It’s disheartening when people take from the very organizations trying to help needy residents, as police say is the case with a Jay woman charged with attempting to defraud the Maine Children’s Home of about $100 worth of toys and clothes meant for area children.

But it is good to know that it doesn’t happen that often, especially when charities establish safeguards. The Children’s Home, for instance, uses income eligibility guidelines and also checks whether clients are using other charities to get children’s gifts. An official said they find “maybe a half-dozen” so-called “double-dippers” each year.

Just as worrisome is when the scam goes in the other direction. Charitable giving spikes this time of year, because of both the onset of the holiday spirit and the tax implications of donating before Jan. 1, and there are plenty of scams out there looking to take advantage. It is helpful to know what to look out for, so funds find their way instead to organizations that will use them wisely.

There’s a lot at stake. Americans gave $316 billion to charity in 2012, according to the watchdog group Charity Navigator. That’s a 3.5 percent rise over 2011, but still 8.2 percent below 2007, before the economic downturn tightened purse strings.

At the same time giving to charities decreased, so has government spending on programs aimed at poverty. Food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, general assistance and unemployment assistance have all been cut to one degree or another, putting more pressure on the charitable organizations that tend to catch the people dropped by public assistance.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure your donations are going to legitimate organizations.

The Better Business Bureau suggests that donors research any groups soliticiting donations. Beware of any pitch that tugs at your heartstrings but doesn’t offer any substantial information about what the money will be used for. Ask for written documentation about the fundraising effort. Ask for the duration of the campaign and what portion of the money raised will go to the beneficiaries of the charity. If it is an online solicitation, make sure the website is secure and private (with an address starting with https:// instead of http://).

Both the Better Business Bureau, at give.org, and Charity Navigator, at charitynavigator.org, offer reviews of charitable organizations as well as tips about giving.

There are also many options for keeping your money in Maine. Organizations like the Good Shepherd Food Bank, which can provide four meals for every $1 donated, and the United Way, which supports a number of community organizations through its two chapters in central Maine, leverage many donations, small and large, and use them locally.

Christmas is the time for giving. Make sure you give wisely.