Image: Shopping online © Creatas, SuperStock

Image: Shopping online © Creatas, SuperStock

7. Donations to random charities

December is a big month for charitable giving. Scam artists and sketchy outfits posing as charities take advantage of our warm feelings during the holidays to fill their coffers.

If you want your hard-earned money to go to a good cause -- rather than to a criminal or a for-profit fundraiser, or the overpaid CEO of a not-really-nonprofit -- then you need to regard appeals for your help with some suspicion.

Here are some situations where you should really raise your guard:

  • The cold call. Some legitimate charities use call centers to contact potential donors (charities are excepted from the federal Do-Not-Call list, which means they can contact you even if you signed up to end other telemarketing calls). But cold calls are also a hallmark of scammers and charities that hire expensive third-party fundraisers. Don't give your credit card number, bank account number or any other financial information to a cold caller, even if you think you recognize the charity. If you think you want to give, check out the charity on a watchdog site like Charity Navigator or GuideStar, and use its links to get to the charity's site.
  • Firefighter or police "charities." If you want to benefit public servants, call your local fire or police department and ask how to do so. The departments will direct you to legitimate charities. Too many of the direct appeals you get that supposedly benefit firefighters or police are in reality scams, because the bad guys know people are a soft touch for these causes.

    Click here to become a fan of MSN Money on Facebook

  • Door-to-door or sidewalk appeals. There's really no way to tell if these folks are raising money for a cause or for themselves. Give them a check or your credit card number and your financial information can be misused. Besides, scattershot giving in response to these appeals isn't the best way to deploy your charitable dollars. Instead, pick a few areas where you want to concentrate your giving: the arts, say, or children's charities. Consider setting up a series of automatic payments so you'll be giving throughout the year, rather than trying to squeeze it in at the end when there are so many competing demands for your dollars.