WRAL Investigates

Scammers take advantage of ease of online fundraising campaigns

Posted October 1, 2015 6:48 p.m. EDT

— Mary Brandstetter was torn up as she read about the Fayetteville family killed in a house fire.

The Florence, Ky., resident learned of the fire, which trapped a father, a mother and their four young children in their Fayetteville home, through GoFundMe.com. Relatives of the family had set up a page seeking donations to help pay for funeral expenses.

"I felt like I could donate $100," Brandstetter said. "Some of the people who were customers of my store donated and said such nice things about the family."

But she was even more torn up when she learned that the story of the fatal house fire was just that – a story.

The perpetrators even included "personal notes" to the family from donors that are likely fake. Many of the notes were from offline donors, who likely did not send any money through GoFundMe.

"It's disgusting," Brandstetter said.

WRAL Investigates contacted GoFundMe about the bogus fundraising effort after determining the tragedy never occurred, and the website pulled the page down. WRAL also contacted Brandstetter to set the story straight with her.

"I just sat there with my mouth open. I just couldn't believe that people would do that," she said.

More than 1,200 GoFundMe campaigns are now underway in the Triangle alone, from people trying to start a T-shirt company to others seeking help paying medical bills to the family of Garner West, an Apex teen recently diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.

West's family wants to buy a diabetic alert dog that can smell when his blood sugar drops. Through GoFundMe, they've raised more than $9,300 in 26 days, and Sadie will become West's watchdog once her training is finished in about 10 months.

Although the website offers a quick and easy way for donors to help others, Brandstetter and others say people need to exercise some caution before hitting the "Donate Now" button.

"For someone to misuse that beneficence, that goodness, it's not just fraud – I don't want to say evil – it's wrong. It's beyond wrong," Oronde Ash said.

Ash is a Triangle soccer coach who also runs a nonprofit called ADARE to help young soccer players in his native country of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

"It's a year-round program – their training – and the hope is to raise awareness, raise money so these kids come up here and go to school," he said.

Aside from collecting jerseys, shoes and equipment, Ash turned to GoFundMe this year for some extra help.

"I was a little skeptical," he said. "I don't like begging for money, but I'm at that point with the charity that I have to, and it worked."

Ash raised more than $2,000 in eight days. He urges donors to go to ADARE's website and see the gear and money in action and encourages everyone to vet a charity before giving.

"Make sure the places that you're sending your money are actually doing what they say they're doing before you just give it over," he said.

GoFundMe also encourages people to give only to those they know. Still, many of the donations, large and small, are anonymous.

The website reimbursed Brandstetter and others the money given to help pay for the nonexistent Fayetteville family's funerals, but there have been no known efforts to track down the people behind the fake campaign.

Brandstetter said getting her money back isn't enough to rebuild her trust.

"I was angry, and I said, 'I will never donate money again,'" she said.