We first came across the situation with “Friends Not Food” a few days ago when Chris at The Vegan Zombie put out a video alerting donors to a possible scam which netted over $30k by the time it was taken down.
Check it out:
By the time we saw the video, the GoFundMe campaign in question had disappeared, but we managed to salvage a copy which is archived here. The original campaign — which purported to help them build a fence — was started in October of 2015.
In the original campaign language, it states Friends Not Food is “local Animal Rescue farm in Cumberland County, Tennessee ran by myself Jodi Hille and my husband Mark ‘muscle Russ’ Hille.” A quick search for either of the Hilles doesn’t have come up with hits in Tennessee. Friends Not Food had neither a website nor any known address listed.
In December, someone who appears to be affiliated with the supposed sanctuary fired up a BuzzFeed Community account to plead for money. The photos in the post come directly from the group’s Instagram account, which is now inaccessible.
A reverse image search of the animals’ photos doesn’t come back with any hits, meaning it’s entirely possible the people behind this scam do actually operate some type of farm or sanctuary. Also possible: they just visited a legitimate farm and took some pics.
At some point after wildfires ravaged East Tennessee recently, the group changed their GoFundMe campaign description to the following:
“We are currently changing our campaign description for we are now in the direct path of wildfires in East Tennessee. As you know, we have had our rescue/sanctuary for over 25 years, many of you who have donated have visited us, and know how much we love where we live. Tonight on Dec, 1, 2016 we are under a mandated evacuation. We were able to transfer all rescues using 17 tractor-trailers and trucks to a safe area 2.5 hours away. This campaign is now for any persons that would like to contribute to the rebuild of a Sanctuary and Rescue farm. Thank you all so much.
Campaign has been created by our legal representative, and all funds will be allocated directly to Friends Not Food Sanctuary and Rescue.
The vegan community quickly sprung into action, sending tens of thousands of dollars to the group. And then, that’s when things got weird.
Once the questions started coming from concerned donors who had never visited the facility or, for that matter, even heard of them until they saw the campaign, it seems like Friends Not Food simply dropped off the face of the planet.
Donors to the sham campaign can contact GoFundMe for a refund, but the operative word here is contact. Sorry to the hundreds of vegans who totally forgot they donated to this fake org and probably will never see this, you’re SOL.
In an update, Chris at Vegan Zombie says he has contacted the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center as well as the Secretary of State in Tennessee; the office of the latter spoke out last month and urged anyone who believes they have uncovered evidence of Gatlinburg fire fraud to contact their office directly.
Hopefully, authorities can subpoena GoFundMe to track down the person(s) responsible for perpetuating this massive scam on so many generous and caring vegans.