Natural catastrophes, devastating diseases, financial emergencies—when sad news strikes, we often can’t do much but look on helplessly, and think: if only I can help make things right, especially for someone deserving. Enter the GoFundMe scams.
The most notorious GoFundMe scam to make news started out as a supposedly simple feel-good tale that went viral in 2017. A couple run out of fuel in Philadelphia, a homeless man gives them his last $20 for gas, they repay with a “Pay it Forward” GoFundMe page that raises $400,000. Turns out, the three made the story up, authorities later charged.
What are GoFundMe scams?
GoFundMe scams are fake charitable causes that fraudsters create on GoFundMe, the largest crowdfunding platform online. People think they’re donating to someone in need, as portrayed on his or her specially customized campaign page, when in fact, all that crowdsourced money goes into the pocket of the con artist. It’s an old ruse gone digital, complete with easy-to-share Facebook-ready images and click-to-donate buttons.
GoFundMe says “fraudulent fundraisers make up less than one-tenth of 1% of all campaigns,” so the vast majority of causes supported on the platform are legitimate. The organization also offers the GoFundMe Guarantee, in which the organization promises to return donations for fraudulent scams up to $1,000 per donor per campaign. Still, this is cold comfort if you unsuspectingly fall for one of those very few campaigns–and you’ve been especially generous at that.
The “Pay it Forward” campaign has since been taken down, and GoFundMe said it has instituted new security measures so that these scams won’t happen again. That, plus taking it upon yourself to pick up on suspicious clues, you can feel good about giving.
What is an example of a GoFundMe scam?
GoFundMe scams span the range of human challenges and creative solutions to make things better, whether it’s building a playground for underprivileged kids or paying medical bills for a sick relative.
“Scams in general prey on human vulnerability, whether it’s the fear that your accounts have been breached or the hope that you win a prize,” said Gareth Norris, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in forensic psychology at Aberystwyth University in the UK. “With GoFundMe scams, there’s an emotional pull.”
Sometimes they take cues from the headlines (like earthquakes or floods) and devise campaigns around it. Sometimes they simply cut and paste text from existing campaigns, duping people looking to contribute to the original one.
The “Pay it Forward” scam was unique in that it stemmed from three people not related to each other, conspiring to defraud others—and for the money they raked in (GoFundMe has refunded the money to donors). But more often, a fraudulent page is the brainchild of a single person claiming to help a family member or close friend.
Among the more elaborate was a 2016 GoFundMe scam in which Brandy Holder promised to put together a duck hunt in memory of her friend Barry Sutton, a contractor working in Afghanistan who was killed by a car bomb. She also wanted to use the money to purchase “a special bracelet” for each of his daughters. On her page, she told people that his daughters loved hunting and a date for the grand event was already set; she included images of the daughters smiling and holding rifles and Sutton in fatigues.
According to the Washington Post article on the GoFundMe scam, Holder collected close to $5,000—the family received only $400, and then Holder never returned their calls. Ultimately she was convicted of felony theft by conversion and sentenced to two years in prison, plus eight years on probation.
People feigning a devastating illness or pretending that their child is suffering from one is perhaps more rampant. Last year, Syracuse.com reported that a couple collected a little over $3000 for their son, who they said was suffering from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The Syracuse University’s football team even invited the family to a special practice where the boy could meet his favorite players. It turns out the child was actually healthy, and the page was one big hoax.
How can I protect myself from GoFundMe scams?
Protecting yourself from fake GoFundMe scams doesn’t have to mean you don’t give at all—remember, most times the causes are legit—but it takes a little research and common sense. Next time you see a GoFundMe request, run through this checklist before you click to donate.
Look for specifics. Who specifically is the creator of the campaign and how is he or she related to the recipient? What is the money paying for exactly? If the money isn’t going directly to the recipient’s bank account, how is the creator of the page getting it to him or her? According to the Federal Trade Commision, “scammers make vague and sentimental claims, but give no specifics on how your donation will be used.”
Are the people or organizations mentioned on the page legitimate? You can check by Googling the name and “scam” or “complaint,” suggests the FTC.
Keep in mind that some scammers purposely create names that sound like real charities. Using reverse phone lookup or email search tool can help you get a better sense as to whether contact information is for real. Doing a reverse Google image search can also help you find out if scammers simply snatched images from somewhere else on the internet (though many upload original photos as well).
Check the facts. If they’re quoting stats, are they correct? If they’re describing certain incidents, did they really happen? (Try doing a reverse lookup of the event on Google and see if the dates and details coincide). And are they consistent? For instance, does the treatment they claim to need make sense with the disease they’re describing? Are they talking about a community in a particular town in one section but in another somewhere else on the page? Scammers can be sloppy in their lies.
Are families of the recipient donating and leaving comments? Fake pages don’t typically have a long scroll of well wishers and donations from relatives or even close friends.
Search across platforms. Fake charities and con artists often make their plea for money on different crowdsourcing platforms.
If something doesn’t sound right, alert GoFundMe right away. And if you’ve already been scammed, report the incident to GoFundMe. Also file a complaint with the FTC.gov/complaint and to the local law enforcement.
Just donate to established charities. Donations to individuals you don’t know are not only risky, they’re not tax deductible. Another way to help people in need is to donate through established charities—for instance, to hospitals and churches and long-established non-profits that might care for others in similar situations. Search for legitimate charities on the IRS’s Tax Exempt Organization search tool.