Trust and Safety

GoFundMe and Journalistic Integrity: A Primer

On any given day, in publications around the country, you can now find GoFundMe pages attached to horrific stories; deaths, car accidents, police officer shootings, you name it and someone probably started a GoFundMe page for it. But how many of these pages are legit? And how can reporters know if the money raised will go to the cause alleged? The short answer is: they can’t.

GoFundMe fraud goes international with the help of media

Story time! Does anyone remember the story of “Bart the Zombie Cat” down in Florida? Back in early 2015, Bart made international news for supposedly rising from the dead 5 days after his owner buried him in the ground. Many of the outlets covering Bart’s “miraculous” story included a link to a GoFundMe page started by a neighbor of Bart’s owner to cover Bart’s extensive medical costs. The problem? Bart was in the custody of the Humane Society of Tampa Bay and HSTB had fully covered his significant veterinary costs. Repeated attempts to have the fundraiser removed were ignored by GoFundMe and to this day, no one knows what happened to the over $6000 raised on that page.

“Such a beautiful story, an amazing, amazing story, has turned into evil and greed,” neighbor Dusty Albritton told a local news station. She is the one who started the GoFundMe page for Bart, and presumably also the one who received all funds raised for him despite the Humane Society of Tampa Bay picking up the bill.

Bart’s story is actually how this writer got interested in not only the potential for fraud on crowdfunding platforms but the blatant indifference to it on the part of GoFundMe. His case is only one example of potentially thousands.

Reporters and media professionals need to keep in mind that anyone can fire up a GoFundMe page for any reason. I could check Google News right now, download a few dozen photos, and set up any number of fake fundraisers for murder victims, sick kids, cancer patients — you name it. Unless someone notices and a large number of people alert GoFundMe, I might even get away with it. If I’m lucky, some tired reporter will even slap my fake GoFundMe page link into a story about a local car crash victim, not even thinking to check its legitimacy.

The Fraud Triangle

Young auditors and fraud examiners learn about something called The Fraud Triangle early on in their education. This simple concept, which is meant to describe motives for occupational fraud, can easily be applied to crowdfunding fraud as well.

As you might imagine, the triangle identifies three factors that must be present at the same time for an ordinary person to commit fraud:

  • Pressure
  • Opportunity
  • Rationalization

The very nature of GoFundMe and sites like it provides opportunity. 100,000 new fundraisers are started every month and not a single one is vetted. The platform is wide open for abuse, and only if fundraisers are reported and often does anything happen to campaigns in question.

Pressure could be just about anything, and with the economy being what it is these days, you never know what kind of financial situation someone is dealing with. This can lead otherwise normal people — like the Cleveland DJ we told you about who stole from a dead woman with cystic fibrosis — to behave in unusual ways.

Lastly, we have rationalization. We saw an example of this the other day with the young lady seeking funding for vet school. “I don’t want to beg for handouts, but I see other people doing it and I think, why not me?” she said.

Both auditors and journalists are taught to be skeptical, and the old adage rings true here: trust, but verify.

GoFundMe’s own advice

GoFundMe tells campaign owners right on its own website to take advantage of media outlets’ desperation for “feel good” stories, making YOU the media professional a target for fraud.

Believe it or not, your local newspaper, radio, and TV stations are starving for good, uplifting stories like yours. Most media outlets allow you to submit a story online or access the contact information of their reporters. Getting your story covered by local media is much easier than you would think. Just remember to insist that your donation campaign link be mentioned in the story.

In a perfect world, we’d all be able to take people at their word and would be happy to help them. But this is not a perfect world, and virtually nothing is standing in the way of any and all potential fraudsters on the platform.

While most of us would like to believe people mean well, until such time that GoFundMe institutes better controls to prevent fraud on its platform, media professionals should exercise extreme caution in disseminating fundraisers with their stories. The exception to this rule would be fundraisers verified with the source, such as those started by parents for their sick children. Even in the case of family members, we’ve learned that things aren’t always cut and dry; see: the Atlanta burn victim and funds withheld by his cousin.

We hope this helps, and we are available for interviews if you’re covering crowdfunding fraud or GoFundMe in general. Happy reporting!