Monday 24 July 2017

'GoFundMe is set to crash and burn' - Meet the woman behind the watchdog website that's receiving tip-offs everyday

  • Set up GoFraudMe to highlight scam campaigns
  • Watchdog says GoFundMe is 'snowballing' - but needs more security measures
  • 'There is potential, but I think it's going to crash and burn'
  • 'A lot of campaigns have zero verification involved whatsoever'
Adrienne Gonzalez pictured at the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park
Adrienne Gonzalez pictured at the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park
Denise Calnan

Denise Calnan

The owner of a watchdog website has said popular fundraising platform GoFundMe is set to "crash and burn" as the lack of transparency on the website is "dangerous".

Adrienne Gonzalez, who set up GoFraudMe in 2015 to highlight fraudulent fundraising campaigns on the platform, said the possibility for scams is increasing with the website's growth.

GoFundMe has raised over $3bn (€2.7bn) in the last three years. A campaign is posted on the platform at an average of every 18 seconds.

Speaking to Independent.ie, Adrienne said the website is "really snowballing", but the company need to start investing in security measures for users.

"I think the concept is fantastic, that we’ve been able to centralise charity," Adrienne said.

"In the past, if you had a real need to donate you would go to a state agency, a government agency or church, but now we’re empowered to skip all that, and to bring that need to friends and family and the internet at large.

"There is potential there, I’m not going to deny that, but I think the way it is currently going it will crash and burn with a big lawsuit.

"GoFundMe hit the $2bn mark after five years, and then hit the $3bn mark after just another nine months. It’s really snowballing, but that means the possibility for fraud and scams is that much more increased," she continued.

"If GoFundMe could address that and make it safer, the potential is unlimited. It is a powerful tool and says a lot about people’s generosity. I think it’s fantastic, but I think it’s still dangerous.

"It’s missing that layer of security. When you give to a charity, the records should be kept and you can see where the money is going, but you don’t have that transparency that you have with charities and that is a bit dangerous."

Adrienne Gonzalez, from Richmond, Virginia, launched GoFraudMe on Facebook in 2015, and developed the concept into a website in April 2016.

The former accounting writer began her investigations after realising a campaign on the GoFundMe website was fraudulent.

A campaign was launched to raise money for medical fees for a 'zombie' cat in Florida. The feline hit headlines after climbing out of a shallow grave he had been buried in by his owner who believed he had been killed in a car accident.

Adrienne said she notified the website, claiming the page was fraudulent. She said her and a group of others presented evidence of the fraud, but GoFundMe refused to cancel the campaign.

"It was all about holding people accountable, our reports from so many people were blatantly ignored, somebody even did a petition, there was no shortage of evidence and it should have been taken down," Adrienne said.

"Initially it started as a go-between, a place to curate these cases that were popping out."

Tip-offs

Now Adrienne receives up to 50 tip-offs a week from users all over the world.

"People say they need help and they’ve seen this thing going on, but they don’t always provide you with the information.

"Unfortunately, I do get a lot of cases that I can’t investigate without the police getting involved.

"Ultimately, with a lot of them there needs to be a lawyer or police involved.

"A lot of it is talking people through the process and then advising them to report it to GoFundMe or the police."

Other times, Adrienne undertakes an investigation and then a mediation process with the fundraiser and the person involved.

"I check stolen pictures from Google, they’re no-brainers," she said.

"Some other ones, it starts with a complaint and I dig around on social media and then contact the person involved. A lot of those don’t get reported, I guess I just try to mediate and get people to come to a resolution.

"Ultimately, it’s not putting people on the blast, it’s about getting people justice and, if something is fraudulent, getting someone to hand the money over.

"With others, I can’t just call up the hospital and ask about medical conditions, so I do direct a lot of them to the police."

Adrienne believes that the website is growing so fast, the company needs to start investing in security measures before they enter any new markets.

"I do believe there is a lot of good being done and plenty of good news stories, but the problem is it’s like the 'Wild West'.

