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How to Avoid the Charity Scams That Can Derail Your Holiday

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) Americans are sure in a giving mode during the holidays, and this year should be no different.

According to the Blackbaud 2012 Charitable Giving Report, December is far and away the strongest month on the calendar for charitable giving.

It accounts for 17.7% of all giving for the year, just about double the amount of October, the second-leading month (at 8.4%), and way ahead of July, the lowest month for charitable activity (at 6.5%).

Even as Americans should be applauded for their generosity in the holiday season, some institutions are warning consumers to be on guard this month, as it's also the highest period of financial fraud activity.

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That warning come from Western Union and the Better Business Bureau, who banded together to create the BBB Scam Stopper division.

It's in the heart of the holidays when identity thieves turn up the heat on scams via phone, email and social media sites. Charitable consumers should be especially aware of fraudsters posing as actual charitable groups over the next several weeks.

"We urge donors to give thoughtfully, and to be wary of scams this holiday season," says Art Taylor, chief executive of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance. "It's important to check out a charity first, and make sure you are giving to a charity that will use your donation wisely."

Here is a list of tips to minimize the odds of charitable-minded consumers being tripped up by ID thieves:

Vet it first. Start by visiting the BBB's website, which offers full reviews of 11,000 global charities. Chances are, if you're considering giving to a charity, the direct way of giving money to the group can be vetted on The BBB advises always giving to a charity after you've checked it out, and never after being hit up for a donation on the phone or by clicking a Web or email link.

Don't individualize a donation. If you're ready to give to a nonprofit group, make sure the payment is addressed to the group and never to a specific individual. That's a big red flag -- Western Union, in fact, does not accept charitable money payments to individuals.

Keep your data private. Never share your bank or credit account information with a nonprofit group you don't know or with an individual you don't know. If you're unsure, contact the charity directly and don't send any cash until you're sure the group is legitimate.

Watch out for phony websites. Online con artists like to use lookalike online sites to lure you into their web. By and large, they get you to click on Web or email links that take you directly to the phony site. That can lead to toxic malware being downloaded into your computer, laptop or tablet, and it can also lead to your personal financial data being compromised.

Above all, don't be quick to pull the trigger on a donation. ID thieves are counting on you doing that. "Resist rushing. If a charity is legitimate, they'll accept your donation any time," says Shelley Bernhardt, director of consumer protection at Western Union.

That's good advice, especially if you want to use the busy holiday season to give to charity. Go slow and improve your chances of dodging scamsters during the Christmas season.

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