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Let the giver beware

From fake cancer pleas to fake funerals, fraud is a purportedly rare but persistent problem on the crowdfunding website GoFundMe. What’s the responsibility of the Christian donor?

Let the giver beware

iStock photo posed by model (Photo illustration by Rachel Beatty)

Popular crowdfunding platform GoFundMe finds its name in many heartwarming news stories and viral videos. This year, for example, it collected hundreds of thousands of dollars for the family of an 8-year-old Christian refugee who, two years after fleeing violence from Boko Haram in Nigeria, unexpectedly won the New York state chess tournament for his age group in March.

Tanitoluwa Adewumi had learned the game of chess only a year earlier while he and his family lived in a homeless shelter in New York City. His chess coach at his public school started a GoFundMe campaign for the family’s housing, starting with a $20,000 goal. It quickly raised more than $200,000.

“We give God the glory,” said Kayode Adewumi, the boy’s father.

Since GoFundMe started in 2010, users have raised more than $5 billion for various causes. Many of the crowdfunding campaigns cover funeral or medical expenses, or other legitimate needs like that of the Adewumi family.

Still, the giving often is not mediated by nonprofit institutions, regulators, or deep relationships—and because of that, fraud sometimes happens.

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Victoria Morrison with her son; she spent months faking her son’s terminal illness and then his death in an effort to raise money online. (Handout)

The company’s nine-year history is dotted with con artists pretending to have cancer and scalawags exploiting a disaster or tragedy. There was the parent who conjured a vague terminal illness for her daughter. There was the man who abused a puppy and then raised $14,000 for its veterinary care. Police discovered that fraud when they stopped him and noticed the abused puppy.

“People like these new mechanisms and they can be exciting and fun,” said Daniel Borochoff, founder and president of CharityWatch, a nonprofit watchdog. Borochoff recommends giving to organizations because of their checks and balances. “People shouldn’t be overly impressed because it is on the internet, or because it is on the GoFundMe platform. It’s just a convenient mechanism that could result in good, or it could result in throwing away your money. It’s like the plumbing.”

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A German shepherd puppy on GoFundMe whose owner was later charged with animal cruelty and theft by deception. (Handout)

Unlike other crowdfunding sites such as Indiegogo, GoFundMe promises to refund donors of fraudulent campaigns and has several safeguards in place. But fraud remains a problem because it often doesn’t come to light until real-life checks intervene, such as when police investigate a related matter or when people who know the scammer file a report.

Real life intervened for Mississippi priest Lenin Vargas-Gutierrez, currently under investigation for allegedly faking a cancer diagnosis and raising $9,210 on GoFundMe for medical expenses, money he instead spent on personal expenses. According to the federal affidavit, the Catholic priest was concealing that he had HIV.

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A photo used on Lenin Vargas-Gutierrez’s GoFundMe site. (Handout)

After hearing from suspicious parishioners about the priest’s fundraisers, a fellow priest in the diocese, John Bohn, reported his concerns, noting that the church had very good health insurance that would have covered his expenses.

“It appeared to me to be systemic, premeditated fraud,” Bohn told the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger. “If you’re reasonably suspicious of criminal activity, go to law enforcement. That’s what we did.”

In Maine, Democratic and Republican legislators in March introduced a bill that criminalizes “organized electronic theft” from crowdfunding. The bill came after a wrenching incident involving a local couple: After Jennifer and Rodney Hembree lost their 16-year-old daughter Tabytha in a car crash in 2017, someone else set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the family, then stole $7,000 of the funds raised.

Maine Rep. Jeff Hanley was one of the sponsors of the legislation: “It’s one thing to lose your child,” he said at a hearing for the bill. “It’s another to have someone profit from it.”

Danny Gordon, GoFundMe’s vice president of trust and policy, said the company supports these sorts of higher penalties for wrongdoers, but said fraud is already illegal, and that problems are overstated.

Viral GoFundMe campaigns tend to attract money far beyond the set goal for the particular need, while other worthy causes on the site languish.

“The reality is a bit removed from what’s available in the media,” said Gordon. GoFundMe’s standard line in recent years is that only one-tenth of 1 percent of campaigns are fraudulent. Gordon described the platform’s fraud prevention tools as on par with those of financial institutions. 

But watchdog website GoFraudMe argues GoFundMe “specifically allows for a significant amount of fraud to occur on its platform, and that it minimizes this fact in its statements to the media.” The founder of GoFraudMe, journalist Adrienne Gonzalez, said that when she first started the site in 2016 she was swamped with reports of scams like a mother raising money for a funeral of “her very much alive son.”

Gonzalez says she had no particular ax to grind with GoFundMe when she started her website, but she wanted the site to track instances of fraud and to be a hotline for tips that GoFundMe might ignore.

A growing number of school districts have banned teachers from raising money for supplies or field trips on crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe—most recently in Nashville, Tenn.—because of the potential for abuse and because districts couldn’t manage the process or the funds. Superintendents have instead encouraged teachers to apply for grants or raise funds through local organizations and businesses.

The superintendent for Dayton, Ohio, district schools announced a ban on teacher crowdfunding last year, saying the district had no way to track the funds. That came after the state auditor’s office recommended school policies on crowdfunding, citing as one of the risks “diversion of donations for private use,” according to the Dayton Daily News.

Fraud, according to CharityWatch’s Borochoff, is expensive for a regulator to go after, so it’s generally not worth it unless it’s a large campaign. Borochoff argues that for that reason, GoFundMe doesn’t know the level of fraud on its site.

