July 24, 2012 at 3:09 PM ET
In the aftermath of the shooting in Aurora, Colo., pages have cropped up in online communities — such as Reddit and Facebook — promoting opportunities to help survivors and victims' families. While there are plenty of ways to help, it's not surprising that many of those ways involve money.
Take, for instance, the Facebook page that former Denver resident Laura Alier started in the wee hours of Friday morning, when she learned of the rampage. "Please use this page as a central place to share information and resources," she wrote. "Perhaps we can use this to find ways to help in the coming days and weeks."
And indeed, with over 8,500 likes and hundreds of posts, Alier's page is finding many non-financial uses. In addition to being a safe place for witnesses and outsiders alike to share news, discuss the tragedy and post homespun tributes, the page has served to point witnesses to mental health resources and help mourners find venues to hold vigils. One woman has offered to print out-of-towners' messages to bring to the shooting memorial. "It would be my honor, she wrote.
But, like other sites, it is also home to a collection of links leading to impromptu victims' charities.
As with any charities, some are more legitimate than others. For people who choose to give money in support, there are things to keep in mind, in order to make sure that their kind gestures reach the right individuals.
While speaking to NBC News, Alier expressed that she hasn't encountered any complaints about any of the charity links posted to the Facebook page, but she and the small team of volunteers are also working hard to keep things that way.
"Most appear legitimate, but we are trying to get new volunteers to begin working on verifying which fundraisers are confirmed legitimate," she says.
Ken Berger — president and CEO of Charity Navigator, a non-profit charity watchdog group — suggests that a great deal of caution is necessary in cases like this.
"Disasters are a time when people run into a situation where they, to some degree, are flying blind because the charities they know — the ones they typically give to — may not be providing services in the area. So it's a time that scammers are likely to prey on people," he told NBC News. "If there's some group that pops up ... we strongly urge people to proceed with great caution."
That isn't to say that every fledgling charity group you encounter is part of an elaborate scam, of course. "There are people who may create something new for something like this, but if there is an established group, we suggest that you go to them," Berger clarified.
You should have a level of confidence when donating, that your money will go to the right individuals, and not simply base your charity choice "on the storytelling skills of someone else." Research, investigate, and get informed.
Anne Marie Borrego, director of media relations for the American Red Cross, echoes Berger's sentiments.
"We are actually not taking donations specifically for this event," Borrego told NBC News, but she did offer some advice to potential donors. "Check out the charities. Do they file the appropriate tax forms? See how they spend their funds."
And if all else fails, just hold off, adds Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, a newspaper that's been covering non-profit organizations for over 25 years.
"The most important thing is to not respond overly emotionally right now," Palmer told NBC News. "There are scams that often do pop up right away ... and many legitimate charities are currently still assessing what can be done to help victims."
"The smart thing to do after a tragedy like this is to reserve money. Figure out how much you want to donate, but wait. Don't give yet. Figure out what trusted charities are doing."
Alier herself will continue to watch the posts on her Facebook page, to try to keep evildoers from getting in and exploiting the outpouring of kindness.
"[Social media is] a force for social good," she said. "We're taking notes as we go and hope to compile what we're learning — in order to help future efforts go even smoother. But overall it's gone remarkably smoothly considering how it came together in such an unusual and unlikely way."
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