As an avid feline lover involved in cat rescue, Adrienne Gonzalez was drawn to news headlines about a so-called “zombie cat” found wandering a Tampa neighborhood days after being hit by a car and buried in a grave.
Gonzalez discovered someone was trying to raise money for the injured cat on the popular crowdfunding website GoFundMe.
“She put up a GoFundMe (campaign) for his medical expenses, except the Tampa Bay Humane Society was covering the bill,” said Gonzalez, who concluded the fundraiser was a fraud. “She raised about $6,000 and never paid a dime toward (the cat’s) medical expenses.”
Gonzalez later set up a watchdog website called GoFraudMe, which highlights other questionable and fraudulent fundraising campaigns.
In many cases, she believes her website articles have prompted the operators of GoFundMe to take action.
“If I put up a story, a campaign usually disappears within half an hour,” said Gonzalez.
Shortly after the June 2016 mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, more than 430 GoFundMe campaigns were posted, according to The Associated Press.
Some campaigns, like one benefiting the 11 surviving children of nightclub patron Brenda McCool, were legitimate-- but others either could not be verified or were deemed fraudulent.
Other questionable fundraisers were posted last year after severe flooding struck Louisiana and fires destroyed parts of eastern Tennessee.
“These campaigns that pop up within hours of a news story going up, I'd be very careful donating to those,” said Gonzalez.
“Those types of stories are bait for the scammers.”
Shortly after Orlando police Lt. Debra Clayton was gunned down while trying to stop a murder suspect, a GoFundMe campaign authorized by the officer’s husband was established.
That fundraiser, which was promoted by the Orlando Police Department, has raised more than $65,000 so far.
Nearly $50,000 has been raised by a similar GoFundMe campaign set up to assist the family of Orange County Deputy Norman Lewis, who was killed in a motorcycle crash while taking part in the manhunt for accused killer Markeith Loyd.
However, at least two questionable and potentially fraudulent GoFundMe campaigns were also set up in the fallen officers’ names, according to police.
The creator of one of those unauthorized fundraisers told News 6 she did not know Clayton’s family but felt compelled to help.
The campaign was removed from GoFundMe about a half-hour after News 6 questioned the woman about where the funds would be donated.
“I think people kind of rush to be the hero in that situation, or rush to do something because they want to be the first to say, ‘Well, I care and I'm going to do this,’” said Gonzalez.
When Gonzalez is evaluating the legitimacy of a crowdfunding campaign, she often uses a feature on search engines such as Google and TinEye, which allow users to determine if an image that appears on a GoFundMe page may have been stolen from another website.
Gonzalez also tries to locate the campaign operators’ social media pages to determine whether they are real people.
In some cases, however, Gonzalez has discovered scammers have created phony Facebook accounts in order to make their fraudulent GoFundMe campaigns appear more legitimate.
“(Scammers) think the money is just going to come pouring in,” said Gonzalez.
“There are some people who make a career out of this.”
The operators of GoFundMe claim the amount of fraud on their website is relatively small.
“It’s important to remember that misuses occurs less than one-10th of 1 percent of the time,” said GoFundMe spokesman Bobby Whithorne.
Even so, GoFundMe employs a team of people who constantly monitor the site for fraudulent behavior, according to the company.
“We have put multiple layers of protection in place to ensure the safety and security of all users,” said Whithorne. “We deploy proprietary fraud prevention technical tools and have multiple processes to verify the identity of campaign organizers.”
To protect donors and beneficiaries from fraud, GoFundMe’s provides a guarantee that includes refunds for certain campaigns.
The operators of GoFundMe encourage donors to report any questionable campaigns.
Even though Gonzalez’s website is focused fraudulent fundraising campaigns, she believes crowdfunding websites can be powerful tools to help people who need money.
“There’s a lot of good that can be done on GoFundMe,” said Gonzalez. “That’s kind of why I do what I do, because it needs to be safer for generous people to give.”