Is Everything on the Internet a Scam Now?

Two of the three scammers who were arrested following a fraudulent GoFundMe campaign. Photo: GoFundMe

The internet: where you can meet new people, make new friends, learn new skills, and help new people! And also, get fleeced. The saga of a couple from New Jersey who raised over $400,000 to help a homeless man and then reportedly withheld the money from him has reached its bitter end, and it turns out everybody involved is a scammer. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning so you can fully enjoy the drama. Because there is a whole lot of it.

Back in 2017, Kate McClure and her boyfriend Mark D’Amico told a heartwarming story about a homeless man, Johnny Bobbitt, offering her his last $20 when she ran out of gas one night. Nice, right? Right. That’s what everybody thought when they read it on a GoFundMe campaign the couple started, promising to use the money to help Bobbitt secure housing and set up a trust in his name. Cue $402,000 in donations from people moved by Bobbitt’s kindness.

But then, in September, Bobbitt got a lawyer and started claiming he’d never received the money the couple raised. He did get some of it, about $75,000, which included a camper and a 1999 Ford Ranger. (Neither were registered in his name and Bobbitt lived in the camper on the couple’s property until they kicked him off in June.) Bobbitt said the pair spent the rest of the money on vacations and a new BMW. At this point, the cops raided the couple’s house and they, via their lawyer, said that the money was gone. GoFundMe donated $20,000 to Bobbitt to help cover legal expenses.

But what Bobbitt didn’t mention, and what the trio might have gotten away with if he’d never complained, was that the whole thing was a setup from the start. The fated $20 encounter never happened at all. The three met, according to new reports, on a freeway ramp in Philadelphia near a casino McClure and D’Amico frequented. Which was where they, collectively, formulated the plan to stage the gas-money run-in and raise donations in Bobbitt’s name, NBC reports. On Thursday, all three were charged with second-degree theft by deception and conspiracy to commit theft — crimes for which they were investigated only after Bobbitt lawyered up in September.

While McClure, D’Amico, and Bobbitt face consequences, GoFundMe is left holding the bag. The platform said it will be repaying everybody who donated to the original campaign, and said fraudulent campaigns “make up less than one tenth of one percent of all campaigns.” Which, okay, sure.

But that fraction, and the headlines that come with fraudulent campaigns, should be enough to make you wary of donating. There’s the woman in Nevada who faked her son’s death to raise money. The New York couple who pretended their child had cancer. The New Jersey man who raised $14,000 for “emergency surgery” for his puppy who was later arrested for animal cruelty. The internet, if you zoom out, is so good at connecting people — of getting information in front of people who would have never otherwise heard about that “sick” puppy or that kid with “cancer.” That part works great. The part that doesn’t work so great is that there isn’t always a mechanism for checking that information is valid. (Ahem, 2016 election Facebook fiasco!) Meaning platforms like GoFundMe have to be on the defensive from the get-go to ward of intentionally bad actors. And that — again, ahem, Facebook — gets tricky.

GoFundMe is probably right when they remind people that the vast majority of campaigns aren’t like this. But there’s also a whole cottage industry out there where people hunt down bogus crowdfunding campaigns, which might indicate the problem is more significant than GoFundMe would like to admit. Mostly because that’s bad for future donations. Which is bad for GoFundMe’s business.

GoFundMe Scam Saga Ends in Three Arrests