Consumer groups are calling for crowdfunding websites to be scrutinised more closely, amid donors being scammed into splashing hundreds of thousands of dollars to fake campaigns.
The appeals come after a couple and homeless veteran in the US were arrested on Thursday after allegedly orchestrating a GoFundMe scam that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Michael Rogers, the “trolley man”, who confronted the Bourke Street terrorist in Melbourne last week, led to an online fundraising campaign raising more than $140,000 for his heroic act.
But police confirmed on Thursday that he was actually wanted over a string of burglaries and for breaching bail conditions.
In October, Lucy Wieland, of Queensland, was arrested and charged for allegedly obtaining $55,000 through a fraudulent GoFundMe campaign after claiming she was battling cancer.
Consumer Action Law Centre chief executive Gerard Brody said fundraising sites such as GoFundMe needed to be held more accountable.
“The GoFundMe site does have some limited guarantees that it proposes but they apply in some countries and not Australia,” he told 3AW radio on Thursday.
So far in 2018, Scamwatch has received 689 reports of fake charities scams with more than $320,000 in reported losses. This compares to the whole of 2017 where reported losses were $313,563.
Fund or Fraud?
As it was originally recounted by the homeless man, Johnny Bobbitt Jr., he was inspired to use his last $20 to buy a woman petrol after she became stranded in Philadelphia.
The woman and her partner, Katelyn McLure and Mark D’Amico, then returned to the scene, took a photo with Mr Bobbitt and published it on the internet under the premise of raising funds for him.
The story went viral almost instantly and the original fundraising goal of $10,000 was dwarfed by more than $400,000 in donations from more than 14,000 people. However, Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina says the entire campaign “was predicated on a lie”.
“[McLure] did not run out of gas on the I-95 off-ramp and [Bobbitt] did not spend his last $20 to help her,” he said.
“Rather, D’Amico, McClure and Bobbitt conspired to pass off a fake feel-good story that would compel donors to contribute to their cause.”
In a statement, a GoFundMe spokesperson said it was working with police to recover all the money withdrawn by the suspects, most of which was allegedly spent in casinos.
“The entire campaign was predicted on a lie” – @BurlcoPros says couple conspired with homeless veteran Johnny Bobbitt to scam @gofundme donations which they did to the tune of $400k, all being charged pic.twitter.com/NLQuLvAlej
— Cleve Bryan CBS3 (@CleveBryan) November 15, 2018
Adrienne Gonzalez, who runs GoFraudMe.com, a website dedicated to documenting and exposing fraud and misuse on GoFundMe, has exposed several fake scams globally.
“I get a lot of tips from people, similar to how GoFundMe polices their own website. I rely on other people coming across shady campaigns so I can look into them,” Ms Gonzales told triple J’s Hack.
Why do we donate?
Leading consumer expert Dr Gary Mortimer said the psychology behind funding GoFundMe pages was all about “backing the little guy”.
“It’s innate within the Australian psyche to want to help one another out and we often refer to this as mateship,” Dr Mortimer told The New Daily.
“There are moments when we find out that we may have donated to someone who fraudulently pretends they have cancer – we often see that one pop up from time to time.”
Dr Mortimer said there should be a stricter verification process on fundraising sites.
“People claim many things from unemployment, to job loss and health issues, so there should be some onus on these types of GoFundMe pages to require a little more evidence to support the claim,” he said.
GoFundMe was contacted for comment.