“They’re a business,” he said. “Unless the government mandates it, they’re not going to spend a lot of money to verify.”

Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

McClure (center) and D’Amico on Megyn Kelly Today. (Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

If prosecutors were looking for a large campaign to investigate, nothing has topped the whopper in New Jersey that started in late 2017. The way 28-year-old Kate McClure told it, she was driving home alone one night when she ran out of gas and became stranded off a ramp of 1-95 in Philadelphia. But lo, a homeless man named Johnny Bobbitt appeared and used his last $20 to get some gas from a nearby station, filling her tank and sending her on her way.

Afterward McClure started a GoFundMe campaign titled “Paying It Forward” to raise $10,000 to get Bobbitt off the streets. She posted pictures with Bobbitt, thanking him for his help in her time of need. The story went viral, and the outpouring was enormous. The campaign eventually raised $400,000 for Bobbitt.

The Ellen Show called for a booking, and McClure and her boyfriend, Mark D’Amico, went to New York to meet an agent about a possible book and movie deal for the three of them. But a friend, who lived near where McClure supposedly ran out of gas, texted her and asked why she hadn’t reached out.

Elizabeth Robertson/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

Bobbitt (left), McClure (right), and D’Amico pose at a Citgo station in Philadelphia. (Elizabeth Robertson/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

“Okay so wait the gas part is completely made up,” McClure texted back, according to an affidavit in the case. What authorities later claimed is that McClure, D’Amico, and Bobbitt (who was indeed homeless) had come up with the scheme ahead of time. D’Amico allegedly called it a “little lie” in a text message. According to the affidavit, a friend texted, “This gas story is gonna backfire,” and McClure responded: “Nah it’s all good. … How would it?”

GoFundMe disbursed the $400,000 minus some fees to McClure, and then the story became like a Coen brothers script. With a full bank account, McClure and D’Amico went to Walt Disney World and Disneyland, gambled $21,000 in casinos, and took a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon, according to prosecutors. The couple did send Bobbitt $31,000 and bought him a trailer home (which McClure titled in her name, put in her yard, and later sold). Meanwhile McClure bought a BMW and designer handbags.

In a few months, all the money was gone. Bobbitt was panhandling again, prompting questions from a reporter who had covered the earlier fundraising campaign. The couple insisted in interviews that they could not disburse the full amount to Bobbitt because of his drug habit. Bobbitt countered in interviews of his own that D’Amico was “hypocritical” because he had a gambling habit.

The scheme was unraveling. Bobbitt sought out a lawyer and sued to get his portion, which prompted New Jersey prosecutors to start sniffing around the case, leading to charges last fall. In March, Bobbitt and McClure pleaded guilty to federal charges connected to the scheme, and all three now face state charges as well. GoFundMe gave refunds to 14,000 people who had donated to help Bobbitt.

Burlington County Prosecutors Office via AP

Photos provided by the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office show Bobbitt, McClure, and D’Amico. (Burlington County Prosecutors Office via AP)

GoFundMe has some patched-together rules of the road to fend off trouble. It bans fundraising for things like criminal legal defense, drugs, and abortions. Website users can report a suspicious campaign or ask questions of the campaign organizer. When dispensing money, the company requires various forms of verification beforehand—in fact, the biggest complaint on consumer sites was that the verification process delayed receiving GoFundMe money.

A horrible bus crash in Canada last year killed 16 members of a junior ice hockey team, capturing national attention and sending GoFundMe’s enforcement process into action. A Canadian man set up a GoFundMe page for victims that police quickly said was fraudulent, and GoFundMe shut it down and alerted donors after it had raised $3,800.

Meanwhile, a hair stylist from the hockey team’s town of Humboldt started another GoFundMe campaign for victims of the same crash. That campaign raised a whopping $11.3 million, leading to an ongoing court case over how to divide the money—another wrinkle in the world of noninstitutional, person-to-person giving.

Gordon said the company’s “tech layer” immediately noticed both campaigns—the one from the concerned hair stylist and the one from the fraudster—and began vetting both. He wasn’t sure of the details for the campaign that was removed, but he said it could have been “too high of a risk” or the individual behind the campaign might have raised red flags. He said the company held the funds of the hair stylist’s campaign in order to do additional vetting.

“Some of our most successful campaigns … have been started by someone who is a stranger to the ultimate beneficiary but wanted to help,” said Gordon.

Crowdfunding may build on the power of strangers chipping in cash, but church giving tends to be based in long-term presence in the local community and has natural institutional safeguards. At my church in New York City, internal deacon policies include a general recommendation against giving cash assistance. Instead, deacons pay direct bills and provide checks only after receiving receipts. Each person in need has an assigned deacon and contact from a small group in his or her neighborhood for financial, relational, and spiritual support. Financial assistance is limited per family, so as to provide for everyone. (CharityWatch’s Borochoff noted that viral GoFundMe campaigns tend to attract money far beyond the set goal for the particular need, while other worthy causes on the site languish.)

Jim Barber, head of the Generosity Trust, a philanthropic organization that trains churches in giving, said Christians should give mostly to their local church, and then secondly to outside ministries, and then to GoFundMe at a tertiary level.

“Many GoFundMe causes are legit,” Barber said. He encourages potential donors to do research, ask the organizers questions, and even ask for financials. “Keep your ‘bunk’ antenna high and on alert,” he said. “Proceed cautiously. And give in small amounts.”

He added: “And pray. … Trust in [God’s] leading and directing to point you to the things that He wants you to do. We serve a generous God.”

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily reports for WORLD Magazine from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.