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Our Opinion: GoFundMe fraud should remind us to give judiciously

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A headline-grabbing, outrage-inducing story of a homeless veteran suing to collect money raised on his behalf serves as a reminder that fundraising and crowdfunding are not created equal.

Katelyn McClure and boyfriend Mark D’Amico started a GoFundMe page to raise money for Johnny Bobbitt Jr., who helped McClure when she ran out of gas last year despite being destitute himself. Bobbitt’s last $20 was the modern-day widow’s mite, and the online call for donations seemed to complete the cycle of generosity by allowing the grateful McClure to repay his kindness.

Contributions poured in from people touched by the heartwarming tale. The GoFundMe campaign topped $400,000, but Bobbitt claims in a lawsuit that he’s been robbed of that largess. He accused McClure and D’Amico of treating themselves to lavish vacations and a brand-new BMW with money that was supposed to be earmarked for him.

The defendants dispute those allegations and told NBC’s Megyn Kelly that Bobbitt was quickly and carelessly burning through the cash. A judge will sort out the particulars, but McClure and D’Amico did admit they acted as gatekeepers for at least a portion of the money, saying they feared Bobbitt would use it to buy drugs. Whether or not those fears were warranted, no one authorized them to play amateur trust fund manager.

Anyone can set up a GoFundMe account, write a sob story in the page description and begin soliciting donations online. If the story is compelling or if keywords make the link irresistible to search engine and social media algorithms, any GoFundMe campaign can go viral. Naive news outlets publicize the pages, inflating their credibility.

The watchdog website GoFraudMe.com has indexed dozens of crowdfunding scams. Along with tips on avoiding donation diversion, the site features an entire category devoted to fake cancer claims that have been exposed, along with another for phony funeral funds.

Crowdfunding has made it possible for people in need to share their stories with the world, but the lack of vetting and financial accountability make it a plum target for exploitation. It’s also redefining what people consider to be a charitable cause. Interspersed with tales of the truly needy are small business owners seeking handouts instead of selling products and even donation drives for posh weddings and other luxuries.

Etiquette expert Miss Manners calls crowdfunding what it is — begging — but notes that paradoxically, “few solvent people seem to consider this beneath their dignity.”

Blunt solicitations to contribute cash to a GoFundMe page’s creator may be more honest than some campaigns that purport to be fundraisers for deserving third parties. Whoever sets up a GoFundMe page is the person who receives the digital donations and can retain or dispense them at will. The campaign’s stated purpose may be noble, but the collector may be a meddlesome middleman.

We encourage generosity, but we remind our readers it’s wiser to donate to an established, reputable nonprofit organization than to a temporary webpage that could be a fly-by-night fraud.

Charities have accountability mechanisms; every 501(c)(3) nonprofit is required to disclose annual tax forms that list donations taken in, money spent and staff salaries paid. A worthwhile nonprofit will gladly show you where every penny of your donation dollar goes.

There are trusted, secure and legitimate ways to support local causes online. DonorsChoose.org, a registered nonprofit, collects money for teachers’ classroom supplies. It verifies educators’ employment and instead of sending a check or making a digital bank deposit, DonorsChoose purchases the supplies and ships them to the school when a project is funded. People who contribute are assured that their money is used correctly.

The Wilson Times does not share links to GoFundMe pages in news stories for the same reason we wouldn’t publish a private individual’s address and invite readers to send cash — there is simply no practical means to ensure donations are used for their proper purpose. Instead, we suggest that people in need partner with a local church, charity or foundation to collect contributions, or establish a trust account at a local bank.

Folks motivated to make a difference would do well to consider giving to the United Way of Wilson County and its partner agencies, including The Salvation Army, The Wesley Shelter, the American Red Cross and the Wilson Crisis Center, among others, or to the nonprofit of their choice.

It pays for both donors and beneficiaries to understand the difference between charity and crowdfunding. It may be true that many GoFundMe campaigns have worked miracles for worthy causes, but it’s also true that scammers make this avenue of giving a gamble.

Caveat donator — let the donor beware.

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