Crowdfunding websites like GoFundMe have been in the headlines recently, after a Wallingford man was accused of faking cancer to generate donations.
This posed the question—“how do you know if this is real?”
Eyewitness News spoke to experts about this matter, but also to a family who knows all too well how much a GoFundMe can help in a time of need, like the Barber family.
Joe Barber is a former football player at Hand High School in Madison, and he was once a very active teen.
That was until he dove from the rocks at the Madison Beach Club last summer and suffered a life-changing spinal cord injury.
He was paralyzed from the chest down, and had to learn how to breathe on his own again.
"I had to re-learn to use my right arm again. I'm really trying to get my left arm back, which hasn't come back,” Joe Barber said.
He spent months getting specialized care at a rehabilitation hospital in Colorado, and returned to school this past month where he is getting used to his motorized wheelchair.
All of these changes don’t come cheap either.
"This injury, everything is really, really expensive. We’re still trying to get some equipment for the home that's been rejected by insurance companies,” said Joe’s mom Meg Barber.
The Madison community immediately stepped in to help, launching fundraisers and a GoFundMe page online, which raised close to $100,000.
“It continues to make all the difference to us,” Meg Barber said.
That is why the Barbers were so disappointed to learn of another Connecticut man, accused of using GoFundMe to steal money from his neighbors in Wallingford.
"Those people, people find out that they don't have anything, they're fine - and then they stop giving money to people who actually kind of do need it,” Joe Barber said.
Police said Tyler Tomer, 29, stole $22,000 in Connecticut, and possibly another $30,000 in Kansas, by claiming he was suffering from brain cancer.
He told people he had only six to nine months to live, but it turned out he was lying.
"He went so far as shaving his head, taking weight loss pills, driving down to Sloan Kettering where he was claiming to go through chemotherapy. It was a pretty extensive fraudulent scam on his part,” said Wallingford Police Lt. Cheryl Bradley.
Now he is being charged with larceny by defrauding a public community.
GoFundMe told Eyewitness News that once they were aware of the suspicious behavior, Tomer’s campaign was removed and he was banned for fraud.
On the GoFundMe website, it said it is always recommended that potential donors only donate to people they personally know and trust.
Howard Schwartz of the Connecticut Better Business Bureau said it is a classic case of ‘buyer beware.’
"We’re a very generous nation. What the criminals are doing is trying to appeal to that sense of generosity. But its investor beware, and if you want to give money for charitable purposes, probably better to go with one of the major charities and see if they're doing a major collection or know someone that is raising money for a specific cause,” Schwartz said.
If you want to donate to a specific person, do some homework:
"Take your time before you make the decision because we see this after every kind of disaster, man-made, or natural. We want to help very quickly, but there's a risk, not only for the victims but for yourself,” Schwartz said.
In Joe Barber’s case, his mom thinks the constant progress updates on Facebook really helped.
"You can go through that it's legitimate. So I think for anyone to give money you just want to make sure it's a legitimate thing,” Meg Barber said.
She said she hopes the fake cases won’t stop people from donating, because in their case, it has made all the difference in the world.
"We feel so lucky to live in this town and have friends and family and people that support us, and you just don't realize until something happens that it's so important. And it makes having this and living through this possible," Meg Barber said.
The Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection said they have fielded a handful of complaints against people who hold accounts with some crowdfunding websites.
They also recommend doing homework, and said when consumers don’t do their research before they give, that is when they become susceptible to scams.
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