Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here
CLOSE ×

Search

Leaving AARP.org Website

You are now leaving AARP.org and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

Couple and Homeless Man Conspire on Viral $400K GoFundMe Scam

A seemingly heartwarming story of a homeless veteran helping a stranded woman turns sour

spinner image A couple created a viral GoFundMe campaign based on a bogus story about a homeless veteran.
AARP

Subscribe:   Apple Podcasts | Amazon Music | Spotify | Stitcher | TuneIn

The heartwarming story of a homeless veteran, Johnny Bobbitt, who spends his last $20 to help a stranded woman captures national media attention when the woman and her husband start a GoFundMe campaign to help him get on his feet. Kate McClure and Mark D’Amico raise more than $400,000 in just a few weeks. However, when things don’t seem to add up, investigators quickly learn this story is all based on a lie.

spinner image infographic quote that reads: "They had taken extravagant trips. They bought a BMW and paid for that in cash. A lot of money went out the door through cash withdrawals at casinos. Four months later, all of the money was gone."
AARP
Full Transcript

[00:00:01] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.

[00:00:04] Scott Coffina: One of them was a guy who was raising money to get his dog's vet bills paid, and he was the one who injured the dog.

[00:00:09] Bob: Oh my God.

[00:00:10] Scott Coffina: He was charged with animal cruelty for that.

[00:00:12] Bob: Ugh.

[00:00:13] Scott Coffina: Just a horrible case. And a crazy case where a woman had raised money for her son's funeral when in fact that boy had been adopted by another family and the adoptive mother saw this campaign and her son was portrayed as having died.

(MUSIC INTRO)

[00:00:35] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I’m your host, Bob Sullivan. It's the holiday season and who doesn't like a heartwarming story? A few years ago, it seemed all of America was mesmerized by just such a tale. It ticked all the boxes; charity, second chances, veterans, an outpouring of love, but it was all based on a lie. Today as you settle in for your holiday break and perhaps work on your giving plans for 2024, we revisit this feel-good tale gone bad. As a reminder, it's wonderful to have a generous heart to share with strangers in need, but it's also important to maintain a healthy skepticism. So let's go back in time to Thanksgiving 2017 when a young woman named Kate McClure says she ran out of gas on Interstate 95 late at night along a not-so-great stretch of highway near Philadelphia.

[00:01:39] Scott Coffina: A homeless man who was a veteran spent his last $20 to help the woman. He went up to her and told her to stay in the car and went and got gas for her.

[00:01:50] Bob: That's Scott Coffina, a lawyer in South Jersey near Philadelphia, and he's talking about a homeless man that Kate McClure would find out was named Johnny Bobbitt. Bobbitt says at the time he's done selfless gestures like this before.

[00:02:06] (clip) Johnny Bobbitt: Always try, yeah, always try to go offer you know help to people. You know sometimes people take it, sometimes they don't. But you know in this case, she, you know she, she needed the help. She took the help. I was glad to offer it, you know, help when somebody needed it.

[00:02:24] Bob: Kate McClure does get home safely that night, then she and her boyfriend, Mark D'Amico decide they want to pay back Johnny Bobbitt for his act of spontaneous generosity. And then they get the idea to start a GoFundMe campaign to help pay for him to get off the street. A local newspaper gets wind of the tale and writes about it. Other news outlets pick it up. Soon the story of the homeless veteran spending his last $20 to help a stranded woman is everywhere.

[00:02:55] (clip) This really was the feel-good story of the holidays in 2017.

[00:02:59] (clip) A remarkable story of paying it forward is going viral and with good reason. A New Jersey woman who was helped by a homeless man after running out of gas...

[00:03:08] (clip) We've talked about this story for the last few days if you all remember, an act of kindness from a homeless veteran is now getting national attention.

[00:03:15] (clip) What started as a good deed turned into a big pay-it-forward.

[00:03:17] (clip) This act of kindness set off a domino effect.

[00:03:21] Bob: Only a few days after Thanksgiving, McClure, D'Amico, and Bobbitt all find themselves on network television talking about the gesture and the GoFundMe page. A campaign to raise $10,000 ultimately attracts donations from 14,000 GoFundMe users who give...

[00:03:38] Scott Coffina: Ultimately, they raised $400,000. So I think it lasted just about a month, and in that month, they got all that attention and all those donors, and it was um, like I said, $402,000 that they raised.

[00:03:51] Bob: Within a few weeks the holidays pass and the story fades from national attention. McClure and D'Amico buy a trailer and put it on their property letting Bobbitt live there, but out of sight from the generous donors and the fawning media, trouble is brewing. By the next summer...

[00:04:12] Scott Coffina: There was a story that Johnny Bobbitt was back on the street, that all of this attention and all the promises that had been made to him had somehow gone away and uh he was living on the street.

[00:04:23] Bob: A local newspaper is tipped off to that story and writes about it. Then soon after the fairy tale officially ends ... in a courtroom.

