Internet crime

The woman who spends her free time hunting down GoFundMe fraud

The creator of the blog GoFraudMe explains how to avoid getting ripped off.
Internet crime

The woman who spends her free time hunting down GoFundMe fraud

The creator of the blog GoFraudMe explains how to avoid getting ripped off.

In early 2015, a cat in Florida was hit by a car. His owner, thinking he had died, buried him in the backyard. Five days later, the cat — his name was Bart — rose from the dead and crawled back to the house. The story about the zombie cat spread far and wide, and someone quickly set up a page on the crowdfunding site GoFundMe to pay Bart’s mounting medical bills.

Except there were no bills to pay.

“The minute I heard this story, I was like, ‘Bull. Crap. There’s no way this actually happened,’” said Adrienne Gonzalez, a freelance finance reporter and the publisher behind GoFraudMe, a blog about GoFundMe scams that she started as a Facebook page after the Bart incident. According to Gonzalez’s reporting, Bart’s medical bills were being paid for by the Humane Society, and the cash from GoFundMe was being collected by a neighbor. Despite Gonzalez’s best efforts, GoFundMe did not take down the campaign. It ended up raising more than $6,000.

Since then, Gonzalez has written more than 400 posts about alleged GoFundMe misuse and fraud on her blog. There was the Alabama woman who allegedly faked terminal cancer, raising more than $25,000 through a campaign for medical bills started by a friend as well as raising a separate $10,000 for a campaign called “Mom has Terminal Cancer Disney Trip” in which she asked for money to take her son to Disney World before she died. That woman did not even make Gonzalez’s list of top ten cancer fakers.

There are numerous campaigns raising money for Reality Winner, the most recent alleged NSA leaker, that were not actually connected to Winner. There was this: “GoFundMe For Injured Motorcyclist Fails to Mention He Was Probably Drunk and Crashed Into a Day Care” and this “GoFundMe Pulls Memorial Campaign for Murdered Little Girl After Beneficiary is Charged in Death of Girl.”

There are fake campaigns for refugees, misguided campaigns for Philando Castile, and campaigns gathering money for deceased police officers — some of which are probably from folks that don’t realize they need authorization, some of which are just trying to earn a quick buck. “Now how stupid you would have to be to create a fake fundraiser for the police is another story,” Gonzalez said.

GoFraudMe is supported by donations and some ads, but it’s mostly a volunteer effort on Gonzalez’s part. “Life is shitty enough without people making up cancer,” GoFraudMe’s FAQ states. “I believe that crowdfunding can be an awesome thing but as it stands, it’s just too easy for these twats to get away with ripping people off.”

Fraud has become more of an issue as GoFundMe has grown, Gonzalez said. The site now has 40 million users, according to the company, and it’s become a regular stop for people facing large costs, especially medical bills. Almost half of the approximately $2 billion dollars total raised on GoFundMe went to medical campaigns, the company told Nerdwallet. “Nobody can die these days without a GoFundMe,” Gonzalez said.

“Life is shitty enough without people making up cancer.”

GoFundMe says “misuse” — a spokesperson’s statement never actually used the word “fraud” — accounts for less than 0.1 percent of all campaigns. GoFundMe noted that if a campaign gets flagged for being suspicious, funds can’t be withdrawn until the campaign’s organizer offers “documentation and other forms of verification.” “We deploy proprietary technical tools and utilize other tools that are on par with the financial services industry in order to prevent misuse,” a GoFundMe spokesperson told The Outline. There’s several pages on the site devoted to refunds, guarantees, and safety issues.

And yet, fraud keeps happening — enough that GoFraudMe updates every five days or so. We talked to Gonzalez to better understand GoFundMe fraud and how to detect and avoid it.

What types of trends are you seeing with GoFundMe fraud?

Adrienne Gonzalez: Tragedies are a big one. There have been so many incidents in the last couple weeks with, you know in London and San Francisco, and that’s sort of when the scammers come out of the woodwork. They try to capitalize on situations like that. So those have been pretty significant in the last couple weeks, and overall.

That’s nothing new; people have been doing that as far as I’ve been tracking it. But I think it’s worse and the fact that there are just so many tragedies… There’s so many opportunities for people to scam. So, that’s a big one.

I think otherwise, as far as like trends go, since I’ve been doing this since 2015… I would just say as GoFundMe has grown nearly exponentially, I think that the opportunity for people to take advantage of people has grown as well.

Would you say that these sort of fraudulent GoFundMe campaigns are tied to the news cycle?

