WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — From the shooting at Excel Industries to the Anderson Creek wildfire, we’ve seen Kansans at their finest, rallying to support those facing their darkest days. But there are a select few who see tragedy as opportunity and look to prey on the most vulnerable. It’s due, in part, to the user-friendly nature of hundreds of crowdfunding websites.
When used for the right reasons, they can be life-changing. For those who have been duped out of much-needed money, however, the end result can be devastating.
A FAMILY FOOLED
Take it from the family of Haysville’s Halley Mae Cooper. Just a few months ago, this vibrant 11-year-old endured the unthinkable while playing in a fort with her brother.
“Two other boys were smoking,” her mom, Wendi Bernstorf recalled. “She wanted out and one of the boys set her dress on fire on purpose.”
She would spend 18 days in the hospital with third-degree burns covering 17-percent of her body. Wendi hardly left her side. The family was overwhelmed emotionally and financially. A family friend offered to set up a GoFundMe account on their behalf and raised nearly $8,000, but then came another crushing blow.
“We had asked for money in December because we had bills coming in,” Bernstorf told us, “and they said it was all gone.”
The family got a number of different stories, but no good explanation. The Haysville Police Department is investigating the claims and has subpoenaed records from GoFundMe. To this date, no one has been charged.
“Every emotion you can think of went through me entire body. I was angry, I was devastated, I was betrayed,” Bernstorf said.
A KSN EXAMPLE
At KSN, we witnessed a similar story first-hand. Last year, Meteorologist Leon Smitherman was recovering from colon cancer when an online fundraiser emerged with pictures of him copied from the station’s website. We’ll never know the organizer’s true motivation, but he didn’t contact Leon or KSN to ask for permission.
“It infuriates me that someone took my image, my story and my battle with cancer and tried to monetize it,” Smitherman said.
We reached out to GoFundMe and the page was immediately taken down.
CROWDFUNDING AT ITS BEST
To be fair, the vast majority of these types of accounts are created with the best intentions. Travis Krehbiel’s family represents just one success story.
His sons, Jasper and Griffin, suffer from a rare autoimmune disease known by the acronym PANDAS. The symptoms mimic the effects of autism, Tourette’s syndrome or OCD, but because it is newly discovered, many insurance companies don’t pay for critical IV treatment. Krehbiel’s co-workers saw the opportunity to help.
“We couldn’t have afforded the treatments without help,” Krehbiel told us, “and, you know, we got help in a variety of different ways and the GoFundMe was a tremendous help.”
His sons are already showing signs of improvement just halfway through their treatment schedule. Krehbiel tells us people he hadn’t heard from in years saw their page and reached out. They collected about $4,000.
ATTORNEY GENERAL’S CONCERNS
In fact, GoFundMe has helped raise more than $1 billion in the last nine months alone. We called the company to ask what they do to protect users. Spokesman Dan Pfeifer told us they use a state-of-the-art fraud engine and less than one-tenth of one percent of their campaigns are red-flagged.
LINK | GoFundMe: Safety & Security
But as we’ve shown you, it’s impossible to catch every bad actor, and it’s become a growing concern for Attorney General Derek Schmidt.
Kansans have filed more than 120 scam-related complaints with his office in 2016 alone. The vast majority include the Internet, and some of those are tied to improper fundraising.
“That’s just straight up fraud,” Schmidt said. “It’s not their money. They misrepresented in order to get it, and we’re going to expect them to pay it off to the folks they collected for in the first place.”
Simply put: There is no way money raised through crowd funding websites will always end up in the right place. Schmidt instead offers an alternative.
“Figure out directly how to get assistance to them and then get it to them. Don’t go through a middle man, then you know with certainty the middle man is neither taking a cut, nor a crook or con artist pretending to be somebody helpful.”
HALLEY MAE AND FAMILY MOVING FORWARD
For now, Halley Mae’s family is taking on her expenses one bill at a time. They’re following her lead by staying positive and leaning on their faith, but they’re also offering a warning so you don’t have to deal with their kind of heartache.
“You better know the people or set it up yourself,” Bernstorf cautioned. “It may be a family member, but once people see dollar signs, it’s the root of all evil.”
If you think you’re a victim of online fraud, the Attorney General offers three simple steps:
- Stop digging if you’re in a hole and cut off donations immediately.
- Save any records that detail the solicitation you received and the amount of money you donated.
- File a complaint.