[00:04:32] Scott Coffina: In late August, Johnny Bobbitt sued the couple, Mark D'Amico and Kate McClure, his benefactors or supposed benefactors I should say, in Burlington County. He had pro bono counsel from a big firm in Philadelphia that was helping him, and they pursued money that supposedly the couple had siphoned off that had been donated, that $402,000 that had been donated to them.

[00:05:01] Bob: Bobbitt claims in court that his benefactors are actually refusing to give him the money they raised, that in fact they're spending the cash on themselves. Scott, who at the time is the Burlington County Prosecutor, takes notices of the curious lawsuit.

[00:05:17] Scott Coffina: So that got my attention and it was, you know the, the courtroom that they were arguing in was right across the parking lot from my office in the old Burlington County Courthouse, which is a beautiful building, and what we decided to do was just send a couple of people from our financial crimes’ unit, a detective, and uh, an assistant prosecutor to just stand in the back of the courtroom and hear what was going on and make an assessment.

[00:05:44] Bob: So their initial research was just listening to the civil case.

[00:05:49] Scott Coffina: Yeah, listening to the civil case to just see what they were arguing about.

[00:05:53] Bob: Part of what they're arguing about is how much of that $400,000 is left. The couple says it's all just a misunderstanding. They say Bobbitt has been squandering the donated money on drugs. So they're just holding onto the money to protect him. And they go back on national TV to make their case. They're interviewed by Megyn Kelly on her knew network TV show. They tell the show what they initially told the judge, that they have about $150,000 in a bank account ready to give to Bobbitt when he needs it. But as Scott Coffina watches the show at home, he becomes even more curious.

[00:06:34] Scott Coffina: So they had already been accused of not turning over the money to Johnny Bobbitt, and then they went on a national show and claimed that they didn't use any of the money for themselves, that there was $150,000 that was still available, and you know as you watch that show, and we watched that show, you could see that it almost looked like a hostage video for Kate McClure. She was so uncomfortable in that, in that show with Megyn Kelly.

[00:07:03] (clip) Megyn: To the people who read that Enquirer account and said these two, they committed a fraud... I know you've been getting death threats now. You try--, you tried to do a good thing. Ah, Kate...

            Kate: I'm sorry.

            Megyn: What do you want people to know?

            Kate: It's my family and I don't know, it's so hard to deal with because these people are getting one side of the story, and receiving death threats and, you know, threats to burn my house down, and threats against my family, and everything like that, it's so hard to deal with when we know that we did a good thing. And I still believe that we did a good thing, and I would do it all over again. I would do it all over again for him.

            (applause)

[00:07:48] Bob: Scott isn't buying it. The tears, the applause; he's got a bad feeling about this story. And only a couple of days after that interview the couple tell a Burlington County courtroom in that civil case that they have nothing left. All the money is gone. And that sends Scott into action.

[00:08:11] Scott Coffina: When we heard sort of the startling revelation on September 5th that all of the money was gone, we had already been sort of working towards a potential search warrant, but we accelerated it because we knew that the im--, the implications of the dramatic change from being in court on one day saying there's at least $150,000 still available and then over the weekend having that not be the case, we knew that they would understand that that changed the stakes, if not them, then at least their lawyer, and that, that would put sort of the evidence at risk. So by the 6th, we were in their house with a search warrant.

[00:08:47] Bob: When police arrive to search the home, D'Amico maintains an air of innocence, even confidence.

[00:08:54] Scott Coffina: Mark D'Amico was, you know, on video, news video 'cause the, the media had showed up, had shown up at their house while we were executing the search, and he was arrogantly and casually acting as if this was nothing and he didn't have a care in the world. He was hanging out outside the house swinging a golf club, playing with his dog, as if, as if this uh, would somehow not affect him and that was sort of typical of how Mark D'Amico seemed to handle the entire investigation, in--

[00:09:24] Bob: Police see some high value items from the home during the search, a BMW in the driveway, expensive handbags in the closet, but the most important evidence comes from their cellphones.

[00:09:36] Scott Coffina: So we found I, I believe we reviewed over 60,000 text messages between this couple, and between others.

[00:09:43] Bob: 60,000 text messages.

[00:09:44] Scott Coffina: Yeah, and between others. They didn't delete anything. There were also recorded messages. They pretty much made the case for us. I mean there's a lot of work that goes into that for our detectives, and to go through all that obviously, and there's the financial records to create that paper trail of where the money went. But in the text messages, they pretty much, like I said, admitted to everything that we ultimately revealed about that case.

[00:10:09] Bob: The texts confirm the couple were living an extravagant lifestyle paid for by those 14,000 GoFundMe donors.

