Charity begins at your homepage: The joys and pains of funding good will online

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Whether tax season or holiday cheer brings about your generosity, now's the time of year for it. Last year we looked at ways you could check up on a charity organization before you give. And that's still a good idea.

But the organizations that generate the kind of information you can easily look up--open records, tax returns, and ratings--are generally large. What about the rest of the lot?  Sure, everybody knows that you don't send your bank info to the wife of a millionaire minister who just wants you to help her do good works before she dies (and will richly reward you with a cut of her life savings).

But what about the people you sort of know? A story you read about on the news. Or the friend of a friend of a friend on FB. You like the idea of social technologies used to do direct good to someone or something you care about (and I do, too).

It does really work sometimes. And there are plenty of tools (legitimate and not, open source and not) that help people who want to raise funds try to do so. Private schools, homeless shelters, citizens' organizations--you'll find a lot of those kinds of listings. You'll also find a lot of needy people. Trying to get through school. Trying to raise their kids. Helping animals or struggling with health issues.  

Often, the payments are small and the process is easy. Well-known sites like PayPal offer gifting and donation options that make it simple for the genuine and grifter alike to set up a transaction. And while you may be spending only what you intend (and it's just a few dollars), someone can still be racking up quite a sum if their scam seems genuine. 

There's enough bad apples that sites like Snopes and Hoax Slayer exist. Hoax Slayer keeps a list of charity hoaxes, and Snopes has collections of email scams and some good advice about what to look out for when you encounter someone asking for help. The most common-sense tip is to avoid giving cash or opening yourself up to any further risk by sharing too much information.

It's a sticky area, for both those who want to give and those who want to receive. The way that rules and laws around donations work hasn't yet caught up with the technology. Small, direct-acting organizations aren't always registered, may not have information about what percent of proceeds make up their charitable distribution, and the goods you donate probably aren't tax-deductible.

And even a noble effort using common tools can get tied up in red tape. The online funds exchange service PayPal recently found itself in a PR nightmare after freezing the account of a popular blogger who set up a Secret Santa fund for needy families. (Nothing says Christmas spirit like taking toys away from babies.)

April Winchell--also known by the snarktastic nom de plume, Helen Killer, on her bad-craft mocking blog, Regretsy--took to her blog, to Twitter, and to Facebook to try to fight back. Her popularity--and the lightning fast spread of the story made PayPal think twice. In addition to a quick reversal of their six-month lockdown on all her accounts, they donated $100 per needy family to make up for the mistake.

Would this swift correction have come about if Winchell hadn't had a powerfully large audience and a smart grasp of social media? Probably not. Other buyers and sellers have long reported--even on PayPal's own forums--complaints about frozen accounts, declined transactions, and transaction fees taken even when transactions are cancelled.

The good news? Publicized failures like the dispute between Regretsy and PayPal help develop better rules for handling simliar situations in the future. Winchell's primary complaint was that PayPal never clarified when and how their "Donate" button could be used. I imagine that inside PayPal there's now someone working on documenting that right this minute.

It probably won't fix every problem with the service--or stop every scammer. But with the growth of online shopping and giving and the constant incremental improvement in technology, your options for holiday giving have greatly expanded--as long as you're careful.

Related stories: Charity in the modern age: How do I give without getting got?

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Editor, writer, and developer. I wear many hats, including the red one. Graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism; long-time interest in all things geeky. Editor of Red Hat Magazine and grizzled industry veteran, including time as an archivist for SunSITE UNC (now and ten-plus years at my current gig. I love:

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