- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 25, 2010

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” — Matthew 25:40

It was an innocent gesture.

A woman shopping alone left her purse unattended in the cart while she stood in line to get a free sample at the grocery store. After she returned I pointed to her handbag and whispered to her, “Be careful. The hawks are waiting to swoop this time of year.”

She smiled, we exchanged Happy Thanksgivings and went in separate directions.

The Christmas shopping season officially kicked off Friday, and it’s a profitable time of the year for scam and con artists, and other thieves.

Fail to be vigilant, and a larceny-hearted thief can pick your pocket quicker than you can say “Merry Christmas.”

And thieves who pick your charitable pockets consider the holiday season the most wonderful time of the year because we are very giving during the holy season and looking forward to tax write-offs.

But beware: Due diligence is a must in charitable giving, too.

We’re inundated with e-mails and snail mail asking us to donate on behalf of the needy, and give to veteran and health organizations and other worthy causes whose cups don’t exactly runneth over, thanks to the recession.

The Federal Trade Commission suggests we check our potential donor list twice (www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/alerts/alt114.shtm). Common sense also goes a long way: If it sounds too good to be true, it’s a hoax.

There also are the cons who exploit natural disasters and causes that tug at our heartstrings, such as the Haitian earthquake and our veterans.

Some of the best advice I follow came from my dad, “Stick with what you know.”

I do. The Red Cross for always being at the ready. Whitman-Walker Clinic for its endless HIV/AIDS work. Greater Washington Urban League for fighting the good socioeconomic fight. Salvation Army for doing the Lord’s work even when nonbelievers try to silence their Christmastime bells.

Since my dad’s death, I’ve added Covenant House Washington, which rescues soiled youths who, unlike a lot of young knuckleheads roaming the streets, may be down on their luck through no fault of their own.

If you haven’t been solicited and are in search of a charitable group or worthy cause, check out the American Institute of Philanthropy’s website, charitywatch.org, where you can find alerts about disasters and other useful information, including a rating guide, an easily navigable A-Z listing and charitable purpose criteria.

For its ratings, AIP focuses on how a charity actually spends donated dollars.

“Groups included on the Top-Rated list generally spend 75 percent or more of their budgets on programs, spend $25 or less to raise $100 in public support, do not hold excessive assets in reserve, and receive ‘open-book’ status for disclosure of basic financial information and documents to AIP,” the organization explains on its website.

The top-rated charities in its most recent report include familiar ones, including the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Bread for the World and Catholic Relief Services.

AIP’s website also provides links to some philanthropic websites, where you can learn what organizations support a charity you may be interested in aiding.

For example, if you want to support a literacy program like Reading Is Fundamental — or RIF, as it is widely known — you’ll find that one of its free-book-giveaway partners is Macy’s, and you might keep that in mind as you make holiday purchases.

And while you’re out, don’t forget about the bell ringers.

The Christian soldiers of the Salvation Army and their red kettles are as far away as Korea and as near as the front doors of a local merchant.

At Christmastime, these soldiers need not speak a word for us to respond — and that is as it should be.

Whether you plop a few coins into a red kettle or are blessed to be at a station in life where you can hand over dollar bills isn’t important.

It’s our gesture that matters most.

Deborah Simmons can be reached atdsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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