Americans are opening their hearts and wallets to help the millions of people in Haiti devastated by the "horrific" earthquake that rocked the impoverished island country on Tuesday.

But consumer advocates warn that some people asking for donations in the wake of this powerful quake could be scam artists trying to exploit the crisis, and generous donors, for their financial gain.

"Whenever there is a major natural disaster, be it home or abroad, there are two things you can count on," Art Taylor, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance. "The first is the generosity of Americans to donate time and money to help victims, and the second is the appearance of poorly run and in some cases fraudulent charities."

"Not only do Americans need to be concerned about avoiding fraud," Taylor added, "they also need to make sure their money goes to competent relief organizations that are equipped and experienced to handle the unique challenges of providing assistance."

Before sending money to any organization that claims it's helping with relief efforts in Haiti, the BBB recommends the following:

Be cautious when giving online, especially in response to spam messages and emails that provide links to relief organizations. After the Tsunami disaster in 2004, many fraudulent Web sites asking for money to help victims suddenly appeared.

Find out if the charity has an on-the-ground presence in the disaster area. Unless the charity has staff in the region, it's difficult for emergency workers to quickly get in and provide food, clothing, shelter, and medical assistance. Groups like UNICEF,Mercy Corps, and The American Red Cross already have emergency workers in the devastated areas of Haiti. Consumers who want to donate immediately can text "HAITI" to "90999" and $10 will be automatically given to the Red Cross relief efforts. The fee will be charged to consumers' cell phone bills.

Find out if the charity provides direct aid or if it's raising money for other groups. Some charities may raise money to pass along to relief organizations. In those cases, consumers can avoid a "middleman" by giving directly to charities that have a presence in the disaster region.

Don't rely on the advice of bloggers, Web sites, or other third-party groups about which relief organizations to support. They may not have done their homework. The BBB's Web site has tools that consumers can use to research charities and relief organizations to verify they're legitimate and meet the consumer group's 20 Standards for Charity Accountability.

Be leery of groups that claim 100 percent of donations will assist relief victims. All charities have fundraising and administrative costs.

Hold off on donating to in-kind drives for food and clothing. These drives are well intentioned, but they may not be the quickest way to assist those in need unless the organization has the tools to distribute the donations. Ask charities about their transportation and distribution plans. And be wary of groups that are not experienced with disaster relief assistance.

"Horrific" devastation

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake that rocked the tiny country of Haiti struck at 4:53 pm on Tuesday. The quake was centered about 14 miles west of Port-au-Prince, the countrys capitol that has a population of 2 million. But shock waves were felt as far away as the Dominican Republic.

Reports of "horrific" devastation are widespread in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Thousands of homes, schools, and other buildings have collapsed. Bodies are piled up in the crowded streets as Haitians frantically search the rubble for loved ones. Officials say an untold number of people remain trapped in the crumbled ruins.

Haiti's Prime Minister Prime Jean-Max Bellerive estimates the death toll could be 100,000. But another official said that figure could climb to 500,000.

President Barack Obama today deployed the first teams of rescuers, search dogs, and heavy equipment to the disaster scene.

"The people of Haiti will have the full support of the United States in the urgent effort to rescue those trapped beneath the rubble and to deliver the humanitarian relief -- the food, water and medicine -- that Haitians will need in the coming days," the president said.

Relief organizations like the American Red Cross are already on the scene. The group has pledged $200,000 to help with relief efforts in Haiti, and said it's prepared to provide more assistance as needed.

"Initial reports indicate widespread damage in Port au Prince, with continuing aftershocks," Tracy Reines, director of international disaster response for the American Red Cross, said. "As with most earthquakes, we expect to see immediate needs for food, water, temporary shelter, medical services and emotional support."

The Red Cross also said it's ready to send all the relief supplies from its warehouse in Panama, which would provide basic needs for approximately 5,000 families in Haiti.

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department said Americans worried about family members in Haiti should call its Operation Center at 1-888-407-4747.