(NEXSTAR) — Last month, a young woman from Iowa was arrested on charges of theft after she was accused of fraudulently receiving more than $37,000 in donations for alleged cancer treatment — despite never having been diagnosed with cancer, according to investigators.
Madison Russo, 19, was pledged the money from approximately 440 donors via a fundraiser created on GoFundMe, a popular online crowdfunding platform, Nexstar’s WHBF reported. She also used social media to spread her story, and was even invited to participate in speaking engagements at St. Ambrose University in Iowa and the National Pancreatic Cancer Foundation in Chicago, police said.
GoFundMe has since refunded users who donated to Russo and has banned Russo from any future use of the platform.
In a statement, the company added that such instances of abuse are “rare” on the platform, despite the occasional scammer making national headlines for attempting to defraud GoFundMe donors over the last several years.
Prison sentences are not uncommon for those convicted of fraud, either. A man and a woman accused of scheming to defraud GoFundMe donors in 2017, for instance, were recently sentenced to years in jail (5 years and 3 years, respectively) after they crowdfunded over $400,000 based on a lie they cooked up with a homeless veteran, The Hill reported. Others have also faced jail time, or have been ordered to pay hefty fines or restitution.
GoFundMe, meanwhile, claims to have several processes in place to identify fraudulent fundraisers, including an option for fellow users or potential donors to report suspicious or fraudulent activity. The site also boasts of its “Giving Guarantee,” which guarantees a full refund to the donor when GoFundMe becomes aware that “something isn’t right.”
Undoubtedly, the repercussions for those convicted of defrauding donors are pretty clear — and appropriately harsh. But does GoFundMe have any preventative measures in place for vetting fundraisers before potential fraudsters can attempt to bilk donors out of their cash?
Yes. In a sense.
When creating a GoFundMe fundraiser, users are required to agree to the site’s terms of service which, among other things, specifically stipulates that GoFundMe’s services cannot be used for “fraudulent, misleading, inaccurate, dishonest or impossible” fundraisers. For these or other offensives, GoFundMe can ban users, terminate their accounts, stop or freeze payments, “and report you to law enforcement authorities or otherwise take appropriate legal action,” according to the company’s terms of service.
Depending on what kind of fundraiser is being created, GoFundMe also requires certain personal and banking information to verify the identity of its users. In cases where a fundraiser is being organized for a charitable organization, GoFundMe uses the charity’s information and provides donations directly to that organization, and not the entity that created the fundraiser.
Of course, these preliminary requirements haven’t been able to stop the most brazen scammers. If a user somehow provides false information or has intentions of defrauding users with a fake story, GoFundMe relies largely on reactionary and remedial measures.
One of its major tools to thwart fraud, according to the company, are other GoFundMe users themselves. If a potential donor or someone else from within the GoFundMe community has concerns about the legitimacy of a fundraiser or its intentions, they can choose to report it to the company’s Trust & Safety team (there’s a “report fundraiser” button at the bottom of every fundraiser’s page), who will investigate and determine the appropriate action, if any.
The same Trust & Safety team is also automatically flagged if a particular fundraiser is seeing a sudden, significant increase in activity, which could signal to the team that it needs further review, according to GoFundMe.
That said, the system isn’t perfect. In cases like Russo’s, where money is being crowdfunded to pay for (alleged) medical bills, GoFundMe couldn’t require any documentation of that person’s medical history or diagnosis, due to regulations outlined by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
In Russo’s case, her claims were brought to the attention of police in Iowa, who consulted with medical experts who found “many medical discrepancies” found in her social media posts, per a press release from the Eldridge Police Department.
Police then obtained subpoenas for her medical records, none of which mentioned a cancer diagnosis.
“GoFundMe has a zero tolerance policy for misuse of our platform and cooperates with law enforcement investigations of those accused of wrongdoing,” the company wrote, in part, in a statement released after Russo’s arrest.
A representative for the company declined to confirm whether GoFundMe could bear any legal responsibility for similar cases of attempted fraud, though the platform’s official terms of service appear to release the company of any liability related to the “conduct” of users or the accuracy of information they provide.
GoFundMe estimates, though, that less than one-tenth of 1% of its fundraisers are fraudulent.
That said, there’s plenty that donors can do to reduce the chances they’re giving to illegitimate causes — whether it’s via GoFundMe or any other platform. Sarah Webber, an associate professor of accounting at the University of Dayton, suggests using watchdog websites to research any charitable organizations that are receiving the funds. Potential donors can also look at their financial documents or simply Google the names of their executive officers.
If something doesn’t feel right about a smaller fundraiser, such as those created to cover someone’s medical or travel expenses, donors can always reach out and give directly to the recipients, she says — especially since most may know the recipients personally.
In any case, scammers shouldn’t give anyone the excuse to stop giving to charity altogether.
“While the overwhelming majority of charities are legitimate, looking into a charity before supporting it can help you avoid supporting scams and make better-informed decisions,” Webber wrote.