Many people use crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe to reach out to their social networks to help pay for much-needed medical treatment. Unfortunately, not every crowdfunding campaign is trustworthy.
While crowdfunding can be a useful way to gather donations for people’s medical and emergency life expenses, it’s also a way to scam compassionate donors out of their hard-earned money.
With sites like GoFundMe, there is no way to know exactly how your money will be used if you donate. This makes it difficult for people who are actually in need to receive assistance with their medical bills, because donors are more skeptical of fraud.
Over the past several years, there have been numerous false campaigns created on GoFundMe to scam sympathetic donors under the guise of helping people pay medical expenses:
- A New Jersey couple raised more than $400,000 through a fraudulent GoFundMe campaign to help a homeless good Samaritan and veteran — and all three were in on the scheme. In January 2020, the ringleader Mark D’Amico pled not guilty to federal charges, with 16 counts of conspiracy, wire fraud, and money laundering. The trio pleaded guilty in state court in 2019.
- For three years, a Canadian woman told friends and family she had a rare neurological disorder that took away her vision, voice, and ability to leave her home. In 2015, she was accused of faking a rare illness (chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy) and deceiving her loved ones into raising more than $100,000 for medications and treatment she never needed or received.
The GoFundMe campaign goal was set at $1.6 million, before the account was shut down. It showed 553 separate donations, with some in the thousands of dollars. Many donors even opted to make regular monthly donations.
- In May 2018, a woman in Carson City, Nevada was sentenced to five to 12.5 years in prison for faking her son’s death to illegally solicit $2,000 in GoFundMe donations, cash, and gift cards.
- Also in May 2018, a couple in upstate New York raised $3,334 on a GoFundMe campaign asking for donations to pay for medical bills for their son — falsely claiming he had terminal cancer. The boy’s parents were charged with a scheme to defraud and endangering the welfare of a child.
- In February 2020, grieving parents discovered that a photo of their son, who had died from cancer, was being used on an alleged fraudulent GoFundMe campaign.
So, how can you donate to others in need, but also protect yourself from crowdfunding fraud?
- Support campaigns from people you know. One of the safer ways to donate to crowdfunding campaigns for medical services is to choose ones created by a person you know in real life, or at least a friend of a friend. Even if a GoFundMe campaign tells a heart-wrenching story about a child in need, you can’t trust everything you read on the Internet — especially when it’s a stranger asking for money.
- Check the comments. The crowdfunding campaign may be more trustworthy if there are many visible comments from family and friends. A lack of comments can be a warning sign that the campaign is not legitimate.
- Do your research. It’s a good rule of thumb to do your research before you spend your money (on anything). Go through the campaign page and see who is organizing it. The page should clearly state how the organizer knows the fund recipient. Unclear relationships to the recipient can be a red flag. You can additionally do a quick reverse image search on Google, to see if the photo comes from a legitimate source or if it was stolen for a fraudulent campaign.
- Alternative donation options: If you’re uncomfortable donating to a campaign when you don’t know exactly how the money will be used, there are other options to help those in need with their medical expenses. There are companies like Denefits that create payment plans with doctors, for patients who otherwise may not be able to afford much-needed medical care. Denefits has a Social Healthcare Payments program that allows people to donate directly to patients’ medical treatment payment plans.