[00:10:19] Scott Coffina: In late 2017 and early 2018, they had taken extravagant trips. They went to Las Vegas for New Year's Eve party, they went on a helicopter ride through the Grand Canyon. They had pictures of Kate McClure flaunting expensive designer handbags all posted on their Facebook page, and they didn't have anything close to the income to support a lifestyle like that other than all of a sudden, they had just raised $400,000 ostensibly for Johnny Bobbitt. So and we, then we, like we didn't have to look very hard for that. That was on their own Facebook page.

[00:10:56] Bob: But subsequent investigation confirms his worst suspicions.

[00:11:01] Scott Coffina: The campaign closed on December 11, 2017. By March of 2018, so four months later, all of the money was gone. They had blown through $367,108 within four months and they had only given by Johnny Bobbitt's estimate $75,000 to him.

[00:11:27] Bob: I, I mean did they buy an expensive car? How, how did they blow through that money?

[00:11:32] Scott Coffina: Well they had the trips. And they, they did buy a car. They bought a BMW and you know, paid for that in essentially cash. They, and a lot of it, you know, looks to be gambling or there was a lot of withdrawals at or near casino properties. Mark D’Amico, I believe has been publicly on record, certainly Johnny Bobbitt has been interviewed talking about Mark D'Amico having a gambling problem. Whether there is a gambling problem or not, he gambles a lot. It was an is--, an issue that was a bone of contention between Kate McClure and Mark D'Amico when they were dating, and a lot of money went out the door through cash withdrawals and uh, and a lot of those cash withdrawals were near casinos.

[00:12:16] Bob: Later recorded conversations between the couple were obtained by ABC news for a documentary called "No Good Deed," and here's the couple discussing where the money went.

[00:12:27] (clip) Q: Do you remember how much money you spent, just off the top of my head?

            Kate: No.

            Q: 2000 BMW. 5000 Disney, 10,000 in bags. You both went to Vegas, right? Huh, so just right there is $40,000. (inaudible) everything else. But you thought you didn't even spend a dollar.

[00:12:49] Bob: But as Scott and his investigators dig into the phone records, through all the records, the ultimately plot twist is revealed.

[00:12:59] Scott Coffina: The original story on which the whole charitable campaign was based which is that Johnny Bobbitt spent his last $20 to help Kate Clure on the side of I-95 when she ran out of gas, was a complete falsehood. It was made up; it was made up from the beginning. There was never any truth to it, and all of the donations from 14,000 donors were made based upon this false and fraudulent premise.

[00:13:26] Bob: Okay, so when you discover that, what do you think?

[00:13:30] Scott Coffina: Well, I mean that's sort of his, like I said, I mean you know you always have that lurking, it's too good to be true story about a lot of or you know feeling about a lot of stories that are feel good. But we knew we had something that was pretty explosive.

[00:13:46] Bob: That something is a single text message which makes clear everything was a lie.

[00:13:52] Scott Coffina: We found this text and uh I'll share it with you within one hour of the GoFundMe campaign going live on November 10th, 2017. It went live around 6:10 or so, and, or 6:30 or so, and in, in less than an hour there was a text from Kate McClure to her best friend saying that, that the whole story was made up. That she had to make it up to make people feel bad so she's like, and here's the quote from it. "Okay, so wait, the gas part is completely made up, but the guy isn't. I had to make something up to make people feel bad. So shush about the made-up part." So there it was in black and white within one hour of the GoFundMe campaign turning live and she had admitted to her best friend that the whole premise of the fundraising was fake. And so when we saw that text, for sure we knew we had a different crime than simply a fraud upon Johnny Bobbitt and taking money from him who was the intended beneficiary. So even if the gas story were real, we would have had a case against Kate then and Mark for having basically taken money that was directed towards Johnny Bobbitt. But now we had a case against all three of them, and a much bigger case against uh all three of them than we had expected.

[00:15:24] Bob: A much bigger case that once again captures the attention of national media. By Thanksgiving, almost exactly a year after Kate McClure says she ran out of gas on I-95, their whole scam runs out of gas. All three are charged with theft by deception.

[00:15:43] Bob: You know making up a story is not a crime, right? Well what is the actual crime here?

[00:15:47] Scott Coffina: So the crime is a fraud upon the donors. So they had raised money under the false premise, and they were charged with the theft by deception with that.

[00:15:59] Bob: McClure and D'Amico tried to maintain their innocence right until the very end.

[00:16:04] Scott Coffina: Yeah, I mean they, they, they certainly tried to ride it out and, you know, when we got into the investigation, we had seen like their, the one card that I think they felt that they could play was this will lead to a book deal or, or somehow blow over. That they were trying to get a book deal like right up through the point of them being charged. And I think they thought that might somehow be their lifeline.

[00:16:27] Bob: Their lifeline now gone, more truths from the trio come out as the criminal case progresses.

