As ushers passed collection baskets down the pews at Thursday's interfaith memorial service for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami, the crowd of 150 pulled out checks and folded dollar bills.
Nate Serlin, 68, dropped some money in the woven basket, but he had already received five e-mails from Jewish groups soliciting contributions for victims. He decided to send a donation to a Chabad, an open home for Jews, in Thailand.
"I give money to the first (solicitations) that come in," said Serlin of Palm Harbor.
But Jennifer Samnuel-Chance is more cautious. Wary of being scammed, the 42-year-old Tampa resident would give money only through the Unitarian church holding the service.
"I'd rather give to a group like this where I know where the money is going," she said.
Bombarded by horrific images of death and suffering in South Asia and East Africa, Americans are reaching out to tsunami victims. From restaurants to religious groups to Web sites such as Amazon.com, thousands of people are donating millions of dollars for relief efforts.
But how can you be sure your money will ever get there?
Already, the Better Business Bureau and the Department of Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services are warning the public about potential scams, although none have surfaced yet.
"Chances are, there's someone trying to make a buck off this tragedy," said Liz Compton, Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services spokeswoman. "They prey on people's emotions."
The American Institute of Philanthropy, a watchdog group, has identified nine relief charities that receive an "A" or "B" grade based on how they spend their money.
"On eBay, people say they will donate a portion of purchases to charity," said Daniel Borochoff, president of the Chicago institute. "There's no assurance that will actually happen. People shouldn't respond to links and unfamiliar Web sites."
Donors should know their contributions are tax-deductible if they are made to a qualified charity such as the Red Cross, or if they are made to a qualified charity through sites such as Amazon. Cash dropped in a donation jar, however, is not tax-deductible. A receipt must be provided if the contribution is $250 or more, but donors are advised to save all receipts or canceled checks if they plan to itemize deductions.
The American Red Cross, which has raised $43.7-million so far, assures donors that all contributions to the International Response Fund will be used for tsunami victims. The organization was sharply criticized after Sept. 11 for deciding to set aside $200-million preparing for future terrorist attacks.
"There is no way to know for certain all you give is going to be used for the purpose you think it's going to be used for," said Rick Cohen, executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.
A charity should spend at least 60 percent of its budget on program services, according to the American Institute of Philanthropy, but not every penny of every dollar may go directly to a disaster victim. For some organizations, a portion of the money is used to cover administrative costs and fundraising expenses.
That does not mean people shouldn't be generous, because donations can buy more than just relief. This is a chance to build bridges with the Islamic world, especially Indonesia, which is predominantly Muslim, Borochoff said.
He said smaller local groups such as temples, churches and mosques may have good links to devastated areas.
Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater, for example, has a congregation member whose hometown village in Sri Lanka was devastated. Shanthi Paranawithana's sister also lost her mother-in-law and sister-in-law when the waves washed them out to sea.
Part of the $4,500 raised Thursday will go to her village of Peraliya, while the rest will go to grass-roots groups in Sri Lanka and India, said the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi. One of the groups, Self-Employed Women's Association, has a proven track record in India, he said, and has already been deployed to assist relief efforts in Madras.
Kirin Patel, chairman of the Patel Foundation for Global Understanding in Tampa, which has experience in helping rebuild India's Kutch region after a 2001 earthquake, is matching monetary donations through Jan. 7. The money will go to the Patels' other foundation, Shakti Krupa, in India, where administrators will hire nongovernmental organizations to provide services to victims.
The organization has raised $20,000 as of Friday afternoon.
"Our focus is not to duplicate what the international aid agencies are doing," said Sigrid Tidmore, the foundation's executive director. "They're doing the triage. We do the community rebuilding. A month from now, people are still going to need food, water and medical supplies."
None of the funds raised goes to salaries or administrative costs, said Tidmore. The organization also will update donors on where the money is going.
The Council on American Islamic Relations is forwarding all funds raised to five organizations that already have relief efforts on the ground in South Asia. The Florida Buddhist Vihara, which has raised more than $5,000, is sending the funds to Kande Vihara, a temple serving as a disaster shelter in Sri Lanka, to build new homes.
It's too early to give specifics as to where the money is actually going, said Stacey Grissom, a Red Cross spokeswoman.
Six Thai restaurants in the Tampa Bay area have set up collection boxes to raise money through the Wat Mongkolratanaram temple in Tampa, which plans to wire the funds to Thailand's Army Relief Center.
But Royal Palace Thai Restaurant in Hyde Park has gone one step further, registering its Thailand Tsunami Relief Fund with the state as a nonprofit organization. For the next month, everything the restaurant earns on Mondays, about $5,000, will go to the fund, including checks patrons have sent.
Randall Knowles, husband of one of the co-owners, plans to go to Phuket, Thailand, in February. He's not sure yet how the money will be used _ maybe shoes for the children or tents to sleep in. He'll make a copy of his plane ticket and put it up on the wall, next to a daily tally of how much is being raised.
"We're trying to be as open as we can," Knowles said. "We're going to document everything."
Shannon Tan can be reached at shtansptimes.com or 445-4174.
HOW TO HELP
+ The American Institute of Philanthropy
+ The Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services' annual Gift Givers' Guide
Call 1800-HELP-FLA to determine if a charity is registered and its complaint history.
+ The Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance
TIPS ON GIVING
+ Don't give cash. Write a check payable to an organization _ not an individual.
+ Be wary of charities reluctant to answer questions about their operations and finances. Ask how much will go to other programs, administrative and fundraising costs.
+ Watch out for organizations that offer to send a "runner" to pick up your donation.
+ Do not give out credit card or personal information in response to a telephone or e-mail solicitation. Ask for written information on the charity's programs and finances.
+ Be wary of emotional appeals and groups with vague plans for spending the funds collected.
Source: BBB Wise Giving Alliance