GREENFIELD — Four days after Dalton Rowe’s Greenfield home was destroyed in a fire, he took to the popular website, GoFundMe, to ask for donations to help him replace his belongings.
“House fire lost everything,” the headline proclaimed, its bright red letters positioned above a photograph of the charred, blackened remains of the home. There were no other details, no information about the fire or specifics about what he’d planned to use the money for.
And nothing that indicated it was Rowe who set that blaze.
A week later — on the same afternoon a friend of Rowe’s told investigators he knew Rowe lit the home on fire — Rowe posted the fundraiser’s only update, thanking the two people who had, together, donated $35 to his cause.
The fundraiser for a man who would later be convicted of arson raised questions about how online crowdfunding websites protect donors from what some have taken to calling “scampaigns” — fraudulent online fundraisers created to cheat Good Samaritans out of their money.
And as October marks National Cyber Security Awareness Month, local law enforcement and other experts are offering tips for how to keep donated dollars safe ahead of the season of giving. The biggest safeguard? Don’t donate to someone you don’t know, police said.
GoFundMe, one the leading crowd-funding websites, reports that fraudulent accounts are estimated to make up less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all its fundraiser campaigns. The website’s creators say they have put safeguards in place to keep its users are transparent as possible, but they admit some accounts intended to take advantage of others’ generosity pop up on the site occasionally.
When that happens, GoFundMe acts as quickly as possible to protect donors, said spokesman Bartlett Jackson.
But that often depends on sharp-eyed observers to tip them off to a possible scam by flagging the campaign as suspicious.
After Rowe was arrested and charge with arson — a crime for which he will spend four years in prison — members of GoFundMe’s online community reported his fundraiser as suspicious. The campaign was removed from the site, and the two donors were refunded their money before Rowe could withdraw it, Bartlett said.
Rowe’s fundraiser violated the websites terms and conditions, Bartlett said; terms that simply state no one is “permitted to lie or intentionally deceive donors … for financial or personal gain,” the website states.
GoFundMe relies on its users to notify the company of fraudulent accounts, Bartlett said.
“We have a community of 25 million users — when they see something they think might not be right, they tell us, and our team looks into it,” he said.
From there, the creators use fraud-detection tools similar to those utilized by banks, credit card companies and others in the financial services industry to prevent misuse. They also have a team of investigators that works around the clock to monitor suspicious behavior and verify the identity of suspicious campaign organizers, Bartlett said.
When a complaint is made, the company’s standard is to respond within no more than five minutes, he added.
If a campaign is flagged as fraudulent by a user, the funds cannot be withdrawn until the issue is resolved, he said.
But if the account isn’t flagged in time, the money can be withdrawn; and those dollars could be lost by the donor, Greenfield Police Lt. Randy Ratliff said.
Like all cyber crimes, online fundraiser fraud is difficult for police to investigate; the crime is under-reported, and when it is, tracking down a perpetrator is almost impossible, said Ratliff, who estimates the department gets 10 reports of internet-related crime a month.
If a suspect is local, the case is easier for law enforcement to track; in 2014, a Monrovia couple was charged with theft and corrupt business influence after investigators accused them of putting up a fraudulent GoFundMe account to raise money for the family of a man killed in a motorcycle accident.
In Rowe’s case, police were never notified, Ratliff said; had they received a report, they might have been able to investigate the scam in pursuit of fraud charges, he said. Far more often, the scammer lives outside of the United States. Investigators can sometimes lean on national law enforcement agencies, but usually only if a large amount of money taken.
“But most of the time, the money is just gone,” Ratliff said. “For local police, there is almost nothing we can do.”
While GoFundMe says online scams on its website are rare, there is currently no public means of tracking illegal activity on the site.
Virginia resident Adrienne Gonzalez created a website called GoFraudMe, which uses media reports and court records to track the locations of suspicious campaigns and the topics or stories their creators crafted.
Through her research, Gonzalez has pinpointed a handful of themes that appear to be popular with those who create fake accounts. These include medical issues, personal emergencies, like unemployment or impending homelessness, veterinary bills and funeral expenses. Typically, the stories behind the fraudulent campaign seem overwhelming, sometimes with unbelievable detail or, like Rowe’s site, no detail at all, she said.
Gonzalez hopes the fraud tracker will become a database where potential donors can gain insight on common themes used by scammers.
“I want to give people a clearer picture of what to wary of,” she said.
Ratliff and Gonzales say donating to people or causes you know personally or trust is the only way to ensure your money is headed to the right person or organization. Both recommend researching the story behind the campaign before donating. If it appears suspicious, it probably is, they said.
“A lot of people just don’t think twice before they donate,” Gonzalez said. “GoFundMe needs a watchdog.”
“…Most of the time, the money is just gone. For local police, there is almost nothing we can do.”
— Lt. Randy Ratliff, head of the Greenfield Police Department’s investigations unit, on the difficulty of prosecuting cyber crimes.