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How to Tell When a Crowdfunding Scam Is Bullshit

You shouldn’t have to become a criminal detective to know your $20 is going to the right place

News that a couple of Philadelphia do-gooders were actually scammin’ up a storm when they crowdfunded money for a homeless guy is exactly the sort of story that gives any decent person pause before an act of generosity.

But back when it was a heartwarming viral gem (like, just last week), the story went like this.

A homeless veteran named Johnny Bobbitt coughed up his last $20 to fetch gas for stranded motorist Kate McClure while she hung out alone and scared on an I-95 off-ramp. Then she promised him money to get back on his feet.

McClure and her husband handled the campaign, asking for just $10,000. But that soon became $400,000 after mainstream media picked up the story and spread the news of Bobbitt’s alleged selfless act far and wide. Then — twist No. 1 — once the money rolled in, their promise of generosity dulled. Though they bought Bobbitt a laptop, some clothes and a used SUV, they treated themselves like kings, buying themselves a BMW and a camper and going on multiple vacations, including a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon. The case of the missing jackpot is now being hashed out with lawyers, but Bobbitt was still homeless.

Twist No. 2: Bobbitt was in on it the whole time.

This true story may be an extreme example, but it’s the reason we might hesitate when we respond to another story of a crowdfunding request, even when the campaigns are treated as legitimate by the media, as this one was. People have faked a kid with cancer whose parents needed help with exorbitant medical bills. People faked a scuba mask that filters oxygen out of seaweed, among other “scampaigns.”

So how do you know if it’s the real deal or not? You shouldn’t have to become a criminal detective to know if your $20 is going to the right place.

First off, accept that it’s a faith-based leap to hand over money to anyone on the internet, and many crowdfunded ideas or campaigns fail to launch not because they weren’t sincere, but because the person got in over their head or didn’t really know what they were doing.

That’s not a scam, it’s a flop. That was the case when the Katy Perry Left Shark dancer decided to hawk shark suits off the viral success of his awkward moves. It was too successful, and he soon raised nearly $100,000 without being able to keep up with demand.

Still, the scams abound. Here’s a few tips to spot them before you’ve hit send on Paypal:

Check if the funding site offers any scam refund guarantee, as GoFundMe does. That sounds nicer than it is, though. The funders have to be charged with a crime for you to get your money back.

Check the Facebook page associated with the crowdfunder. Consumer Reports says one sign of scamming is that the friends don’t seem real, but more like “filler” friends to make the page seem legit. You’d be able to tell based on whether it had actual, organic activity on the main feed in terms of comments and activity, and a reasonable timeline.

Look for stock imagery rather than legit photos, and suspiciously few details about what’s involved. Check the site Go Fraud Me for updates on the campaign in question.

Search to see if the person is crowdfunding the same project on multiple sites. If you can identify any sort of business background, Google the person and see if they have any existing identity or a positive reputation in the industry they claim to work in.

Be skeptical about the promises. For product-style crowdfunding, look at the fine print and consider whether they seem transparent about the details. In the case of the miracle scuba mask, several outlets noticed that the company wouldn’t back any of their own scientific claims, even with journalists covering the product. There should also be clear details on how the money will be spent.

Look for transparency. Delays happen, but so long as the creators tell you and are up front about details that manage your expectations, it’s not necessarily a scam.

Read the comments. While elsewhere on the web, reading comments is ill-advised for your health, browsing what others are saying about the campaign and how it’s moving along will give you a decent temperature read on whether the creators are responsive, along with the sorts of questions or issues other backers have. Going silent is among the biggest red flags on tech sites for campaigns gone awry.

Browse the Reddit thread Shitty Kickstarters, where investment-minded types pore over precisely the kinds of scammy campaigns you should avoid.

Finally, don’t make emotional donations all because you saw a photo of a sick kid and were feeling moved and generous. Though it seems like a bewilderingly psychotic con, people fake a helluva lot of cancer in this crazy world, and while the impulse to help is always to be applauded, even the fundraising site’s top brass caution people to donate only to causes they have a connection to.

“We encourage people to donate to campaigns of users they personally know and trust, or are connected to within one or two steps,” Dan Pfeiffer, VP of communications at GoFundMe, told “When you’re considering a campaign, look to see if you personally know the campaign organizer, the beneficiary or any of the individuals who have already donated to it.”

Better yet, hand your $20 straight to a homeless vet yourself.