Fake Online Story Raises Thousands

Donating through online fundraisers is easier than ever and can make a big difference to people in need, but how do you know where the money is really going?

Every day is a gift for the Noakes family. Four years ago, Melanie and her husband, Eric, weren't sure they would get the chance to watch their daughter, Lily, come home from kindergarten. "Her prognosis was five years, which right now we're at four-and-a-half,” Melanie told the News4 I-Team.

Lily has an incurable form of brain cancer. The struggles for the family have not just been emotional. "Honestly, we couldn't do it. We had to move back in with my parents. We lost our house. We had to file for bankruptcy," said Melanie.

So the family finally reached out for help to the Stillbrave Childhood Cancer Foundation, a nonprofit which raises money and awareness about childhood cancer. Tom Mitchell started Stillbrave after losing his own daughter to cancer. He helps anywhere from 10 to 15 families at a time. “We provide, for families that need them, gas cards, grocery cards. We do home repair," said Mitchell. But he also said every day he sees people asking for help, sometimes with darker motives. "Just because there's a cute picture of a child and it says they have illness doesn't make it true," said Mitchell.

Kena Hodges knows that better than anyone. Her son Kristian had a profile on a different fundraising website, GiveForward, describing his terminal heart condition and asking for money to go toward surgery.

The only problem is it was not true. “Immediately, I saw red. I was angry. I was very angry," said Hodges. "My son is fine, and he doesn't have this heart condition and he's perfectly healthy. He's in school as we speak."

The profile posted by Kristian's estranged father, Kimani Johnson, raised more than $11,000. "By the time I saw this he had already cashed out and been paid by GiveForward two weeks prior," Hodges said.

A spokesperson for GiveFoward said the company is not to blame for the fake profile, telling the News4 I-Team:

"Mr. Johnson deceived us, just as he deceived his own family and friends. As soon as we found out the truth, we took immediate action to refund the donors' money and make things right."

The I-Team tried to speak with Johnson, but he wasn't home and didn't respond to emails.

“I think they're both responsible,” Hodges said. “I think GiveForward has a responsibility to its donors."

Now a federal judge could decide. In court records reviewed by the News4 I-Team, GiveForward said it's immune under the Communications Decency Act and that it didn't "provide, create or select any content for the ... fundraiser."

The company said it's not responsible for what third parties post and "does not have an obligation, or resources, to research each user.”

But Kena Hodges’ attorney, Anne McKenna, argues GiveForward should take some blame since it provides coaching and makes money by keeping 7.9 percent of all money raised. “What's that 7 percent going to if not to protect all of these good citizens out there who are donating to help people in need," said McKenna.

GiveForward said staff members do spot check for suspicious postings, especially after major tragedies like hurricanes, and allows donors to flag problems. The website said all the money raised by Kristian's profile was returned, including its fee.

Tom Mitchell, with Stillbrave, says no matter what group or site you're donating to, do your own homework and research. Find out if profiles are vetted and ask who specifically will be getting the money.

Tips for Donors From Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection:

Some additional advice:

  • Consumer Reports
  • Verify tax-exempt status. Don't assume that your donations are tax deductible. Confirm a group's tax-exempt status by going to irs.gov and searching for "exempt organizations select check."
  • Give directly. If you're contacted by a professional fundraiser for a charity you want to support, give directly instead. Fundraisers often take a percentage of the proceeds.
  • Request privacy. If you don't want to be bothered by endless fundraising appeals, tell groups you support that you don't want your name and contact information to be sold to other nonprofits. You can also ask the groups not to send you further appeal letters or e-mail. Check the charity's privacy policy before giving.
  • Be on guard for sound-alikes. Some low-rated charities have names that resemble those of high-rated ones.
  • Be sure you're giving to the right group by carefully checking the name and address.
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