Well, some of them certainly are. I think that people see news stories and they immediately see an opportunity to create a campaign and capitalize off of a tragedy. I think in some cases people are well-meaning, that it’s not necessarily fraud, but they just didn’t have authorization to put up a campaign. You see that a lot with like, fallen officers.

Some of these tragedy ones, it’s not a matter of outright fraud, it’s more people sort of overstepping, wanting to be the hero, and creating these campaigns before they even know the full breadth of the situation.

Was there a specific fraudulent campaign that put you down this path?

There was. I don’t know if you remember a couple years back, but there was this story out of Florida. Bart the “Zombie Cat?” Do you remember this story?

Doesn’t ring a bell.

Okay, well. Down in Florida where strange things tend to happen, there was a story of this cat who had supposedly been hit by a car, his owner thought he had died, and so they buried him. And five days later, they said, the cat rose from the dead and crawled back to his house. So this story was all over the news — “This Miracle Cat Rises From the Grave.”

So, I’m actually a cat rescue volunteer. I foster, I do spay/neuter advocacy, things like that. So, the minute I heard this story, I was like, “Bull. Crap. There’s no way this actually happened.” So the neighbor put up a GoFundMe for his medical bills, and as the news was reporting this crazy case, they were linking to the GoFundMe. So, people were giving a lot of money to help this cat — I think he had like, a broken leg, he needed an eye removed, things like that.

Well the entire time, the cat, once he supposedly rose from the grave, he was in the care of the Humane Society of Tampa Bay. So, the Humane Society ended up paying all of his medical bills. So, the GoFundMe was fraudulent! Because the people who started it didn’t have to pay any medical bills. So we brought this to GoFundMe with the evidence the Humane Society was posting about how they were taking care of the cat, and they had a link to their special fund that they use to help with vet bills in the community. They did all these updates on how Bart was doing, he had his eye removed, he had his leg fixed, whatever.

“I think that people see news stories and they immediately see an opportunity to create a campaign and capitalize off of a tragedy.”

All the while, the GoFundMe for the neighbor is still open and collecting money. So we reported it to GoFundMe, we brought the evidence from the Humane Society, and they did not take it down. And there were probably hundreds of people — certainly in the cat rescue community, but the larger sort of animal advocacy community — who were reporting this as fraudulent, and they chose not to take it down.

And it stayed up until September of last year; Bart was involved in a custody situation, the owner wanted him back, the Humane Society said that it was abuse what they did, they found that they had buried him in a shallow grave. They found video that proved they knew he was still alive when they “buried” him. And so in September of last year the custody battle was finally resolved, and the courts gave the Humane Society custody of Bart. At that point, the campaign organizer who made like six grand off of this, she took her GoFundMe down.

GoFundMe ignored you?

Well, they didn’t ignore me. When I reported it personally, I got an email back from them with like three questions that said, “Do you know the campaign organizer personally? Why do you think it’s fraud?” Blah, blah.

They determined that it wasn’t fraud. There was even a petition — somebody put up a petition to get GoFundMe to remove the page. And, again, I was not the only one. There were hundreds of people that had reported this campaign, and sent GoFundMe the same evidence I had. We countered her claim of medical bills with what the Humane Society was saying.

Have they responded better since then? I assume you’ve reported other things.

It’s funny because, in hindsight, I’m sure they wish they had done the right thing with that campaign because maybe I wouldn’t be doing this here now. I know that people certainly have gotten better responses from them over the years, there’s still several cases where they just will not take things down. If somebody reaches out to me about that, I always direct them to go to law enforcement.

The bigger they get, it’s in their interest to sort of cut down on cases like that. GoFundMe fraud wasn’t really in the news back then. In the last year, especially the last 18 months, there’s a news story every other day, or at least a couple a week. It is in their best interests to take down campaigns like that if they get enough reports.

What would your advice be to Joe Public about how to avoid GoFundMe fraud?

If somebody messages you out of the blue and says, “Hey, my sister died,” you know, whatever sob story. So-and-so has cancer. Whatever… That’s almost always a red flag. I would never donate to somebody that just randomly reached out.

The second thing though, is that… Be skeptical. If something looks or feels wrong, it probably is. It may not be, but if it just doesn’t feel right, then just don’t give. Nobody is required to give. Don’t feel like you have to. I tell people, run images through Google reverse image search to see if they pop up on some other websites.

Be especially careful, like I said, in tragedies — in cases of a really highly publicized tragedy like the Manchester bombing, the shooting in San Francisco… Gatlinburg fires in Tennessee. That was a big one. There was a bunch of people who just stole pictures of generic house fires off Google, and said, “My house burned down in Gatlinburg’s fire.” Be extra skeptical in cases like that. It’s unfortunate that I have to say that, but you can’t take people at face value.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

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