When Jessica Rodriguez, of Taylor, died of complications a few days after giving birth to her third child, it left her partner, Moses Perez, in more than one horrible situation. In addition to losing the mother of his children as the two were planning their wedding, he also has to pay her medical bills and funeral costs. 

It’s impossible not to feel empathy for someone like Perez, and a cottage industry has popped up to monetize the empathy that we feel for people in dire straits, and the way that we share their stories on the social Internet: Websites like GoFundMe.com and others allow users to create a campaign page that tells the story of the person who needs financial assistance, often as the result of a tragic situation, and enables them to easily solicit donations, in exchange for a 5% cut of the proceeds. 

In some ways for people like Perez, whose entire lives can be upended at the same time their financial situation becomes untenable, sites like GoFundMe, Crowdrise, YouCaring, and others function as a sort of for-profit social safety net, built on taking a percentage of the donations that people are moved to give to those who need help desperately. But the biggest flaw in that model may not be just the moral implications of building a business model that serves as a middleman between those in need and those who choose to give: it’s that those services add so little value to the transaction that they can’t even ensure the money goes where it’s intended. 

That’s something else that Perez and his family learned, after an account was set up on GoFundMe that claimed to raise money for the family. The page received over $4,500 in donations—but it wasn’t set up by Moses Perez, or even by anyone he knew. It was started by a woman named Fallon Mouton, the sister of one of Rodriguez’s co-workers. 

Perez told Austin’s KXAN investigative team that he “figured it was just a helping hand out there looking out for one another,” but after the money was raised, Mouton cleaned out the account and disappeared. 

Mouton had solicited the money from Rodriguez’s own friends, posting the link to her Facebook page. And, in an age of socially-networked charity, that was enough to make it look convincing. As KXAN’s Lindsay Bramson—who tracked Mouton to Louisiana as part of an investigation—reports: 

Within days, Mouton disappeared and so did the $4,600 dollars from donors like Chelsea Barcuch who was Jessica’s friend since grade school.

“Fallon had posted on Jessica’s page to donate here so I donated,” Chelsea told KXAN.

“You trusted this person?” Lindsay Bramson asked.

“I trusted it, because looking back, who would think someone would do something like that?” Chelsea said.

Shortly after the KXAN report, Mouton was arrested in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, on charges related to fraud. 

GoFundMe cooperated with the police investigation, according to KXAN, but they don’t have the money anymore, claiming that, “Unfortunately, the full balance of the campaign in question was withdrawn by the account holder before we received any complaints.” If you’re grieving and financially against the wall, in other words, the onus is on you to verify that the person you’re accepting help from is reliable. 

Mouton claims that GoFundMe still has the money, which doesn’t appear to be a remotely credible claim, but even assuming that the platform was manipulated by an alleged scam artist, it’s hard to feel good about their role in this operation. Taylor Police Chief Henry Fluck tells KXAN that this sort of thing is pretty easy to pull off: “They can open an account, keep it active for a week or so, shut it down, and then move on to find some other victim,” and the loose guidelines and quality assurance of a site like GoFundMe makes them an obvious platform for scammers, who pay their 5% fee to the company just like a legitimate campaigner does. 

Questions like this have dogged GoFundMe for some time. The International Business Times asked the company about safeguards over a year ago, and the answers weren’t exactly reassuring: 

International Business Times reached out to GoFundMe to ask what types of safeguards are in place to ensure that campaigns are authentic. The short answer is not many, but in that respect GoFundMe is not fundamentally different than larger crowd-funding platforms such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter, neither of which guarantees the authenticity of their campaigns. Doing so would simply not be feasible.

As such, it’s the user’s responsibility to be discerning when deciding which campaigns are worthy of their hard-earned cash. That’s true of all crowd-funding platforms. But where GoFundMe differs is in how it advises those users. In an email to IBTimes, Morgan Wood of GoFundMe “customer happiness” repeated its curiously parental policy of urging its users not to donate to strangers.  

“[W]e must insist that visitors follow the advice stated on each and every campaign,” Wood said. “Only donate to people you personally know and trust.”

Here, GoFundMe is at odds not only with Kickstarter and Indiegogo but also with the very tenets of crowd-funding itself. After all, isn’t the whole purpose to solicit the crowd, to maximize your fundraising efforts by expanding beyond your immediate circle? Neither Wood nor Brad Damphousse, GoFundMe’s chief executive, responded to repeated requests for clarification.

“Only donating to people you personally know and trust” is solid advice, but it’s also unlikely to make for a successful business model. GoFundMe touts its success stories on the website—but the nearly $1.8 million raised for the family of 5-year-old Eliza O’Neill was probably not simply the generosity of the family’s 33,299 close personal friends; the $809,000 raised for Boston Bombing victim Jeff Bauman from 16,491 donors obviously extends beyond merely people who “personally know and trust” him. 

Helping a five-year-old with a severe childhood disease, or the victims of a national tragedy, are obviously valuable and noble goals (and profitable, if you take a 5% cut), but they also fly in the face of the policy that the company “insists that visitors follow.” 

When GoFundMe does learn that a campaign is fraudulent, if the friends and family of those who are involved reach out to the company before the account is drained, they’ve got a track record of shutting down the scam and refunding the money. This happened earlier in the summer with a campaign in Oregon, around a teenager who died in a car accident. There’s a seven day wait period before the funds are transferred, which makes this sort of scam tougher to pull off—but there’s still a cat-and-mouse element to it that can ensnare families like that of Moses Perez and Jessica Rodriguez. 

All of which is to say that the crowdfunding-as-social-safety-net model that currently exists—and which makes many of us feel good when we contribute to it—has some serious problems. 

Meanwhile, Perez may never see the money raised in his partner’s name—but at least her grave won’t go unmarked. KXAN reports that Stasswender/Dietz Memorials teamed up with ABC Commercial Services to provide one to the family free of charge. No website, startup, or 5% fee required for that generosity. 

(image via Flickr)