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Con Artists Exploit Mass Shootings with Charity Frauds and Scams

   Mar 07, 2023

In The New York Times 3/4/2023 article, “'It’s Disgusting': The Con Artists Who Exploit Mass Shootings,” CharityWatch Executive Director, Laurie Styron, said: “Some scammers are experts who make full-time jobs out of lying in wait for the next tragedy so they can strike again with fake profiles, stories and fund-raising campaigns.”


While registered public charities are subject to myriad annual public disclosure requirements, such as audited financial statements and tax filings for larger organizations, crowdfunding campaigns are more akin to giving money to a stranger on the street. Even if the campaign is legitimate, you have no way to track how your money was spent.


Scammers often exploit emotionally charged tragedies to line their own pockets, as was the case after the death of Cannon Hinnant, a five-year-old boy from North Carolina who died tragically after being shot in the head while riding his bike in his yard. A legitimate GoFundMe campaign was started by the boy's grandmother. It had an initial fundraising goal of $5,000 to cover the costs of the boy's funeral but raised more than $800,000, according to an August 2020 article in The Charlotte Observer. Sadly, dozens of fake campaigns were also started on the platform by people taking advantage of the family's highly publicized loss in the days following Hinnant's death, using the tragedy to raise money for themselves.


"'Opportunists swoop in on the coattails of legitimate tragedies to capitalize on emotionally charged moments at their most viral peaks,' Styron told The News & Observer...'They often disappear just as quickly before anyone has a chance to scrutinize their legitimacy or reasonableness.'" 


5 Tips for Avoiding Crowdfunding Scams

·      Consider donating to a charity, not an individual: Crowdfunding campaigns posted by individuals or families—even the legitimate ones—are often designed to provide direct assistance to one person or family that is experiencing a singular tragic event rather than to a nonprofit that is working to address the underlying societal issues that caused the tragedy. Particularly if the emergency needs of victims and their families have already been met, consider donating to a charity that is working towards more comprehensive solutions to problems.  


·      Spread the Wealth: Building on the previous tip, don’t make millionaires out of disaster victims. This can occur when the tragic story of one individual or family goes viral while those of other victims fly under the radar. For example, a windfall was directed to the family of George Floyd, whose death at the hands of police in Minneapolis in May 2020 catalyzed protests across the country by Black Lives Matter and other social justice activists. By the Juneteenth holiday the following month, donations to the official campaign on GoFundMe had topped $14 million. By donating to a charity that is focused on providing aid to all the victims of a tragedy rather than directly to one victim whose plight has gone viral, chances are better that help will be distributed equitably to all the people who need it. 

·      Skip the Middleman: Including layers of people in between your donation and the end recipient can reduce its impact. Processing and other fees may be deducted from your donation, or months of time may pass before your gift reaches its final destination. When you encounter a crowdfunding campaign that promises to do nothing more than eventually pass funds on to a charity, skip the middleman and donate directly to the nonprofit instead. 

·      Cross Check Information: Scammers often steal photos and stories from legitimate crowdfunders to confuse potential donors with copycat fundraising campaigns. Use a search engine to perform a reverse image search or to scan for duplicate text containing the same story. If you find more than one fundraiser containing the same text and images, be sure to identify the legitimate campaign before donating. If you suspect a scam, report it to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). 

·      Check For Scam Alerts: One popular crowdfunding site, GoFundMe, may assign a “crisis team” to monitor campaigns for high profile tragedies that are more likely to attract scammers, and to direct donors to legitimate campaigns verified to be linked with victims’ families. Check the social media accounts of crowdfunding websites to stay up-to-date on which campaigns are legitimate.