This time of year, consumers should keep in mind that not all groups they say they are a charity really are. In Illinois, Attorney General Lisa Madigan has taken legal action to underscore that point.

Madigan has filed for an injunction seeking to shut down the Chicago-based We Stop the Killings organization for allegedly operating illegally and soliciting donations from the public. Madigan's injunction also seeks to permanently bar the six defendants from managing any charitable organization in Illinois.

The Attorney General's action alleges that in June 2010 Yolanda King illegally reinstated a long-dissolved charity, Youth Action of the Midwest, naming herself, Warren Jackson, Armatha Kirkwood, Lisa Hendricks, Linda Sabo and Jeanne Taylor as its directors. King renamed the organization, and together the defendants solicited donations from the public, falsely claiming the funds would help prevent youth violence in the Chicago area.

Youth Action of the Midwest operated in the early 1980s but was dissolved by the Secretary of State's office in 1989. Madigan's office discovered the defendants had no involvement whatsoever with the dissolved Youth Action charity and is alleging that by reinstating the organization they violated the state's General Not For Profit Corporation and Solicitation Acts. Madigan's filing also seeks an accounting of all funds raised by the defendants through We Stop the Killings.

"All too often we see defendants like these preying on unsuspecting people who donate hoping they are giving back and helping those in need,” Madigan said. "Before donating your money, ask questions and take time to do research about the charity. Make sure you are satisfied your money is really going to a good cause.”

How can you tell if a charity is legitimate or a scam? Madigan offers these tips:

  • Ask how much of your donation will go to the charity and how much will be used to pay fundraising costs. Solicitors must give you this information if you ask.

  • Pay close attention to the name of the charity. Some fraudulent charities use names that sound or look like those of legitimate organizations in an effort to mislead you.
  • Ask questions about the charity. Donate only when your questions have been answered and you are certain your money will be used according to your wishes. Questions to ask include whether the charity is registered with the Illinois Attorney General's office and what percentage of donations to the charity go to fundraising, administration and charitable programming.
  • Do not pay in cash. For security and tax record purposes, pay by check. Be sure to write the full official name of the charity on your check - do not abbreviate.

  • Request written information. A legitimate charity will provide you with written information outlining its mission, how your donation will be distributed and proof that your contribution is tax deductible.
  • Do not donate if the solicitor uses high-pressure tactics, asks for cash payment or insists on sending someone to pick up your donation. These are all hallmarks of a scam, Madigan says.