GoFundMe campaigns spike during government shutdown, but how can you know they’re real?

Lindsay Fournier is one of the thousands who have set up GoFundMe campaigns since the start of the government shutdown. While she knows exactly where her donations will go, not every campaign is so certain. (WYDaily/Courtesy Lindsay Fournier)
Lindsay Fournier is one of the thousands who have set up GoFundMe campaigns since the start of the government shutdown. While she knows exactly where her donations will go, not every campaign is so certain. (Southside Daily/Courtesy Lindsay Fournier)

With the partial government shutdown causing workers across Hampton Roads to go without paychecks, it’s no wonder a number of GoFundMe pages have popped up to help the cause.

But how can people know that their money is going where it’s supposed to?

“There are a few concerns with donating to online crowd-sourcing sites like GoFundMe,” said Stephanie Williams, spokeswoman for the James City County Police Department. “The identity of the person organizing the fundraiser cannot be verified by donors.”

At the same time, however, Williams said the department doesn’t get a lot of calls with concerns about fundraising scams. That might be because of GoFundMe’s verification process to ensure money is getting to the desired location.

GoFundMe has an entire Trust and Safety team that is dedicated to reviewing all campaigns specifically related to the government shutdown in order to process the 2,000 campaigns raising more than $500,000 that have popped up since it started, said Katherine Cichy, a spokeswoman for GoFundMe.

Those campaigns are going to helping either federal workers during the shutdown in general, or to specific causes like the campaign raising money for members of the National Coast Guard from Virginia Beach resident Lindsay Fournier.

Fournier said if she reaches her $7,000 goal she plans to put the money into Visa gift cards to give to members of the Coast Guard who have been impacted by the shutdown, such as her brother who has to pay for child support even during the shutdown.

But Fournier admits this is the first time she has done something like a GoFundMe campaign so she isn’t really sure how the money will be dispersed once she gets it.

She just wants to help.

“You don’t realize how far this trickles down so even something small like a Visa gift card can help,” she said.

When donors give to programs like Fournier’s, they expect that since their heart is in the right place and so their money will be, too.

But Williams warns against using those sites to donate because there isn’t anyway to truly verify.

“We recommend that people who wish to provide assistance only donate to known and verified nonprofit organizations or local churches or directly to folks that may be in need of the assistance,” she said.

For campaign’s like Fournier’s, people might want to give to a direct cause, such as a specific individual, and find GoFundMe as the place to do that.

“This is my first time doing something like this so I know for me, personally, the money is going straight to my brother,” Fournier said.

Cichy recommends donors should contact campaign organizers before giving to their cause to make sure they are legitimate. If an organizer does not respond, then they should report the campaign on the website’s page.

But if an organizer does reply and a donor still wants to be sure, they can know that GoFundMe verifies all payments through their payment processor which looks at an organizer’s information and banking data, Cichy said.

Williams notes there is no way for a donor to verify an individual’s account because they could be connected to a fake Facebook profile. That means that a donor can’t truly be sure their money is going where it states it will, so if donors still want to use the crowdfunding website, they’ll just have to rely on GoFundMe’s process.

WYDaily assistant editor Sarah Fearing contributed to this report.

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.