So you get a phone call from a number you don't recognize, and the voice on the other end tells a heart-rending story about a sick child who might not get anything for Christmas. They give you the name of their organization. It sounds sort of familiar. They then say you've donated to their group before, and they need another donation, immediately, preferably in cash.
Leah Napoliello with Houston's Better Business Bureau says those sad stories are enough to get some people to open their wallets.
"Sometimes they give several hundred, several thousand dollars to a nonprofit and it turns out not to be a legitimate charity."
Napoliello says the holidays are prime time for charity scams. Even if your number is on the "Do Not Call" list, you could still get calls from telemarketers who claim they're with a nonprofit organization. Often they'll give a name that sounds similar to a legitimate group. For example, they'll say they're with "Toys for Kids" instead of "Toys for Tots."
"It will just be enough to trick you into thinking that you're giving to a well-known group, even though it's actually a scam."
Another way to figure out if you're talking to a scammer is to ask them exactly how they're going to use your donation. They're supposed to give you that information.
"You may speak to someone on the phone and the money that you give — the majority may not go to the actual charity itself."
In some cases the telemarketer could be getting up to 95 percent of contributions. That's according to Sandra Miniutti. She's with the group Charity Navigator. It's an organization that tracks how nonprofits spend their donated money.
Miniutti says if the caller isn't willing to give specific information:
"We recommend that donors just hang up the phone."
But what happens if someone doesn't hang up and winds up sending a contribution? Prosecutor Tricia Mason handles consumer fraud cases for the Harris County DA's office.
"If people are giving cash — which is something we don't recommend they do — it can be a little more difficult, because we can't trace the funds where they're going, that sort of thing. But if people are writing checks we can follow the money. It makes it a little bit easier to find the scammer."
Mason says accused scammers can face a wide range of charges, such as misapplication of fiduciary property and theft by deception. But if you lost money to a charity scam, what are the odds you'll get it back?
"I wouldn't count on it."