The con artists who exploit mass shootings

By Emily Schmall | The New York Times

Hours after a gunman stalked the campus of Michigan State University last month, killing three students and wounding five others, fundraisers in the names of the victims began to proliferate. Not all of the initiatives were legitimate, the university later informed the Michigan attorney general’s office.

Experts say it is part of a troubling pattern that plays out over and over again in the United States: Where mass shootings happen, fraud often follows.

“Con artists are going to strike when the iron is hot, so when there’s an emotional moment — a disaster, a horrific shooting, an earthquake — they’re going to see it as an opportunity to siphon off hard-earned dollars to their ends,” said Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance.

At Michigan State, in East Lansing, an official campaign to sell university-licensed apparel, with the proceeds going to cover injured students’ hospital bills, was imitated by fraudsters selling their own unlicensed gear, the university said.

“MSU Licensing has seen an uptick in the number of scams involving unlicensed Spartan Strong products,” said Dan Olsen, a university spokesperson, referring to the official fundraising campaign named after the institution’s mascot.

Suspicious campaigns also emerged on GoFundMe, a fundraising platform that has become a central part of charitable giving after disasters and tragedies.

As it has after other mass casualty events, GoFundMe assigned a “crisis team” to determine whether the campaigns were actually linked with victims’ families, suspending some where there was no clear channel to direct money to the people it was ostensibly being raised for, said Leigh Lehman, a spokesperson.

“We really do know that in those moments, it’s about getting the support to the families, and we want them to know this is a safe place to give and receive help,” Lehman said.

Sounding the alarm

GoFundMe’s verification process is akin to a bank’s, she added, so users whose identification documents don’t check out aren’t allowed to create fundraising pages.

In the aftermath of recent mass shootings in Texas, California, New York and Michigan, the attorney general’s office in each of those states has issued a consumer alert, warning against giving cash to fraudulent fundraisers.

In Michigan, Attorney General Dana Nessel made an unusually personal appeal for citizens to practice diligence before donating.

“As the mother of two current Spartans, I am heartened by the outpouring of support that Michiganders have shown in the wake of this tragedy,” she said in a statement. “Unfortunately, bad actors often take advantage of times such as these, when individuals are most vulnerable, to prey on our generosity.

“Lying in wait”

The shooting at Michigan State is far from the first tragedy to be exploited.

“Some scammers are experts who make full-time jobs out of lying in wait for the next tragedy so they can strike again with fake profiles, stories and fundraising campaigns,” said Laurie Styron, executive director of the nonprofit group CharityWatch.

It can be difficult to detect fraud because, unlike registered charities, crowdfunding campaigns are not subject to public disclosure rules. Charities with the tax status of nonprofit organizations are required to be more transparent through regular financial filings.

After a shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas in October 2017 in which 60 people were killed and hundreds more were wounded, the Federal Trade Commission issued a consumer advisory that warned of “suspicious requests for donations.”

“Tugging at your heartstrings is a tried-and-true method scammers use to get to your wallet,” Emma Fletcher, a consumer education specialist with the FTC, said in the advisory.

The FTC did not respond to requests for information about whether there had been confirmed instances of fraud after the Las Vegas shooting.

Olivia King was killed in a mass shooting at a Kroger supermarket in Collierville, Tenn., in September 2021. Days later, her son, Wes, an assistant professor of teaching in music at the University of Findlay in Ohio, learned that two online fundraisers had been set up, purportedly on his family’s behalf, without his family’s consent. “Not only are we dealing with the sudden loss of our mother, this huge tragedy in our hometown, now you have these people trying to make a buck off somebody’s worst day of their life,” King said.

Lehman, the GoFundMe spokesperson, said that a fraudulent page that had been set up in Olivia King’s name was taken down and that refunds had been issued to donors.

“You have people trying to capitalize on people’s shock, people’s grief, people’s rage and trying to get them to give them money — it’s disgusting,” Wes King said. “I wish I could say it was surprising.”

Real campaigns spawn fake ones

After Cannon Hinnant, a 5-year-old boy from North Carolina, was fatally shot by a neighbor while riding his bike in August 2020, his grandmother started a GoFundMe campaign to cover the cost of his funeral.

The campaign, which raised far more than its $5,000 goal, spawned dozens of fake campaigns on the platform, set up by people seeking to exploit the family’s loss.

After 14 students and three faculty members were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February 2018, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office warned that several fake GoFundMe pages had been set up to profit from the shooting.

A woman was arrested in 2012, accused of posing as a relative of a victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., to solicit donations for her own enrichment.

The woman, Nouel Alba, pleaded guilty to federal charges of wire fraud and making false statements and was sentenced to eight months in prison, according to The Associated Press.

Weiner, from the Better Business Bureau, said that the Wise Giving Alliance encourages people to give to established charities and community organizations, but he added that the appeal of online crowdfunding was clear.

Since its debut in 2010, GoFundMe has raised more than $25 billion, Lehman said, offering a way to give money directly to a person or a family rather than to an organization or a cause.

“There is some psychological feeling that you’ve helped an individual right away, someone who’s been helped directly by me,” Weiner said. “Touching a button and feeling I’ve made a difference immediately — that feeling prompts people to be engaged.”