GoFundMe has refunded the money to some 14,000 people who were duped by a viral feel-good story that was all a lie. Prosecutors have accused a couple in New Jersey and a homeless man of working together to come up with the scam that ended up raising more than $400,000. “All donors who contributed to this GoFundMe campaign have been fully refunded. GoFundMe always fully protects donors, which is why we have a comprehensive refund policy in place,” GoFundMe spokesman Bobby Whithorne said. The company has taken pains to emphasize that these types of scams are the exception rather than rule, representing “less than one-tenth of 1 percent” of the campaigns on the site.
Prosecutors have charged Katelyn McClure and Mark D’Amico, both of Florence, New Jersey, with theft by deception and conspiracy to commit theft. The homeless veteran who was at the center of the scam, Johnny Bobbit Jr., was charged with the same crimes. According to the story that went viral, the couple claimed Bobbitt gave his last $20 to McClure when she ran out of gas. They claimed they launched the fundraiser to thank him. “The entire campaign was predicated on a lie,” Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina said.
Turns out the couple had actually met Bobbitt a month before they launched the fundraiser, at a local casino. They then concocted the story to raise the sympathy of the internet. After fees, they ended up receiving $367,000, which largely went to pay for luxurious vacations, handbags, a car, and gambling. Authorities first started to look into the issue when Bobbitt filed a lawsuit, claiming he never got his share of the money. It isn’t clear why Bobbitt would file a lawsuit but prosecutors say that was what gave authorities a hint that something was amiss. Although Bobbitt “deserves our appreciation for his willingness to serve our country in the U.S. Marines,” Coffina said, “it is imperative to keep in mind he was fully compliant” in the scam.
This is hardly the first time a GoFundMe fundraiser has been deemed a fraud, but it does seem to be the one that involved the most money. One woman, for example, faked a rare neurological disorder to raise more than $126,000 while a mother in Nevada faked her son’s terminal illness and raised $2,000. A watchdog website, GoFraudMe, has even been set up to keep track of fundraising campaigns on the site.