Americans are the most generous people in the world. That's why they're often favorite targets of scam artists, especially when there's a disaster.

Right after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there was a storm of scams that consumed between $300,000 and $400,000 of Red Cross donations. Literally millions of dollars were lost through other fraudulent sources, some which even boldly advertised on television.

Former U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales had to establish the Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force in response to the scandals.

You can bet that heartless con artists will be working around the clock as a result of the Haiti earthquake disaster and tragedy.

What can you do to make sure you're not scammed?

For one thing, don't let your heart dictate to your brain. Scam artists prey on compassion. They utilize photos to grasp your attention, they use sad stories to lasso your heart, and they often have names that sound like a legitimate charity to con you out of money you intended to give to the relief efforts.

Among the suggestions made by Pa. Attorney General Tom Corbett to avoid being scammed are:

Ÿ Be wary of high-pressure tactics and door-to-door collections.

Ÿ In you are making a contribution electronically, be certain that you are using a secure Internet site.

Ÿ Be cautious of "SPAM" email messages that ask you to click on links, open files, or download photos (these could contain computer viruses).

Ÿ Be watchful for fictitious organizations or websites created by scam artists that are designed to sound or look similar to legitimate relief organizations.

If you donate to a Haitian relief effort, give to a charity you're familiar with such as the American Red Cross (www.redcross.org).

The official White House site for Haiti relief donations is: www.whitehouse.gov/haitiearthquake.

Be wary of giving to any organization that you're not familiar with, even if a movie star endorses it. A celebrity endorsing a charity doesn't mean that it's legitimate.

There's no question the people of Haiti need help. And American people want to help.

Just make sure if you are contributing, that your check will find its way to that impoverished nation and not in the pocket of a con artist.

One last thought: Make sure if you send a contribution, that you don't make it a substitute for a contribution you would normally make to your local fire company or other local charity during their fund drives. It's great to help with the Haiti disaster relief, but local organizations still need your donations, too, to keep functioning.

By Ron Gower

rgower@tnonline.com