"GoFundMe say they deploy technology to protect campaigns and donors, but the work I’m doing proves otherwise.

"Instead of putting money into expanding into new markets and skewing out comments about how fraud is such a rare occurrence, they should be investing in anti-fraud technology. I feel they’re not addressing it and for now need to be held accountable.

"So they’ve got their marketing department, and they’ve got their muscle, I wanted to offer a counter perspective and be like, here are the bad things that are happening."

Adrienne is suggesting GoFundMe's first move should be to require a death certificate for funeral costs-raising.

"A lot of cases have zero verification involved whatsoever, especially the funeral ones.

"99pc of the fraud cases I see are for funeral costs. If GoFundMe required a death certificate so only someone listed as a beneficiary could claim the fundraising money, boom, that would solve it.

"I don’t think anyone should be able to create a campaign for any reason and then have access to the money."

She also suggested people should be including receipts and proof of bills on their campaigns.

"I don’t expect [GoFundMe] to require verification when people have cancer or for vet bills, but people should be doing that on their campaigns themselves," she said.

"Ultimately it comes down to, if you want to throw your money at something, I’m a libertarian, I’m not going to stop you, I believe you deserve to get ripped off.

"At this point, people are understanding more and more that there is potential for fraud on these websites, but I feel like donors aren’t quite empowered with the tools they need to look objectively at these campaigns."

A spokesperson for GoFundMe told Independent.ie that "misuse" makes up for "less than one tenth of one percent of all GoFundMe campaigns."

They continued; "We have a number of layers of protection: a team of experts across the world working round the clock to make sure donors, campaign organisers and beneficiaries are fully protected, bespoke technology monitoring for suspicious behaviour and over 25 million donors flagging content they are concerned about."

If donors are concerned, GoFraudMe advises people to "email the campaign organiser directly via the campaign page".

"If they have any concerns at all, they should get in touch with us - which you can also do via the campaign page - and let us know. We will then investigate swiftly," they said.

Headlines

GoFundMe hit headlines last week after a man shot and killed a 74-year-old man, and posted the video on Facebook.

Within a few hours, there were 35 GoFundMe accounts set up for the victim.

GoFundMe deleted all of the campaigns, except for one by an Arizona student who had raised a couple of thousand dollars in the first few hours.

His campaign page read; "I cannot imagine the pain his family is going through right now. I am just a kid from Arizona who unfortunately saw this video on Facebook and wanted to help.

"Take initiative. I'll post photos of me delivering the help. I know this won't bring their loved one back but it's the least we can do. I hope they find peace."

GoFundMe confirmed that the money raised would go to the family, but Adrienne said the decision to leave any of the campaigns online was questionable as the family had specifically requested no fundraising campaigns.

"It was a really unique case in that GoFundMe nuked 34 of them, yet one of them which was made by a student in Arizona had raised a couple of thousands dollars at that stage and they kept it up, even though the family said they didn’t want the money and they didn’t want any fundraising done," she said.

"GoFundMe said they would assure the family would get the money, but I was like, ‘They don’t want it, that’s the point’.

"This man had taken an image of their grandfather being killed and had raised $90,000 without the authorisation to do so.

"Why keep that campaign and not the other 34 ones? What was it about that one?

"GoFundMe say it’s legitimate and verified, so that means that news stations pick it up and it goes viral, even though the chief of police is saying there are no GoFundMe campaigns set up by the family. I had never seen GoFundMe behave that way. It spurred a lot of conversation."

Adrienne's investigations are regularly reported on in the U.S. media, but despite the acknowledgments in the media she said her job is nowhere near done.

"I was offered two reality shows over the summer, but I don’t want to commit the time. I want to spend as much time as possible investigating and helping people.

"The ultimate goal would be to not do this at all, to shutter the website and go back to writing about accounting, when I feel that GoFundMe has institutionalised the suggestions I made and becomes a safe platform," she added.

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