I'm not the morality police over here, but I'm just going to go ahead and say that people should not scam each other. Think of a scam free world! We would be free to trust unlucky Nigerian princes and Publisher's Clearing House. So, first of all: Don't rip people off. It's rude. But if you were going to perpetuate a scam, crowdfunding platform GoFundMe is a great way to do so.
GoFundMe is a crowdfunding platform like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Only it has a much looser purview when it comes to what kind of stuff can be funded. You can raise money for charity, or a deathly ill child... or you use it to ask your friends to pay for your morally horrible sex tourism vacation.
I'm not saying GoFundMe's modus operandi is ripping people off (or facilitating morally horrible sex tourism vacations). But because there's no curation when it comes to the types of things you can crowdfund, and because its policies protect organisers way more than donors or intended recipients—, sob-story succubi are able to defraud people using GoFundMe over and over again.
One dear Gizmodo reader experienced this GoFundMe fraud firsthand, and described the company's utterly lackluster response in some detail.
The reader, who we'll call S, was contacted on Twitter by a man named Ken Wills, the godfather of Noah Knickerbocker, a newborn baby who needed a heart transplant. Wills was soliciting donations for the baby's family through GoFundMe. S confirmed that Wills' godson was sick and donated $100 (£66). But he couldn't get baby Noah's tragic plight off his mind. He decided he wanted to actively help the family fundraise.
At that point, he decided to research the situation more thoroughly before he started asking his friends and connections to donate. And that's when he realised all was not as it seemed.
S discovered an ABC News report about Wills campaign titled "Man Allegedly Keeps Crowdfunding Money Raised in Sick Baby's Name." It was as bad as it sounds: Wills had taken the $6500/£4,335 donated to help Noah and told the family that he would instead give the money to various charities, a move that horrified Noah's parents—they had already started planning to use the money to help move closer to the hospital.
Wills posted cheques showing his donations to Ronald McDonald House, the Boston Children's Hospital, and the Wisconsin Children's Hospital. But when ABC News contacted the charities to find out if Wills had, in fact, made these donations, none of them had received cheques in that amount.
When ABC confronted Wills, his answer was not exactly comforting: "Wills said he couldn't explain why the three organisations received so little from him, but suggested his cheques have not yet arrived."
GoFundMe advised contacting local authorities. The Knickerbocker family filed a complaint with the Colorado District Attorney's office about the incident.
S was outraged by the report. He tried to locate the Baby Noah GoFundMe page to determine whether Wills had, as he claimed, been up-front about the fact that he always intended to give the money to charities and not to Noah's family. But when he went to check, the page was gone. S expl
I don't know whether Ken Wills stole the money or donated it to charity. His claims of charity donation have not yet been backed up, however—and it doesn't look good at the moment. What I wanted to determine was, Did his GoFundMe page make it clear that he intended to donate some of the money directly to charities and not give it directly to the parents? Because certainly the impression I had was the money was going to go to the parents," S wrote me. "When I went to look at the campaign, it was missing. So I contacted GoFundMe."
S saved his messages from GoFundMe. "If you would like to issue a fraud complaint against the campaign, just let us know and our Trust and Safetu (sic) team will investigate the campaign and take appropriate action," a "Customer Happiness" representative named Meghan wrote.
"How can I issue an official fraud complaint if I don't know if I've been defrauded?" S asked. He pressed the issue, requesting access to a record of the original campaign page. Each time, Meghan gave him the same boilerplate response about issuing a fraud complaint. Eventually, a supervisor responded, offering S a refund but emphasising again that GoFundMe would not show him the campaign page.
"Once a campaign has been removed, any content previously found on the campaign is no longer considered public information and we're not able to share it with donors," the supervisor wrote. She later explained that S would have to obtain a court-ordered subpoena in order to view the campaign page that he had given money.
In other words, GoFundMe's policy privileges organisers over donors to the point where they abet fraud.
This isn't to say that GoFundMe intends to be used as a fraud platform. All evidence points to the team genuinely wanting to help people raise money for legitimate reasons. And the company does have fraud safeguards up: There is a waiting period before campaign organisers can withdraw their money after they close their accounts. GoFundMe clearly warns people not to donate to campaigns "unless they fully understand and trust the cause presented."
I am sceptical of crowdfunding campaigns as a general baseline—Kickstarter, Indiegogo, GoFundMe and their ilk are, essentially, promotional tools and hype machines.Everyone should be generally sceptical of crowdfunded projects: They are holding their hands out and asking you for money and they are often not obliged to present any real proof that they're going to put that money to good use. But even if I was a flag-waving supporter of all things group-fundraised, this situation would smell just as rank.
Of course GoFundMe can't prevent every instance of fraud. But the company should keep an archive of deactivated campaigns that allows people who donated to those campaigns to follow up, to make sure that their money went where it was supposed to go. It is attempting to straddle a line between transparency and protecting organiser privacy, but the balance is off, and it's falling on the side of helping liars and cheats.
As for Noah's family, they created a second GoFundMe page that is actually intended to help their sick child, but now they need to raise money while also explaining that the first effort was a scam.
It's a story that epitomizes the pratfalls of crowdfunding. These platforms exist to help people raise money, and let's not forget the company can take a cut. They are businesses built on a reputation of idealism that is often at odds with the way they treat the idealists who fuel their success.
Art by Michael Hession/ Screenshot by our tipster