared into the Caribbean, its winds ripping off roofs and knocking out phones. It's on a path toward Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba before possibly hitting Florida. (NOAA via AP)

As Hurricane Irma sets its sights on Florida and Harvey floodwaters recede from Texas and Louisiana, clean up estimates will top $100 billion.

While many donated to relief organizations and get set to do it again, a News 13 investigation found figuring out which ones do the most good with your contribution isn't as easy as donating. There are some ways, however, to check on a charity, and you should before writing a check. Some charities are more transparent than others. Charity navigator is a good website to check. It rates charities. For example, it recommended The United Way of Greater Houston over the Red Cross for transparency. So, here's some help with the best ways to donate.

Families plucked from roof tops, images of so many slogging through waste deep water, are now seared into our memories.

“We just need to help these people,” said Pam Goolsby.

“Everybody falls on hard times,” Boyce Baker said.

The heart of their homes are now on full display -- soggy carpet, moldy furniture and drenched drywall piling up at the street -- as the nation watches and wonders how they can help from so far away.

Those images made Pam Goolsby, Boyce Baker and Elizabeth Policoro here in Western North Carolina reach for their checkbooks.

“I wanted to do my part, to give back a little bit,” Goolsby explained.

For Elizabeth Policoro, it's personal. Her New Jersey neighborhood flooded years ago.

“The house was alright, it wasn't that bad, but I know you need the help,” said Policoro.

Help that's now flooding into Texas and Harvey ravaged areas will soon to be headed to Florida, Georgia and the coasts of North and South Carolina.

“You're doing this from your heart. You want it to be done without people just taking money from people for no reason,” said Baker.

So, how do you ensure the majority of what you give makes it hundreds of miles to impacted communities?

“I want the whole thing. I don't want them doing anything else with it,” said Policoro.

Investigative journalists at ProPublica raised issue with the Red Cross in Louisiana after government documents and emails showed widespread mismanagement and understaffing at shelters during August 2016 flooding. The Red Cross pointed out 91 cents from every dollar is invested in humanitarian programs. The Red Cross told News 13 it learned from every disaster and enhanced its response abilities based on those lessons. As a result, for Harvey, the organization pre-positioned response crews and are planning the same for Irma.

Charity Navigator and the Better Business Bureau encourage you to research a charity before you give. A couple of other good websites to check are Guidestar and the IRS website, where you can also look up a charity's finances.

“I'm just going to click on view the report,” explains Julie Goodwin, director at Asheville’s BBB.

Goodwin walked News 13 through its Wise Giving website. Just plug in a charity's name.

“It will tell you it's an accredited charity, it has the seal on it, here's the phone number and the website,” Goodwin explained. To earn that accreditation, a charity has to meet the BBB 20's standards.

The Better Business Bureau accredits charities who spend at least 65 percent on program activities. Goodwin warns donors about clicking on emails soliciting disaster help.

“Never click on a link or an attachment because then you will have a possible issue with your computer with a virus or malware,” said Goodwin.

She also cautions donors about giving through social media or crowdsourcing sites.

“These crowd funding sites, they don't check out the individual, there's no investigating,” said Goodwin.

Texting financial donations could also have pitfalls. Some charities may allow the Mobile Giving Foundation to keep five to 10 percent of each donation. We found it in the fine print, although it's sometimes waived for disasters.

Want to donate supplies versus cash? Amazon allows organizations to create wish lists. An organization or charity can tell you what supplies they need, you buy and click, and Amazon ships it right into the affected area.

“We want you to do it cautiously,” said Goodwin.

Charity Navigator said your best bet for ensuring your donation goes to disaster relief is to designate your gift, either online and in the memo section of your check. If you don’t designate it for a specific disaster it could go into the organization’s general fund or be used however the organization sees fit. Your best bet is to give to those organizations you've researched and trust.

“Give it to a source that you know the max amount of money that's going to be given to that organization to do whatever it is to help,” said Baker.

Charity Navigator has a top five list of local charities in Texas that are good picks to donate to. If you click on the link News 13 provided, it's in the middle of the page, with links to those charities.

One more tip, keep your receipt and remember you can only deduct contributions to qualified tax-exempt charitable organizations on your taxes.

Got something for the I-team to investigate? Email us at iteam@wlos.com

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