Another Christmas tradition meets the online revolution: E-charity is comin' to town.

Whether it's Father Flanagan's Boys Town or the American Cancer Society, more and more charities are taking a cue from retailers and using the Internet to solicit and take donations online.

"We know the world's going that way. We want to be able to help the donors choose," said Bernie Devlin, director of public appeals for Boys Town, which a month ago added an online donation feature to its Web site (www.boystown.org). The site has been up for a couple of years but "just kinda sat there," Devlin added.

The American Red Cross, one of the pioneers of online donations, has accepted contributions on its site (www.redcross.org) since June 1997. But in all of fiscal 1998, the group had fewer than 600 online donations, totaling $172,000. In fiscal 1999 that jumped to 22,000 donations totaling $2.5 million.

"It's been phenomenal," said Robert Guldi, American Red Cross director of creative services.

Besides individual charities, some sites now link online donors to a variety of nonprofits. The biggest--and one of the newest--is Helping.org (www.helping.org), launched Oct. 20 by the AOL Foundation. That site enables donors to give to any of 620,000 nonprofits with tax-exempt 501(c)3 status, using a credit card, and links people to volunteer opportunities in their area. The site promises credit card transaction security and anonymity with the organization if the donor prefers.

The AOL Foundation, which isn't releasing figures on visits to the site or the amount of money raised, takes no fee for the service. It offers financial information, including tax forms filed with the IRS, and other research by watchdog groups on individual charities.

"We think it could be a useful tool, especially around the holidays, when people are so stressed out," said AOL Foundation spokeswoman Kathy McKiernan. "A lot of us have good intentions--we're hoping this will make it easier to give."

McKiernan and Guldi said the Internet is expected to appeal particularly to younger donors and get the attention of people who might otherwise not give. "These are new donors," said Guldi, rather than people shifting from more traditional forms of giving.

Retailers and marketing groups are joining with charities online for a new type of cyber-synergy, hoping that Christmas shopping and holiday giving will stimulate each other. The Direct Marketing Association has a spot on its Web site (www.shopthenet.org) that lists 18 nonprofit members and provides links to those with Web sites, such as Catholic Relief Services and UNICEF. About a third of them take donations online. The DMA also outlines a "Donor Bill of Rights," including the right to financial statements and information on how donations are used.

Yahoo! is sponsoring a "12 Days of Christmas" gift registry at its shopping site (www.shopping.yahoo.com) that lets shoppers donate online to 12 children's charities by buying items for them from their "wish lists," everything from pencils to socks to computer systems.

Charity groups and Internet experts are just starting to track the online donation trend but predict it will skyrocket as more charities jump in, more donors hear about it, and people get more comfortable giving credit card information online. "Most of our members are at least fascinated by the potential opportunity," said Walter Sczudlo, general counsel of the National Society of Fundraising Executives.

According to Independent Sector, a Washington-based coalition of volunteer organizations, of the 70 percent of American households that gave to charity this year, only about 1 percent used the Web to do so. "I think it's going to mushroom, like everything else the Internet has touched," said Sara E. Melendez, president of Independent Sector, which is one of the AOL Foundation's partners in Helping.org. This is really the first year online fund-raising has been significant, Melendez added, but charities hope the convenience of the Internet will draw new donors. "People can do it in their own time. They can do their research on the weekends and in the middle of the night, whenever they have the time," said Melendez.

With the excitement come the warnings. Donors need to research charities before handing over their money, whether by check-in-the-mail or click-of-the-mouse, say charity watchdogs. One place to start is the Better Business Bureau, which offers research on individual charities as well as its "Give But Give Wisely" guide and specific tips for online contributors (www.bbb.org). "If you're a con artist, the time to rip people off is at the beginning of a new medium like this," warned Bennett M. Weiner, vice president and director of the Philanthropic Advisory Service of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. "You can create a very impressive Web site that doesn't have much behind it at relatively low cost."

One new issue is how to regulate charities soliciting online, Weiner added. Generally, states take the lead in overseeing charities operating in their states, but the online phenomenon has added a wrinkle to that. Among the BBB tips to online donors:

* If an online shopping site says purchases will benefit charities, look for specific information on just how much will be donated.

* Don't engage in e-mail chain letters that claim to benefit charities, because these are "invariably not true."

* Look for a privacy policy regarding use of the information you are providing and verify that the site has appropriate security for credit card donations.

* Get plenty of information on the group to make sure it is a legitimate charity.

Another group that monitors charities and offers advice on giving is the National Charities Information Bureau (www.ncib.org).

One interesting online resource with substantial information on nonprofits, including a lengthy catalogue of fund-raising sites, is the Internet Nonprofit Center (www.nonprofits.org).