GoFundMe has helped raise $5 billion for everything from disaster relief to medical expenses to tuition for college students in need since it launched in 2010.
But public trust in the crowdfunding web platform was shaken recently when a New Jersey couple who said they were using GoFundMe to help a homeless veteran were accused in 2018 of spending most of the $400,000 in donations on cars and vacations.
In an exclusive interview, GoFundMe Chairman and CEO Rob Solomon told NBC News that such a scheme wouldn't work today because of safeguards the company has in place.
"We wouldn't let the money leave the building," Solomon said, "until we could figure out how to get the flow of funds to the beneficiary."
At GoFundMe, the search for fraud is an around-the-clock operation for what it calls its "Trust and Safety Team."
"Some of them come from military, some of them come from law enforcement," Solomon said. "We even have a philosopher."
One of the biggest problems that GoFundMe faces, according to Solomon, is copycats. Fraudsters try to capitalize on the public's desire to help people in need by creating imitations of legitimate crowdfunding campaigns, sometimes copying their pitches word for word.
Solomon said GoFundMe has tools that allow it to compare images and texts across different campaigns and shut down the fakes before they are shared or harvest any donations.
A member of GoFundMe's Trust and Safety Team showed NBC News a copycat campaign that popped up after the March 15 mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand.
"What's important to note about this copycat campaign [is that] it never got a single donation. It never got shared," the employee said.
'People are good'
Solomon said that because of its size and reach, GoFundMe has to have "the most trusted brand in the space."
GoFundMe, a for-profit firm, has always had a pledge on its website that says funds will be returned to donors if the donations are misdirected: "[T]he GoFundMe Guarantee (the "Guarantee" or "Policy") ensures that donations are protected if campaign funds are not delivered to the intended beneficiary or donors are misled by a campaign organizer or beneficiary."
In the New Jersey scam, Kate McClure and the homeless veteran she was "helping," Johnny Bobbitt Jr., have now pleaded guilty to federal charges. McClure pleaded to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud while Bobbitt pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.
McClure had said Bobbitt helped her with his last $20 when she ran out of gas on the highway, and asked the public to repay Bobbitt for his kindness with donations, but prosecutors say the campaign was "completely made up" from the start. McClure's then-boyfriend, Mark D'Amico, has not been federally charged, says his lawyer, but McClure and D'Amico still face state charges of theft and conspiracy.
"My client is very innocent and will maintain that innocence he is entitled to until the trial," Mark Davis, attorney for D'Amico, said. "The evidence in this case has always been about Kate McClure and Johnny Bobbitt."
GoFundMe has refunded the $402,000 in donations, as promised in its guarantee.
But Solomon conceded that it is not possible to find all the fraud.
"There's some bad actors out there. Misuse on the platform is very, very, very rare. Less than 1/10th of 1 percent of campaigns result in any type of misuse," he said.
While it guarantees refunds when fraud is detected, GoFundMe also has language in its terms and conditions that acknowledges it can't certify that what fundraisers are saying is true. Donors are, in the end, taking a chance.
Solomon said donors should still feel confident in using the platform because "at its core essence, people are good."
"We've had more than 50 million people donate. And any type of misuse that you'll see will be reported by this community."
"People want to help each other out," he said. "It's biblical in nature ... It's innate to our souls."
How to spot fraud
GoFundMe suggests that potential donors check fundraising campaigns to see if they meet some basic criteria.
- How is the campaign organizer related to the intended recipient of the donations?
- What is the purpose of the campaign and how will the funds be used?
- Are direct family and friends making donations and leaving supportive comments?
- Is the intended recipient in control of the withdrawals? If not, is there a clear path for the funds to reach them?