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Donating online? Here's how to make sure the campaign isn't fake
Published Wednesday, January 22, 2020 6:00AM PST Last Updated Wednesday, January 22, 2020 7:09PM PST
VANCOUVER -- Tragedies around the world -- Canadians killed in the Iranian plane crash, massive fires in Australia -- may have you wanting to do something to help. But if you plan to donate money, there are a few steps you need to take to make sure a fundraising campaign is legitimate.
CTV News Vancouver viewer Lynette Leach contacted McLaughlin On Your Side for help figuring that out.
"When you see the pictures of the animals on the news with the koalas with their bandaged paws, the baby kangaroos, the images of the kangaroos fleeing the fires, it's enough to make you weep," she says.
But when Leach searched online for somewhere to donate, there were too many options. Many of the charities that seemed to be involved she had never heard of, and she was hesitant to donate to an unverified crowdfunding campaign.
"I know there have been problems with GoFundMe accounts in the past, people who collect the money and then don't know exactly where they're going to send it to," Leach says. "There are lots of sites that come up on social media but how does one know which groups are legitimate, and which groups are going to do the most good instead of channelling it into administrative costs?"
There have been some high-profile cases of crowdfunding fraud, like the American couple who raised over $400,000 with the help of a homeless man using a fake story - and then spent it on luxury cars and trips.
Or the Pennsylvania mom who said she had colon cancer and crowdfunded over $10,000 from friends, family and the public. She was only caught when her husband publicly said she didn’t actually have cancer.
"Fraudsters need two tools - they need to be able to communicate with victims and they need to be able to receive victim money," says Jeff Thomson, a senior intelligence analyst with the RCMP who is assigned to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.
"When it comes to crowdfunding or crowdsourcing websites, it's really difficult to know."
A study by the Pew Research Center in 2016 found 20 per cent of those they surveyed had donated to a crowdfunding campaign, and half of them gave between $11 and $50. Sixty-three per cent said they had given money to help a friend or acquaintance - which Thomson says is a safer way to go.
And if you don’t know the person running the campaign, check to see if friends and family of the person the money is going to are commenting on the page. If they’re donating and leaving supportive comments, that’s a good sign the campaign is legitimate.
Thomson says it’s important to ask a lot of questions, and sites like GoFundMe allow you to contact the campaign organizer directly. He also suggests checking the facts - if the campaign has a lot of factual errors or is simply confusing, that’s a red flag.
GoFundMe in particular has a number of safeguards in place, though the company says very few campaigns turn out to be fraudulent. It also encourages potential donors to contact the organizer and ask questions, and if the campaign looks suspicious, to report it to GoFundMe investigators using the button on the page.
“If a campaign is flagged as fraudulent by a user, the funds cannot be withdrawn until the issue is resolved,” spokesperson Caitlin Stanley told On Your Side in an email. “In the rare case that GoFundMe, law enforcement or a user finds campaigns are misused, donors are fully protected and will get their money back.”
Checking charities is simple, at least in Canada. Charities have to register with the Canadian Revenue Agency, and the government has a searchable site of charity listings where you can find out if they’re registered or not.
In Australia, you can check on the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission website to see if the organization you’d like to donate to is legitimate. That only works for large organizations, not crowdfunding campaigns. In those cases, you have to use your own judgement.
"You can ask a lot of questions but at the end of the day, when you're making a donation through sites for a charity or disaster relief, you may not know where the money's going," Thomson says. “Do your due diligence, check to see if it’s a registered charity, ask a lot of questions, and if you suspect fraud, then report.”
He adds there were only 11 such cases reported to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre last year.