The country is still grappling with Wednesday's deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida that left 17 dead, and many of us are eager to do whatever we can to help those affected. One of the most significant ways we can assist is by providing some financial relief to the victims and their families, but we must be vigilant when we donate: not everyone has charitable intentions.
On Thursday morning, the Broward Sheriff's office tweeted a link to an official GoFundMe campaign stating: "there have been several fraudulent @gofundme accounts."
It's great to know there's an official fund (which as of this morning has raised over $640k) and that it's backed by a legitimate non-profit, the Broward Education Foundation (as indicated by its 501(c)3 status), but what about those fake funds? How does GoFundMe handle such situations and what should prospective donors look out for?
GoFundMe Is Monitoring The Platform For Scammers
Bobby Whithorne, director of North America Communications for GoFundMe told NBC News BETTER in an email that the company has "removed campaigns with no direct, personal connection to the victims or the families," and that it is "reviewing every campaign created related to the shooting in Florida and monitoring the platform for all campaigns set up to support individuals and families impacted." GoFundMe also "guarantees the money raised by those campaigns will be transferred to the right person," added Whithorne.
GoFundMe is on such high alert that it is even removing Parkland-related campaigns from organizers who may actually have honest intentions.
"The majority of these [removed] campaigns are well-meaning, but we feel it is best for those impacted and for donors that we direct these organizers toward campaigns verified by our team and officials," said Whithorne, adding that thus far, no fraudulent donations have been made in the name of the victims, and that the platform is "backed by the GoFundMe Guarantee, which means donors are protected by a refund policy."
There's some fine print to examine in the policy, which reads that it will reimburse scammed donors up to $1000 per campaign and give beneficiaries who've been slighted up to $25k of the funds established in their name.
But What About When GoFundMe Isn't Policing The Platform?
Given GoFundMe's increased vigilance, donors should feel pretty assured making donations to the fund set up for the victims of Wednesday's attack.
"This kind of vetting of each and every campaign takes a lot of resources and it's a huge win for the donor that GoFundMe is willing to do that," Michael Lai, consumer protection expert, CEO and founder of Sitejabber, an online review platform, says.
But such intensive screening doesn't seem to be the everyday, run-of-the-mill norm for the platform — if it were, GoFraudMe, a site that reports on and tracks crowdfunding fraud, wouldn't exist. The site's publisher, Adrienne Gonzalez says that though GoFraudMe is not at all affiliated with GoFundMe, it gets calls "all the time" from concerned consumers.
GoFraudMe Has Tracked Nearly 200 Fraudulent Campaigns In Three Years
"GoFundMe doesn't have a phone number [for the public]," says Gonzalez. "Just yesterday a woman called us because her husband set up a campaign for their son who has leukemia. Her problem was that even though it was a terrible time, the medical bills were mostly covered by their healthcare so they were doing okay; but he was still raising thousands of dollars through GoFundMe saying it was for their son's treatment. This woman had no idea how to get it taken down without going to the authorities, which she didn't want to do. I love the idea of GoFundMe, but I don't think they do enough to educate people."
Gonzalez stresses that she isn't involved with anybody at GoFundMe, and that the site has yet to personally respond to her calls or emails, but her work appears to have an impact. "Once I report on a fake campaign, it's usually quietly taken down within 10 minutes," says Gonzalez, adding that since the site was launched three years ago it has tracked close to 200 crowdfunding frauds and investigated "at least three times that."
GoFundMe's refund policy caps at $1k per donor per campaign, so don't go over that if you're not absolutely certain it's legit.
How To Mitigate Your Risk
The safest way to use GoFundMe is to donate to campaigns you can verify yourself by actually knowing the beneficiary or somebody who can vouch for them. But that sort of defeats the purpose of crowdfunding, right?
Here are other things you can do to mitigate your risks:
1. Research The Campaign Manager
"Short of actually knowing the campaign manager or a person who can vouch for them, the best thing to do is research them online," says Lai. "Check out their online profiles be it Facebook or LinkedIn just to verify that they're a real person with history — this actually goes a long way."
2. Talk To The Fund Organizer
If your research checks out, reach out to the campaign organizer before handing over any money. "Ask a lot of questions and if any red flags are raised or if something doesn't sound right, take those concerns seriously," says Lai. Certainly you'll want to report your suspicions to GoFundMe, the Florida Attorney General, as well as to GoFraudMe if you want to cover another base.
3. Do A Reverse Google Image Search
Moved by a rousing image of a rescue dog or a child in a hospital? Take measures to make sure the image is authentic. Reverse Google Search is one tool to use. If you're donating to a family in Oklahoma and the image pops up from a news story in Montreal, you'll know it's a ruse.
4. Use A Credit Card or PayPal and Cap Your Donations
If you're ready to make a donation, Lai stresses the importance of using a credit card or PayPal as they have their own protection policies in place. Also keep in mind GoFundMe's refund policy caps at $1k per donor per campaign, so don't go over that if you're not absolutely certain it's legit.
Be Of Service In Other Ways
For the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, your best bet is to stick with the GoFundMe that the officials have recommended (or another established charity), but remember that money isn't the only way to help. If you're near the site of the crime, donating blood is one valuable way to be of service. Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry has arrived in Florida to provide emotional support dogs to comfort victims and their families. You can help support their efforts via a secure donation form on their Web site. You can also reach out to your congressional representative to urge legislation to prevent mass shootings.