[00:16:34] Scott Coffina: Yeah, what's interesting is that those same texts that revealed it all to us, showed that at least a month before they had, they began the campaign, they had met Johnny. They met him near the casino, the Sugar House Casino, which is off of I-95 in Philadelphia. I think, we don't know precisely how they met, but it looks like they had met just by handing him maybe some money on the side of the road, and we had seen a text where the two of them talked to each other about this guy at Sugar House that keeps popping into their head. Kate had said that to, to Mark, and Mark responded that, that he had just thought about him as well. And so that conversation went from there... how it went from these two that seemed to have a rather superficial encounter of maybe handing a guy on the side of the road some money, to coming into a major fraud scheme and using him to deploy it, they must have spent a little bit of time talking to him and a little bit of time getting to know his name.

[00:17:42] Bob: And their cover story had been perhaps in the works for years.

[00:17:48] Scott Coffina: You know there's another irony of this story, which is that in 2012, if you look at Johnny Bobbitt's Facebook page, and I don't know if it's been taken down since then, but in 2012, Johnny Bobbitt posted on his Facebook page a story about how, and this is when he was living in South Carolina, or North Carolina, he posted a story that he had been outside of the Walmart and a woman with her children broke down, running out of gas and getting a flat tire, both at the same time somehow, and he said, "I spent my last money to help get them on their way. People were honking their horns and going crazy, but at least she got her little ones home safe." So that story that I just said to you that was posted on his website is kind of remarkably similar to the story that ultimately Kate McClure and Mark D'Amico posted on their Facebook, on their GoFundMe campaign, and ultimately that Johnny Bobbitt became a party to promoting. I never saw that as a coincidence, and I think that there was, that Kate McClure, that that story somehow inspired this scheme.

[00:19:06] Bob: Johnny Bobbitt pleads guilty in 2019 and is sentenced to 5 years' probation. He's also required to enter drug rehab, but for McClure and D'Amico, justice is delayed by COVID and other factors right up until 2023. We'll tell you what happened to their criminal case in a moment, but first, we want to take this chance to talk about staying safe when a story pulls on your heartstrings and on your wallet during the holiday season, so we will once again draw on the expertise of Laurie Styron, CEO of an organization called CharityWatch.

[00:19:44] Laurie Styron: We're the only independent charity watchdog in the United States and we've been around a long time. We were founded in 1992, and we rate charities on an A+ to F scale. Adjusting the finances, we analyze for inaccuracies, incomparability, incompleteness and inconsistency, really digging into the audits and tax filings so that we can let donors know hey, if you donate 100 bucks to a particular charity, how much of it is really going to be used on the programs that you're intending to support.

[00:20:14] Bob: That sounds like a lot of work.

[00:20:16] Laurie Styron: It's incredibly time intensive.

[00:20:19] Bob: Laurie remembers the Johnny Bobbitt story well.

[00:20:22] Laurie Styron: I think everyone has heard that story, because I was one of the people totally onboard and even though I've been doing this work for 20 years now, at the time it was still a significant number of years when that story came out. I remember that that story really tugged at my heartstrings, too. It really had all of those elements of someone down on their luck, offering what little they had to help another person, and then the people who received that money wanting to reward that person's, you know, high morality and generosity by, you know, helping him improve his life. I mean it had all of these great elements of, you know, almost movie-like elements to it that were really designed to compel people to give. And we can see that that story really worked very successfully. And I was one of the people who was incredibly heartbroken when the real truth of the matter came out that it was all really just a, an attempt to exploit, you know, the generosity of the public to enrich themselves.

[00:21:26] Bob: Why did his story and the story about the GoFundMe page spread so far and so fast?

[00:21:33] Laurie Styron: Well, you know, we, especially in the United States, we have this great American dream kind of trope that we want to believe that if people work hard enough and they do the right thing, that they'll be rewarded, or that everything will turn out okay for them in the end. And I really think that that was one of the elements of this story is that you had someone who essentially had nothing who was totally down on his luck, but what little he did have, he used to help another person. And we really make a lot of moral judgements about who's worthy of help based on those types of actions, right? And so this was really just a, a perfect storm of ticking all the boxes.

[00:22:18] Bob: What rule does GoFundMe or did GoFundMe and, and other similar tools like that play in, in a scam like this?

[00:22:24] Laurie Styron: Well, people love crowdfunding. It's a really convenient way to donate. And a lot of donors have this idea that you know it's better to give directly to individual people because you know they've heard a lot of charity scandals in their defense, right, and they think also some charities have extremely high overhead, and some charities pay their executives hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. And they think to themselves, well, if I just donate directly a small amount to an individual person who's down on their luck, I can actually know that my donation is having some really positive effect in the world.

[00:23:03] Bob: Does GoFundMe have some responsibility to make sure that its service isn't for crimes like this?

[00:23:11] Laurie Styron: You know all of the crowdfunding sites, they have their own, you know, processes in place to try to root out and prevent fraud, but the fact is is that you're talking about, you know, crowdfunding websites that have hundreds or thousands of campaigns on them at any given time that are, you know, there's constantly new ones that are, you know, coming and going, and there's really no perfect way before the fact to prevent a scammer from uploading pictures, coming up with a sad story, and asking you for money. There's really no way to totally prevent that even with some good efforts in place to do so.

