Online begging: brother, can you pay my debt?

Need money fast? Don't have what it takes to stand out by the freeway with a sign and your hand out? Fortunately, you live in a new era, when even the begging can be done online in the comfort and safety of your own home. (Or the library.)

Yesterday as a friend of mine was putting groceries into her car, she was approached by a homeless man carrying a cardboard sign and asking for money. She offered him some of the bananas she had just purchased, but he said he already had food, what he needed was money to find a room for the night. She wouldn't help him there. In a darkening lot she didn't want to open her wallet and take out the few dollars that were inside. Like many people, she has become cynical about handing over cash. This woman prefers to give financial donations directly to shelters and organizations. Still, she felt bad about turning him away. It's hard to ignore real need when it's staring you in the face.

Which is why when I learned of websites devoted to online panhandling and begging, I wondered how effective they could be when most of us have become distrustful enough to turn someone down face to face.

Begslist,Cyberbeg and DonateMoney2Me are websites designed for the purpose of posting personal needs. Begslist provides its service for free, taking its look and its cue from the all-popular Craigslist. while Cyberbeg offers premium placement of a posting for a small fee. Cyberbeg users also pay a percentage of their take to Paypal.

DonateMoney2Me requires an initial start-up fee of $44.90, including the first month's membership. After that, members will be billed $9.95 per month. they warn users, however, "No one can guarantee you will get donations...but just imagine if your story were included (read: buried) with thousands of others."Still, that's a lot of dough for people desperate enough to beg for it.

It turns out, however, that "desperation" has many definitions for members at DonateMoney2Me. Member #JC45GK would like donations so she can learn how to ride a motorcycle and buy a "learner's bike." She wrote that she loves the "exhilarating feeling of freedom motorcycles provide." Freedom from debt and payment feels pretty good too. Maybe she just likes the word free.

Member #NR3W46 says he would like to become a figure skater, and ... "maybe one day I can be on Universal Sports ... or compete and turn pro." He is asking for $5,000 to cover skates and a coach.

There are many dreams: a Cambodian immigrant/actor is looking for money to make a movie of his life story, a single parent needs help paying for her daughter's wedding, many would-be entrepreneurs are looking to start businesses, and a Shetland pony named Willie needs some cash for vet bills.

These things do take some bank. DonateMoney2Me provides members with a handy tip list for "how to get more donations"." Be honest, it implores members. "Plead your case but be honest! Tell the truth, don't exaggerate." Additional advice includes: "spell check" and "bring as much into it as you can, mention things that might ring a bell with a potential donator" (sic).The site also offers "suggestive phrases" users might want to include in their pitch such as: won't you please help?; your generosity can give a new lease on life; I deserve the contributions because ... ; give anything you can; or perhaps a simple, "with your help we can go on."

Of course, there are many compelling listings on DonateMoney2Me that tug at heartstrings as well as our basic human compassion. However, I can't help but wonder why someone in such dire straits would spend $154.35 per year to ask for money. Luckily, members are encouraged to help each other out. "Pay it forward! Make a habit of giving back to other people 5% to 25% of the donations you collect. Read their story, connect and help. You will see that you feel good and you will actually increase your donations because you are spreading good."

Self-confessed shopaholic Karyn Bosnak is credited with being one of the first to go online with a personal plea for financial assistance. In June, 2002, Bosnak was $20,000 in debt when she decided to create (no longer live), a website which chronicled her struggles with debt and asked strangers to donate one dollar toward paying it off. News of the website spread. Twenty weeks and 2 million hits later she had raised $13,000 in cash from sympathizers. Her debt was gone.

In 2003, Bosnak wrote a book about her experience Save Karyn: One Shopaholics Journey to Debt and Back, and it is now available in more than ten languages. Her story has also been optioned for movie rights by Escape Artists. She has since donated the same amount of money she received from the original website to charity. I wonder if she gave any of that money away on Begslist or Cyberbeg?

With free access to the Internet from computer terminals in libraries and shelters, homeless and destitute people in crisis do post requests for critical needs. Begslist has hundreds of stories about people trying to escape abusive relationships, climb out of debt, pay their rent, feed their families and care for sick children. Other ask for warm clothes or toys for Christmas. The issues are serious, and the needs are real. However, the opportunity for fraud is just as real. Begslist offers the disclaimer, "Begslist cannot guarantee that any beggar is legitimate and make (sic) no claim that they are."

We know in our current economy that an overwhelming need exists. Whether or not we give cash to a guy in a parking lot, or to a faceless screen name is a personal decision. There are many ways to give, and just as many people who need help. If you're lucky enough to be on the giving end, the question deserves some thought.

And if you're looking to sponsor a figure skater, I know just the guy.
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