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MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: It's the holiday season so maybe you're feeling a desire to be generous. Or perhaps you're just looking for a last minute tax write-off. Whatever the reason, the chances are that sometime over the next few weeks you'll give money to a good cause. Well if you do be warned. 'Tis the season for scams and people who will try to take advantage of your generosity. Alex Cohen says the unscrupulous will exploit any situation.

ALEX COHEN: Con artists love natural disasters.

Sal Hernandez of the FBI's Criminal Investigation Division says there's nothing like a major tragedy to bring out the big donations.

SAL HERNANDEZ: It's much easier if you have a large segment of the population at risk of loss or that has already lost in some way to make that appeal to the public. The appeal is to the public's generosity.

People feel even more generous during the holiday season, which is why so many phony charities popped up following the Southeast Asian tsunami at the end of 2004 and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita last year.

Knock wood, this year hasn't seen a disaster of such proportions, which may be why some people are looking to capitalize on last year's tragedies . . . again.

Marc Sachs directs the Internet Storm Center which patrols the Net for potentially frauds. In recent weeks, he says, they've been scouring the web for new sites with addresses including words such as charity, donate and reliefa€¦

MARC SACHS: Just in the last 24 hours there's been 10 more websites registered with the name Katrina or hurricane Katrina inside the domain name. This is well over a year after that's passed.

Sachs says these new websites may or may not prove to be fake charities. Often times it's hard to tell at first glance. Clever scammers go to great lengths, such as copying the graphics from the websites of legitimate charities, to lure donors. That's because they can profit significantly from getting people to give online.

SACHS: In the virtual world you're giving up information about your credit card about your online banking accounts or other things that the fraudsters can then use to take even more money from you than what you had originally donated.

If you'd like to give this season without getting duped, there are steps you can take. For example, the Better Business Bureau offers an online guide to legitimate national charities.

If you get a phone call asking for donations, take as much time as you need to investigate. If they're truly a charity, they'll be just as happy to take your money next week as they will today. And, says the FBI's Sal Hernandez, watch out for what he calls soundalikes.

HERNANDEZ: Sometimes those that are involved will simply change a part of the name to give the charity that they're working with, supposedly working with, an air of legitimacy.

For instance, it's the American Cancer Society, not the American Cancer Association. And it's the American Lung Association, not the American Lung Society.

I'm Alex Cohen for Marketplace.

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