[00:23:58] Bob: The vast majority of crowdfunding recipients are legitimate, but there are bad actors out there and you should maintain a healthy skepticism and be willing to do a little research on your own, just as you should research larger charities before you donate to them. But that can feel a little intimidating and it's important to know not all charity review sites are created equal.

[00:24:20] Laurie Styron: I just think it's important for people to understand what they're looking at. The internet is a great thing and automation can be a great thing and crowdsourcing can be a great thing depending on how that data is used. So when these kinds of ratings and these very large online databases, when they're based on crowd sourcing, meaning when the charities just essentially upload flattering information about themselves and then that's what's published and that's what the transparency seal is based on, well no one's vetting that to make sure that the charity is being honest or complete with what they're telling you. And then when the ratings are based on automation in order to be able to provide ratings on such a large volume of charities, you know I wish it were that simple to just divide one number by another in the tax form and be able to tell you that it's a good charity or not. But it's, it's not that simple. Charity financial reporting is incredibly complex, and, you know, we've identified so many instances of charities to which we've given failing grades for spending 35%, in some cases 11%, of their cash on programs, legitimate programs; they get perfect scores in some of these databases.

[00:25:36] Bob: As little as basically 10 cents on the dollar?

[00:25:38] Laurie Styron: We've seen instances of that, yes.

[00:25:41] Bob: How can they get away with that?

[00:25:44] Bob: I think everyone listening appreciates that looking at balance sheets is not for everyone. So I know this is maybe a tricky question, but can you just give me a flavor of you know 1 or 2 or 3 things that you look for that just as an example of, of what might be suspicious or, or a, a negative behavior by a charity.

[00:26:03] Laurie Styron: Sure, and you know, in some cases the charity isn't reporting things incorrectly, they're following the rules, they're following generally accepted account principles in the United States, they're following the IRS tax filing rules, but the rules just aren't adequate to communicate to donors what they're really looking to know, which is, hey, I'm giving you money, you're saying it's going to be spent on your programs, is that really going to happen? One of the things we see is something called joint costs, meaning say you get a letter in the mail or a telemarketing call and the charity asks you for a donation 10 or 12 times in that letter or during that telemarketing call. As long as they meet a few flimsy requirements, they can claim that the money they're spending sending you that mail or making those telemarketing calls is an actual program. So if they include a call to action such as, "Hey, don't forget to get your annual breast exam," or "Fly the American flag to show veterans you care," they can essentially say, "Hey, this is a program, these telemarketing calls, this, these letter's we're sending you, this is a program." So when you see those pie charts on charity websites and marketing materials, a lot of what you're seeing, if a charity is saying, "We spend 90% on programs," well, once you adjust that spending on what we think of as fundraising, what most donors think of as fundraising, once you adjust that out of the programs, we found instances of charity spending 25% or less.

[00:27:31] Bob: There are basically two types of bad charities, Laurie says.

[00:27:35] Laurie Styron: The first kind is people who know exactly what they're doing, they have stacked their board of directors with family members. They have some sort of kickback arrangement possibly with a professional fundraising company to which they funnel millions of dollars every year. These are people who think they're using the charity to they're exploiting the charity essentially to enrich themselves. The, the other type of bad charity that we see, people who are incredibly passionate about the cause that they're working in. So say like a leader of an animal rescue charity, and they've maybe gotten themselves into a contract, a bad contract with a for-profit professional fundraising company that you know is taking 80% of whatever is raised. Sometimes people who are very passionate about a cause such as rescuing injured or sick animals, they might not have an accounting or a legal background or a business background to understand when they're getting in a little bit over their heads on the business side in terms of what are my fiduciary duties to the organization to run it efficiently and effectively and within the bounds of the accounting and reporting legal requirements.

[00:28:52] Bob: It's easy for me to see that happening, and in fact, I'm sitting here imagining somebody else from a charity who might say, "Do you know hard it is to raise money? We're competing with all of this noise on the internet. There's so many different places. We have to go hire an outside company. We have to do these things so that you know we can take care of our core competency," which is saving the whales or whatever ‘cause it is that you're interested in. Uh, that, I mean I'm sympathetic to hearing that. I'm guessing that you, you would be too.

[00:29:20] Laurie Styron: Well, I am sympathetic, but nobody ever said that running a charity was easy.

[00:29:25] Bob: Also, not easy, standing on a street corner with a clipboard in the cold asking people, "Can I have just a minute of your time?" Laurie says it's best to avoid the clipboard holders.

