The polite young man at your front door wants a donation for the Orphans and Widows of Law Officers Campaign.
The honey-voiced woman at the other end of your telephone is soliciting funds for the Fully United Way of Homeless People.
The Santa Claus ringing a bell on the corner asks that you give to the Good Army of Salvation.
They all sound like good causes. Some of the names even sound vaguely familiar. But people who want to avoid holiday scams need to ask questions before they give, warns the Maryland Secretary of State's Office.
Here's how to check out any organization that solicits donations.
* Get the precise name. Then call the Secretary of State's Office toll-free line, 1-800-825-4510. Almost all charities must register with the state, although fraternal organizations do not have to register if they are raising money for their own needs.
* The registry is not an endorsement. Once you have established a charity is registered, you still may want to request financial information.
General guidelines recommend that charities spend no more than 35 to 40 percent on such costs. However, new, smaller charities may exceed that.
* Ask for identification; anyone who solicits should have an ID card from the charity. Ask if the person is a paid solicitor or a volunteer. Ask paid solicitors what the telemarketing firm's cut is. Ask if the solicitor has any additional information about the charity. In short, ask anything that you consider pertinent to your decision to give.
* Don't feel bad about being suspicious. Some things should arouse doubts: an insistence on cash donations, names that seemed oddly similar to well-known charities. Be especially skeptical of a telephone solicitor who offers to show up at your home to pick up the donation.
* Finally, if you think you have been contacted by a fake charity, turn over the information to the Secretary of State's Office at 974-5534 or call toll-free 1-800-825-4510.