MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Md. (WDVM) — December is National Giving Month, and the holidays are a popular time to donate to local and national charities. Local experts say it is also prime-time for phony charities to scam donors out of their hard-earned cash.

Montgomery County’s Office of Consumer Protection (OCP) says to check out charities before donating to them. If it’s a Maryland-based charity, it has to be registered with the secretary of state’s office. You can check here.

Tracy Rezvani of OCP explains the safest way to make your donations this season, saying it is best to “donate by credit card because if it turns out it’s a scam you can dispute it. But with checks, debit cards, PayPal and Venmo, it becomes a lot more difficult to undo that transaction if it is a scam.”

Rezvani says it is important to check to see if a so-called charity is really a political action committee (PAC) posing as a charitable organization.

In a statement, OCP explained a recent investigation into that exact situation:

“OCP also investigated a complaint from a local volunteer firefighter and uncovered a scam political action committee (Heroes United PAC) that claimed to be collecting charitable donations on behalf of “Volunteer Firefighters Association.” The PAC reported to the Federal Election Commission that it collected $4.6 million nationwide in 2018. It used telemarketing vendors, caller ID spoofing, and three local maildrops to mislead consumers into thinking that their donations would be used locally for volunteer firefighters. Instead, more than 90 percent of the donations were retained by third-party vendors, and less than 10 percent were used for so-called “political action.”  OCP entered into a settlement agreement for refunds to be offered to all County residents who made donations to the Heroes United PAC.”

Experts also warn against trusting certain charities you may see pop up on your social media feed, they say it’s always best to do your research on websites like Charity NavigatorGuidestar, or Charity Watch before making a donation.