[00:29:38] Laurie Styron: When it comes to the people on the street with clipboards raising money from you, I'm sorry to tell you that the vast majority of charities lose money on that type of solicitation. So people often make the mistake of thinking that the people with the clipboards are volunteers, that they actually are volunteers for the charity. That's generally not true. Typically those are hourly workers who are being paid an hourly rate to solicit you. And the goal for most of the charities isn't even to actually raise enough money to pay for all the, the costs of those wages. The goal is to basically collect your information so they can get you to donate one time, but then also so that they can continue to resolicit you over and over and over and over in the future.

[00:30:26] Bob: In essence they're paying someone $15 an hour to get 15 email addresses in an hour. A dollar for an email is actually a pretty good price if it, if that's a hot lead, right?

[00:30:35] Laurie Styron: Exactly. That's a good way for the charity perhaps to collect information.

[00:30:41] Bob: Laurie says she's glad the Johnny Bobbitt trio were all arrested because stories like that can really do a disservice to worthy charities.

[00:30:50] Laurie Styron: You know there's a lot of people who were so taken in by this story, and I was one of them, as I said, and they were so heartbroken when the truth came out. And the danger is that situations like this turn people off to donating because they had put their trust into people and they had put their heart into a story and then it turned out to not be true. And it can really make people shy away and become very cynical about donating in the future, either to a crowdfunding campaign or even to charity generally.

[00:31:24] Bob: You know I'm glad you said that, because I do think that's the whole point for this, the real point for this episode is there's enough cynicism in the world, right, so when criminals contribute to that even more, it just makes things so much harder for genuine charities who are really trying to do good work in the world, right?

[00:31:41] Laurie Styron: Well this is really the reason why my organization exists. Sometimes we get characterized as the bad guys, you know, the watchdog going after charities, but the whole reason that we do the work that we do, and the whole reason that I've stuck with this work for 20 years, is because I want to help to make sure that people can maintain faith and trust in the nonprofit sector and so that people direct the vast, vast majority of their donations to organizations that have been vetted that will actually use the donations the way they say they will, that will actually have a good and positive impact in the world which is why people are donating.

[00:32:21] Bob: And to that end, Laurie has some very specific advice for people who are considering donating to a charity.

[00:32:28] Laurie Styron: There's such a long list of things that people should think about before donating to charity, but one thing I want to mention just to provide some context here, you know we, we recently came off of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and I think Small Business Saturday, right, and we're all kind of familiar with this idea if we're making a purchase, especially a, a higher dollar purchase, that we actually research it ahead of time. We compare different TVs or cars or computers or phones, and you know we want to make sure that not only are we getting the best deal, but that the product or service that we're about to buy has a good reputation and that we'll be able to use it for a long time, that sort of thing that, that we're actually getting what, what the marketing is saying we're going to get, you know, so we'll read reviews and all that kind of stuff. So we put all this time investment into our purchases, but then often when people donate to charity, it's simply just in reaction to being asked. So they'll encounter a solicitation on a call, in the mail, on social media, in person on the street by someone with a clipboard, or even at the register at the grocery store, and without thinking, they'll just hand money over in response to hearing a sad story or seeing a sad photo of something. And I would just strongly encourage people you know to put the same kind of thought and energy into which charities you should donate to that you do when you're thinking about making purchases.

[00:34:01] Bob: And part of that consideration should be online research.

[00:34:06] Laurie Styron: Well, you know, the first thing you can do is if, if you want to come to our site at CharityWatch.org, we've already done the legwork for you. That said, due to the time intensive nature of our analysis, we can't rate every non-profit. And so there are some things donors can do, you know, they can do their own legwork to make sure that the charity they're interested in is a legitimate one. So the first thing is that you can visit the IRS search tool to verify that this organization is actually a real charity in the first place. Because anyone can start up a website and claim to be raising money for something, but you won't necessarily know if it's a pro--, properly registered 501(c)(3) public charity and the IRS has a search tool that will help you verify that.

[00:34:55] Bob: And uh, is that the tax-exempt organization search or what would that be?

[00:35:00] Laurie Styron: It is.

[00:35:01] Bob: Okay, so you go, and that's a long URL, but we can put it in the, the notes, but if you just google IRS charity search it comes up, I believe.

[00:35:10] Laurie Styron: Yes, yes it does. And we also have that link on our website on our resources for donors' page.

[00:35:16] Bob: But beyond even online research, Laurie has a strong recommendation to make sure that people never donate as the result of an emotional reaction. But instead, make a giving plan.

[00:35:29] Laurie Styron: The number one piece of advice that I give donors and potential donors is to be proactive in your giving decisions. Because it is very easy to make a mistake when you make reactive decisions. So you're reacting to just being asked or being prompted online or on a call or in the mail, because typically when you are responding to those solicitations in that way, you're not making fact base--, based decisions. You're making decisions based on how those solicitations make you feel either because a story is sad or there's really sad photos and they're really tugging at your heartstrings. And so by being proactive when making your giving decisions, you're kind of eliminating a lot of the risk of being taken in by a sad story or sad photos and ending up donating to a charity that won't really use your donations the way they say it will.

