GoFundMe is a platform that allows people to share their stories and for communities to rally around them with financial donations. It is a wonderful platform that has helped many. However, it is also a place where people can fabricate lies and fraudulently collect donations. Here is a list of people who have been accused of GoFundMe scams and fraud that range from faking an illness to faking a child’s death!
As a reminder, I have an MBA, I am a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), and have almost 15 years working in finance and accounting. These are my opinions based on researched facts and my understanding of those facts. However, this is not legal, financial, or tax advice. If you need legal, financial, or tax advice, you should reach out to a professional for a 1:1 chat! All opinions are my own.
I talk a lot about avoiding scams when earning money, but as someone who likes to give back, I think it is equally important we talk about avoiding scams when donating money.
Below is a list of people who have been arrested for committing fraud on GoFundMe.
Jessica Anne Smith – Fake Cancer Fundraiser
Jessica Smith created a GoFundMe and a Facebook fundraiser raising funds after receiving a cancer diagnosis. Smith raised approximately $12,000. The problem was – she faked the diagnosis. According to 6abc.com, she pled guilty to this and was ordered to pay back the money and received three years of probation.
Martin and Jolene LaFrance – Faked Son’s Cancer Diagnosis
Martin and Jolene LaFrance also received probation and also lied about a cancer diagnosis. They lied about their child having cancer. They were both arrested for scheme to defraud and child endangerment. This was due to the fact they set up a GoFundMe that collected about $3,000. According to Spectrum news, the child endangerment charge was based on them allegedly leading the child to believe they had cancer, when they had never received a cancer diagnosis. Ultimately the couple received five years of probation.
Katelyn McClure, Mark D’Amico and Johnny Bobbit – Fake Good Samaritan Story
Katelyn McClure and Mark D’Amico were a couple who fabricated a story that went viral. They created a story about a homeless veteran named Johnny Bobbit Jr, who was also part of the scheme. They created a story that Katelyn ran out of gas, and the homeless veteran Johnny Bobbit gave her his last $20 out of the kindness of his heart to help her go on their way. This story went viral on social media resulting in donations totaling almost $400,000. According to NBC news the couple was struggling financially, which was part of the motivation to create this scam. However, Bobbit only received $75,000 and sued Katelyn and Mark, which is when an investigation took place. The majority of the money was spent on vacations, clothes and Mark’s gambling addiction.
For their roles in the scam, McClure received 3 years in prison, D’Amico received 5 years in state prison and Bobbit received 5 years’ probation. All three also are required to help pay back the stolen money.
Madison “Maddie” Russo – Fake Cancer Story
Maddie Russo was arrested and charged with scamming $37,000 by lying on TikTok and Facebook about having pancreatic cancer. According to KWQC as part of the investigation into Russo’s cancer scam, they seized medical equipment, bank receipts, wigs and more. Eventually, medical professionals came forward to report the inaccuracies presented in the placement of the medical equipment on her body. Through the investigation, it was discovered some of the photos she was sharing on social media were taken from other cancer patients’ social media pages. As of February 28, 2023, she had pled not guilty, and the trial is set to take place in May 2023.
Victoria Morrison – Faked Son’s Terminal Cancer & Death
This is another case of a parent allegedly claiming their healthy child has cancer. In this case, she is accused of claiming her 10-year-old son had terminal leukemia. She took it one step further and even faked his death and held a fictitious memorial service. She raised $2,000 through GoFundMe, but her and her son also were gifted shopping sprees, helicopter rides, gift cards and more, according to the criminal complaint. According to kolotv.com, Morrison pled guilty to child neglect or endangerment causing substantial mental harm and received 5 to 12.5 years in prison.
Brandy Holder – Took Advantage of a Tragic Death for Personal Gain
Brandy Holder was a friend of Barry Sutton. Tragically, Sutton died along with three other people when a car bomb exploded in Afghanistan where he was working as a civilian contractor. He was a Marine Corp veteran. After his tragic death, Holder created a fundraiser to benefit the three daughter’s Sutton left behind to take a hunting trip. She ultimately raised a little under $5,000, but the Sutton family received about $400 according to the DailyMail. Holder was sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty to felony theft by conversion.
J.G. Spooner – Stolen Money from Sick Friend
Spooner was a popular radio personality in the Cleveland area. He reached out to Allyson Thadeus-Zappe, someone he had known since elementary school who suffered from cystic fibrosis. Spooner convinced her and her family to let him use his influence as a popular DJ to help spread the word about her fundraiser. He took over the fundraiser, changing the passwords, and then started stealing all the money earned by the fundraiser by depositing it into his own accounts.
According to Cleveland.com, Allyson’s sister said that in her final weeks of life, she was worrying about the money that was stolen that was supposed to be donated as part of her legacy instead of enjoying her final moments with friends and family. Absolutely gut-wrenching story. Spooner was sentenced to 30 months in jail for this, as well as another scam where he stole more than $8,500 from at least six other people who responded to Craigslist ads for a property rental. Spooner collected the money even though he didn’t own or have authority to lease the property in question.
Cynthia Smith – Faked Personal Illness
Over the course of three years Smith ran an online fundraiser through GoFundMe which appeared to have raised over $100,000. However, through the investigation, they believe those numbers were inflated and Smith’s Lawyer told the Post that less than $50,000 was raised. She claimed she was suffering from a rare neurological disorder – Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP). According to BramptonGuardian.com, Smith received two years of probation after pleading guilty.
Reid Herjo – Raising Money for Dog He Abused
Reid Herjo allegedly abused his young dog on a number of occasions according to CBS news. The 14-week-old German Shepherd was injured so badly it needed to go to the veterinary hospital. There, he told the doctors that the dog was hit by an ATV. However, the injuries were not consistent with being hit by an ATV. An investigation was opened and while the investigation was ongoing, the puppy subsequently died. Herjo created the GoFundMe under the false premise that the dog was injured by the ATV and raised over $14,000. Herjo was charged with third degree animal cruelty and third-degree Theft by deception according to the Medford Township Police Department Facebook page. However, I was unable to find an update anywhere on what his actual punishment was.
Best Practices to Avoid GoFundMe Scams
A lot of the examples above involve emotional manipulation. It is very easy to see something on TikTok during a late-night scroll session and be compelled to help. I would do that with caution. If at all possible, you should:
If it’s due to someone dying in a tragic accident, a house fire, etc. look for news coverage of the incident.
Only donate money you can afford to.
Do not let emotions get away with you. Anytime you donate money to a person or organization that is not a valid charity, you take the risk it could be a fraud. Whether it is a verified charity or not, you should only donate money that you can afford to. It is money you should have set aside or allocated in your budget to donate. You should not donate money that you need for your own basic needs.
Donate to Legitimate 501 (c)(3) Organizations
This is because they will be regulated and subject to file tax returns once they reach $50,000 of gross receipts. If you can donate to a charity instead of through a GoFundMe, there are more controls in place that the money is being spent as intended. However, just like anything else, even charities can be fraudulent. Do as much research as you can, especially before donating a large sum of money.
Wrap Up – GoFundMe Scams
Have another GoFundMe scam that should be on this list? Other thoughts on avoiding GoFundMe scams? I’d love to hear about it.
I’d love to hear from you if you have questions, comments, or differing opinions. Find me on Instagram, Facebook, or email me by going to my contact page. Or sign up for my newsletter to get monthly updates MLMs, fraud, and scams.
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