In 2015, I started a Facebook page to collect stories of GoFundMe and other personal crowdfunding fraud. A year later, I realized Facebook wasn’t enough, and launched GoFraudMe.com. Within hours of purchasing the domain, a story broke in which a young New Hampshire woman was accused of stealing nearly $5,000 raised for her friend’s funeral. The next day, a North Carolina couple were charged with murder and found to have raised $6,000 to bury the toddler they were later accused of killing. It was clear I was going to stay busy.
It’s now been nearly four years since I started collecting these stories, and in that time, I’ve covered everything from a mother who held a funeral for her very much alive son to a beloved teacher’s aide who lied to his kids about having cancer. I get dozens of tips a week from people all over the country who have experienced GoFundMe fraud personally; either watching a neighbor or family member take advantage of the generosity of others or having donated to a campaign only to discover its entire premise was fraudulent. Naturally, these people feel helpless and hurt that someone would prey on the giving spirit of others.
By now, we’ve all read the story of homeless vet Johnny Bobbitt. More than 14,000 people donated a total of $402,706 to a campaign we now know was based upon a lie, and all three of the people involved have been arrested and charged. But what about the donors? What about the people who want to give to similar stories but now think twice about it?
Unfortunately, avoiding possible frauds isn’t as simple as following a checklist of red flags. No profile of your “typical” GoFundMe scammer exists, and even people you know and trust (the very people GoFundMe suggests you donate to) can end up taking advantage of your generosity. That said, there are lessons from the Bobbitt story as well as the over 200 GoFundMe frauds I’ve documented since 2015 that can help you stay safe.
Just because it’s “viral” doesn’t mean it’s safe. As we learned from the Bobbitt story, publicity and even plausibility is not a guarantee a campaign is on the up-and-up.
Look for transparency and accountability. Even though the Bobbitt case appeared on the surface to have a plan for the cash, many fraudulent campaigns do not. Looking for this information and holding campaign organizers accountable to follow through on their promises can cut down on the risk money will be misused. Don’t be afraid to ask for receipts, this is your right as a donor or potential donor.
Think things through before you throw money at a cause. More and more people are using GoFundMe as a way to express their feelings, frustrations, or political leanings through small donations. While it may be tempting to give to impassioned causes such as these, make sure you’ve looked into the persons raising funds as they could be taking advantage of people with a certain mind-set or political view to make off with cash.
I want to be clear: I am not anti-GoFundMe.
As a cat rescue volunteer, I have not only seen but personally experienced the power of personal crowdfunding. Many years ago, I assisted on a cat hoarding case in Connecticut that would have been doomed had it not been for the power of the crowd. We raised over $2,000 through a GoFundMe competitor that saved the cats’ lives.
Every day, people are using GoFundMe and sites like it to fund everything from lifesaving health care to school trips. I find that absolutely amazing. I hope that my work pointing out the risks in personal crowdfunding doesn’t scare generous people away from giving to the causes meaningful to them. Although I believe GoFundMe is dismissive in its stance on fraud and doesn’t do enough to educate donors on the risks, my work is focused on pointing out the risks so donors can feel safer about giving. For every Johnny Bobbitt, you have countless campaigns that never appear in the news connecting individuals to the help they need through the power of the crowd. Don’t let the bad deeds of a few individuals scare you away from giving. Take GoFundMe’s advice and stick to people you know and trust.
Adrienne Gonzalez is the founder of GoFraudMe.com.