This story was updated on Sept. 17, 2018.

As expected, Hurricane Florence, now officially downgraded to a tropical depression, is wreaking havoc throughout the Carolinas, threatening both lives and property.

With the storm dumping more than 20 to 30 inches of rain in some places and still slowly moving through the area, at least 17 people have died, more than a half a million homes and businesses were without power as of Monday morning, thousands are in shelters, and flooding is widespread, causing cities such as Wilmington, N.C. to be cut off from outside access. The governors of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia have all declared states of emergency.

In times like these, when disaster strikes—both natural and manmade—you may be among the many people eager to help by donating to charitable organizations that are assisting in the relief effort.

It’s a noble impulse with one big problem: Too often, contributions end up going to groups that do not use the money wisely—sometimes including charities and crowdfunded efforts that spring up overnight—or, worse, to scammers who prey on the generosity and emotional response of individuals looking to assist victims.

If you are moved to help as Florence inflicts its worst, here’s how you can make sure your donation will do the most good.

Check out the charity first

To make sure as much of your money as possible goes to help victims, charity experts recommend giving to an established nonprofit whose overhead makes up no more than 20% of its budget.

You can research an organization’s financials on watchdog sites like CharityNavigator, the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance, and guidestar.org, which rate how efficiently nonprofits use donations and how transparent they are about how the money they raise is used.

Charity Navigator has put together a list of highly-rated charities that will be providing relief in the wake of Hurricane Florence. Find it here.

Target your dollars

Take a minute to think about the kind of relief efforts you’d most like to support. General relief efforts? Medical efforts, in particular? Maybe you’d like to give to help rescue animals who have been stranded or hurt by the storm.

CharityNavigator’s list of charities primed to help the Florence relief efforts helps make the choice a little easier, by categorizing groups that will help by cause. Among those it lists as highly rated:

General aid and relief: Americares, CDC Foundation, and United Way of Alamance County, among many others

Medical help and services: National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics

Animal care and services: International Primate Protection League, American Humane, Charleston Animal Society

Food and hunger relief: Harvest Hope Food Bank, Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina

Financial aid for families: Army Emergency Relief, Rural Advancement Foundation of International-USA, Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society

In addition, basketball legend and Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan, who grew up in Wilmington, has set up a microsite to help direct donations to the relief and rebuilding efforts.

Yet another option, for those looking to assist in longer-term recovery efforts: The United Way has created the Hurricane Florence Recovery Fund, which promises to deliver 100% of the donations it receives to local chapters in the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia, and Maryland, focusing particularly on recovery initiatives as needs emerge.

Look for a guarantee

After a natural disaster or tragedy like a mass shooting, crowdfunding campaigns quickly spring to help victims, often attracting thousands of donors and sometimes millions of dollars in a short period. 

But while the internet makes it easy to give quickly, fast is not always best because it’s often hard to tell which organizations and causes are legit and which are not.

Charity experts typically suggest you avoid making donations via text, Facebook, Twitter, or other social platforms. Instead, take the extra step to donate directly via the charity’s website.

To make sure scammers and opportunists don’t take advantage of the generosity of donors, GoFundMe says that when a campaign is created to help another person or family on its platform, the funds are collected, held, and then transferred directly to the beneficiary of the GoFundMe, rather than to the campaign organizer.

A valid email is required

GoFundMe has created a landing page for the various campaigns that have sprung up to help in the wake of the storm. It lays out the precautions it is taking specific to Hurricane Florence here.

If you do become aware of a scam related to Hurricane Florence or any other charity, you should report it to the National Center for Disaster Fraud or the Federal Trade Commission