[00:36:26] Bob: So when you hear a sad story and you feel moved to pull out your wallet, remember Kate McClure and Mark D'Amico, one of the best examples we have of donations not going where the recipients said they would. So where have McClure and D'Amico gone? To prison. McClure pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in state prison this January. She was already in prison on federal charges. D'Amico was sentenced to 5 years in 2022.

[00:36:57] Bob: We asked GoFundMe if they wanted to offer a comment for this story, and here’s what they told us: Quote -- At GoFundMe, being a safe and trusted place to give and receive help is our top priority, and we have zero tolerance for the misuse of our platform. In this case, the fundraiser misrepresented the reasons why it was created - thereby committing a crime for which they have been prosecuted and banned from the platform. We refunded 100% of all donations through our GoFundMe Giving Guarantee and worked closely with law enforcement to ensure justice was done. Prosecutor Scott Coffina said he was relieved that justice had been served, but he's also worried consumers might be more hesitant to donate to worthy causes because of this incident. So he's quick to offer suggestions for would-be donors.

[00:37:49] Scott Coffina: I think when it comes to sort of the online campaigns that you sometimes see on Facebook, I think one of the important things is to see, do you know the person? I mean to think locally. I mean if it's somebody that's in your town, sometimes giving locally is what people prefer to do anyway. They're helping their community, they're helping their, their friends. I think that is a little bit easier way to uh get a sense that what has, what's being represented is real. Sometimes you'll see that somebody had died and they're raising money. One very easy way to check that is usually to google the name and you'll sometimes see very quickly after somebody passes away either an obituary or some type of death notice that will verify that the person who they're raising money for has in fact died. So I think, and whatever it is, if they're raising money for firemen that were injured in a fire, you could google the news to see, did that fire actually occur? So I think the first step I would say is try to focus your donations either on, if it's a sort of an individualistic type of campaign to focus on people that you know or know of within a degree or two of separation.

[00:39:07] Bob: And that's important because while the Bobbitt story is sensational, it's not the only crowdfunding scam Scott has prosecuted. There were three others back during his time as prosecutors. One involved a woman who raised money to pay for her husband's funeral, and then left the body in the morgue.

[00:39:27] Scott Coffina: One of them was a guy who was raising money to get his dog, his dog's vet bills paid, and he was the one who injured the dog.

[00:39:31] Bob: Oh God.

[00:39:32] Scott Coffina: He was charged ultimately with animal cruelty for that.

[00:39:34] Bob: Ugh

[00:39:35] Scott Coffina: Just a horrible case. And a crazy case where a woman had raised money for her son's funeral when in fact that boy had been adopted by another family and the adoptive mother saw this campaign and her son was, was portrayed as having died which is extraordinarily unsettling to even think about as a mom, and so the, the birth mother who had given the child up for adoption had actually tried to raise money for that son's "funeral," when in fact that son was alive and well and, and had been adopted by another family. Some of those are going to be hard to spot but they are all heartstring type stories and I think one of the important things or rather it underscores is do you know the person who's raising it, or does somebody who you know, know the person who's raising the money when it's sort of those really micro campaigns that tug at your heartstrings.

[00:40:32] Bob: Do remember roughly how old the child was?

[00:40:34] Scott Coffina: I think 4 years old.

[00:40:37] Bob: That's just so dark, oh my God.

[00:40:38] Scott Coffina: Yeah. Dark is the way to put it.

[00:40:42] Bob: Scott also wanted to say that GoFundMe was very cooperative with these investigations at the time which was still the early days of crowdfunding. And importantly when it came to the Bobbitt case...

[00:40:53] Scott Coffina: They took, you know, they stood behind their own platform and refunded all $400,000 to the donors, so you know give them credit for that. And um, and then I think if you look at their website now, they're a lot tighter in terms of how the money is distributed, distributed to people who are the ostensive beneficiaries of a campaign.

[00:41:18] Bob: In fact, he says that's one silver lining to the Bobbitt case.

[00:41:23] Scott Coffina: The attention that this matter brought, I think made, created a healthy skepticism of charitable contributions through GoFundMe campaigns and other crowdfunding means. I think that people who are in that business, or entities in that business, tightened up their oversight of their donations that they post, and I think people who were donating are hopefully taking a little bit more time to evaluate, you know, whether they want to donate to a cause that they may know little about.

[00:42:01] Bob: But taking time to evaluate is good, becoming cynical is not, he said. That's something he worried about even back in 2018.

