I’m a sympathetic person. I really am, and sometimes my sympathy has aided me in making bad choices.
But I have no patience for people who pretend to be in some kind of destitute condition, a performance entirely possible through the anonymity on the internet, and beg for money. It’s a strategy — a scam — that works, unfortunately. If you have a nice story to tell, no matter if it’s true, thousands of people will be attracted to that story. If you ask for it, people will send you money out of kindness.
Today is Giving Tuesday, so it’s an opportunity to look at a story that has been in the news recently related to a charitable scam.
Recently, Linda Walther Tirado, also known online as KillerMartinis, concocted and published a short story about living on poverty. In reality, Linda may have had some financial struggles, or at least might have been living on a low income, but allegedly not due to poverty or her upbringing. Her story was thoroughly debunked by a researcher who found other conflicting details about this person’s identity, but Linda’s damage, in the form of attracting kind readers to offer financial help, was done.
From Houston Press:
The real Linda owns a home, thanks to some pretty generous parents… She’s married to a Marine, has met President Obama while interning for a politician…, and has plenty of time to visit Las Vegas on vacation. And blog about her privileged life on WordPress… She speaks both German and Dutch, and has a well-rounded political blog that ended in 2011. It’s also a blog where she quite plainly references being paid to win races.
Her story, which the author and other observers claim has “gone viral” — I didn’t hear about it until the debunking also went viral — generated a generous outpouring of contributions that are still coming in. Her GoFundMe page has raised over $62,000 to help this cyberbeggar allegedly pay for dental bills, but she intends to use the money for other purposes: to shop a book around to publishers, to quit her day job, and to give some away. (GoFundMe is a website that allows individuals raise money, usually for small start-up businesses or projects.)
My opinion on the matter is clear: if you lie as Linda allegedly has, and you use that lie to manipulate sympathetic people to part with their money, you are a scammer. And scammer is putting it nicely. (This is also why I don’t like marketers.)
If the $62,000 is an accumulation of mostly small donations like $5 or $10, most contributors did not risk much. Looking through the list of recent donations via the author’s GoFundMe website, most seem to be $10, with others going as high as $50. On an individual level, a small donation doesn’t look so bad; it’s not much different than when you give a few dollars to someone sitting on the street with a cardboard sign. The more entertaining or clever the sign, the more likely it is that a passerby will hand over a five dollar bill.
You don’t know who this person is. You’d like to think he or she will use your money to buy a sandwich or start collecting for some new business clothes so he or she can look appropriate at a job. For $5, it doesn’t hurt your wallet and you can rid yourself of that guilty feeling you get when a homeless person looks you in the eye. It’s a low risk donation. If it turns out to be a scam, you’ve only wasted $5.
Those who contributed to her collection of more than $62,000 are adults. They are free to make their own decisions about how to spend and donate their money. You can only make good decisions when you have all of the information available to you. People who donated believed the story they were told about the author’s live in poverty.
Karyn Bosnak was the first majorly successful cyberbeggar. But at least with the writing on her website, SaveKaryn, the stories are believed to be true. Karyn SaveKaryn, spent more than she was earning through shopping and fully admitted to her unfettered credit card use. She offered details on the consumer debt she acquired and asked her website’s followers to contribute money to help her pay off her credit card debt. After raising the $20,000 she needed to pay off her debt, she stopped asking for donations.
Why would people help someone whose financial situation was a result of his or her own bad choices? Sympathy and compassion. It’s good to know these are still valued personality traits. Because Karyn’s approach to cyberbegging worked, perhaps just being truthful about your situation will be just as effective as lying if you write well and are able to attract attention.
Although she was truthful about her problem, I didn’t like SaveKaryn’s financial begging from the beginning. There were much more worthy causes for charity than a girl with a good income and a spending problem. Collecting donations wasn’t going to solve a shopaholic’s problem, just enable her to continue to make poor money management choices.
But pretending to be someone you’re not in order to gain sympathy is unethical. It’s manipulative. With Karyn, donors knew they were giving money to someone who didn’t need help. In Linda Walther Tirado’s case, donors were conned into believing their donations were going to a case worthy of charitable contributions. Contributors believed they were helping someone who was living in poverty through little fault of her own.
So while on an individual level, a $20 donation might not hurt the uninformed donor. If the $20 ends up not helping someone raise herself out of poverty, the harm is minor. But collectively, the idea that someone can earn a living by asking for small donations based on a fabricated story encourages others to do the same. Every small donation legitimizes cyberbegging. Every $5, $10, or $50 contribution helps scammers believe that it’s not a problem to use lies to con the public.
Here at Consumerism Commentary, Naked With Cash has featured people in worse financial condition that the real Linda Walther Tirado. Not once have they written — even implied — that they would accept financial contributions from readers to help improve their situation. That would just be unfathomable to me, and I wouldn’t allow Consumerism Commentary to become a vehicle for such activity.
No one is required to give charity only to the needy. I used to work for a non-profit organization whose programs did benefit young people in low socio-economic status neighborhoods, but the vast majority of students who benefited from the programs were comfortably situated in the middle class. This wasn’t a charity for the poor, but an educational program that supported what students might be getting from their own schools, and made some of those school programs possible.
We collected donations because the programs we ran required a large operating budget, benefited tens of thousands of kids under the age of twenty-one, and didn’t generate much income. It was harder to draw donations, I think, because many of these children were not in desperate financial condition (although some were), so we had to appeal to the part of the soul that prioritizes arts education.
Ask questions before you give any money. People like Linda Walther Tirado will continue to take advantage of the kindness of strangers. I don’t think we can ever get to the point at which the public as a whole refuses to give money to scammers and they just give up. Nevertheless, it’s important not to contribute to the encouragement of this behavior. The only way you can prevent yourself from becoming a victim of a liar’s scam like this is to not blindly give away your money, even if it is only $50.
If you read someone’s sad story and are compelled to give money, take some time to think about it first. Do some research.
Don’t give money an an individual. Consider giving the same amount of money to a charitable organization that has a good record of using donor’s money towards a mission you believe in. Don’t be a sucker with your money. When you give to a reputable charitable organization, there’s a record of your donation and oversight of the group’s activities.
Use your compassion in a way that will actually help someone who needs it or that supports a mission you believe in. Helping legitimize a cyberbeggar is not a good use of your charitable dollars, even five of them.
Photo: Flickr/Adrian Miles
Published or updated December 3, 2013.