[00:42:11] Scott Coffina: We actually announced the charges and brought the charges during the holiday season a year later. It was November 15th, and we were worried that people might be turned off and would not donate, and uh fortunately that didn't really, it didn't have too big an impact. I think part of that is because of the way GoFundMe reacted in refunding the money to ev--, all of the donors and to making changes in their own processes, and to getting the word out that, you know, charities, of course you're, you're, we're a very generous people in America, we uh, and our better instincts are you know worth cultivating and worth advancing, and we should be, we shouldn’t be shy about it. You just have to have a healthy skepticism when it's something that is a, a campaign of somebody that you just don't necessarily know and but it has a big tendency to draw on heart spring--, on heartstrings. And so one of the things in the holiday season is to be, like I said, be, educate yourself, be skeptical in a healthy way, but don't be deterred from helping people when your instinct is there and you can you know get a good sense. And we have more tools through the internet to be able to get a good sense of the validity of a story or the validity of a charitable campaign. You know if, if you, you can verify that it's legitimate, I would encourage anybody to do what their heart is telling them to do and give.

[00:43:43] Bob: And despite all the cases Scott has prosecuted, he says he's still very optimistic about internet-based generosity tools.

[00:43:51] Bob: How do you stay positive after seeing all these dark things?

[00:43:55] Scott Coffina: Well it's just having the perspective of knowing that these are just, you know, at some level, one-offs. And to also know that, you know, each of these cases creates a lesson, and you know you learn, you build, you tighten up. But I think, you know, crowdfunding has fulfilled a need and a community need that I think is overall very positive. It does require, like I say, the verification, but you talk about putting your money to somebody who really needs it and often somebody in your own community for an acute situation, I think it's a, it's a great avenue and a great path for getting charity to people who need it in a way that prior to the, you know, this dynamic of crowdfunding on the internet didn't exist. So it has its very positive place in our landscape, but again just like anything else, requires you to take a minute and make sure that what you're doing is going to the right place.

[00:44:53] Bob: And Laurie says she also remains positive despite the charity problems she has witnessed.

[00:44:59] Bob: It must be easy for you to get cynical, the things that you see, wow.

[00:45:03] Laurie Styron: But you know, at the end of the day, you know despite people should absolutely be careful and follow all of the advice and come to CharityWatch.org. They should absolutely do those things because there are a lot of bad actors out there, but the vast majority of charities in the US, they're doing great work. They're doing important work. Many of them, especially the smaller ones are underfunded, and a lot of these organizations were they not doing this work or conducting the programs that they do, it would really leave a big gap in the needs of our society. And so I would say, if you're someone who can afford it, give generously. And if you're not someone who could afford it, just maintain an attitude of gratitude, and give what you can. And for some people, that's going to be money and for other people it's just checking on your neighbors or making sure that you take time to volunteer in your community. There's a lot of different ways to give and financial donations are only one of them.

[00:46:02] Bob: And after all this time, 20 years of looking into these companies, you, you still believe in charity and in the concept of charity, don't you?

[00:46:11] Laurie Styron: I absolutely do. I mean I think that, you know what I do is I try to, I try to incorporate generosity into my day and into my thoughts. I try to be mindful of this, and that's actually a big part of what drives my work is that I know that most people have good hearts, and most people are generous, and most people want to make the world a better place. And if I can do some small part of making that happen and helping people to direct their time and energy and financial resources to the charities and the people who are making the world a better place, then I, that makes me feel pretty good and it helps me to maintain my faith in society for sure, yeah.

[00:46:58] Bob: Here’s a list of things GoFundMe says potential donors can do to protect themselves. First, review the fundraiser page: does the fundraiser have a clear title, image, and story? Understand the use of funds: What is the purpose of the fundraiser and is the organizer transparent about how funds will be used? Next, check the organizer or beneficiary connection: How is the organizer or beneficiary connected to the fundraiser? Look at the comments and donations: Are direct family, friends or community members making donations and leaving supportive comments? And finally, ask questions: if you see something that doesn’t seem right, donors are empowered to use two features that appear on every GoFundMe: a contact button for the organizer (the person who started the fundraiser), and a ‘Report’ button. If you have any questions about the fundraiser, you can easily reach the organizer and ask them directly. In addition, clicking the ‘Report’ button will flag it for our Trust and Safety team to look into it.

[00:47:48] Bob: For The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

 

[00:48:06] Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. Our email address at The Perfect Scam is: theperfectscampodcast@aarp.org, and we want to hear from you. If you've been the victim of a scam or you know someone who has, and you'd like us to tell their story, write to us or just send us some feedback. That address again is: theperfectscampodcast@aarp.org. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree; Researcher, Sarah Binney; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; and our Audio Engineer and Sound Designer, Julio Gonzalez. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.

(MUSIC OUTRO)

END OF TRANSCRIPT

The Perfect ScamSM is a project of the AARP Fraud Watch Network, which equips consumers like you with the knowledge to give you power over scams.

 

How to listen and subscribe to AARP's podcasts

Are you new to podcasts? Learn how to subscribe to AARP Podcasts on any device.

Discover AARP Members Only Access

Join AARP to Continue

Already a Member?

spinner image cartoon of a woman holding a megaphone

Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.