By Debbie Burke
In November, 2017, Katelyn McClure met a homeless veteran named Johnny Bobbitt when she ran out of gas on a Philadelphia highway. Bobbitt gave McClure his last twenty dollars. Grateful for his selfless generosity, McClure started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to help the former Marine get back on his feet.
Their feel-good story went viral. Within three weeks, 14,000 people donated more than $400,000 to the campaign.
HEA (happily ever after), right?
Turns out the entire story was a scam concocted by McClure and her boyfriend Mark D’Amico. Although Bobbitt didn’t initiate the fraud, when donations skyrocketed, he joined their conspiracy.
In 2018, the plot thickened when Bobbitt sued McClure and D’Amico, claiming he had received only $75,000 from them out of the $400,000 raised for his benefit. McClure and D’Amico used the rest of the money on vacations, gambling, expensive handbags, and a BMW.
According to Military.com:
D’Amico attempted to justify withholding the money from the veteran because of Bobbitt’s purported struggle with drug addiction, telling the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2018 that he’d rather “burn it in front of him” and that giving him the money would be like “giving him a loaded gun.” Though the couple told the paper that they had paid for a hotel room, electronics, food, clothing and eventually a camper for the veteran, they declined to provide receipts.
The unusual lawsuit drew the attention of prosecutors in Burlington, NJ, the NJ Department of Justice, and federal authorities.
During the investigation, a text from McClure came to light. Less than an hour after kicking off the GoFundMe campaign, Military.com reports that McClure messaged a friend:
“Ok so wait the gas part is completely made up, but the guy isn’t,” she said, according to New Jersey prosecutor Scott A. Coffina. “I had to make something up to make people feel bad.”
“So shush about the made up stuff,” she reportedly added.
Digging deeper, investigators found a similar scenario in Bobbitt’s past from a Facebook post in 2012 where he claimed that he’d given his supper money to a woman in need, garnering sympathy and donations.
The GoFundMe scam unraveled. Ultimately, all three pleaded guilty to state and federal charges.
D’Amico, 43, pleaded guilty to misappropriation of funds. In 2022, he was sentenced to five years in prison on state charges, and 27 months for federal charges, sentences to be served concurrently.
In October, 2022, Bobbitt, 39, was sentenced to three years of probation for conspiracy to commit money laundering and ordered to pay $25,000 restitution. He was admitted to an addiction recovery program.
In January, 2023, McClure, 32, guilty of second-degree theft by deception, was sentenced to three years in state prison and is already serving time on a one year and one day sentence in federal prison. She was a former New Jersey state employee and is prohibited from holding any state job.
All were ordered to pay restitution to GoFundMe.
GoFundMe refunded all donations to contributors who were taken in by the fraudulent story.
GoFundMe posts warnings on how to spot scams and frauds here.
Most people want to help others in need. Con artists prey on those generous, compassionate instincts.
Give from your heart but, first, investigate with your head.
TKZers: Do you check out people or organizations before you donate to them? How?
Have you heard of similar scams?
In Stalking Midas, a glamorous con artist takes advantage of an aging, addled millionaire who loves his nine rescue cats. She can’t allow investigator Tawny Lindholm to disrupt her profitable scam. After all, she’s killed before and each time it gets easier.
Buy at Amazon and major online booksellers.
Thanks for this, Debbie. I recently had a friend ask me for money over Facebook. It struck me as odd because he could have just picked up the phone and asked. His account was not hacked. His girlfriend, unbeknownst to him, had gotten into his Facebook page and thought I looked like an easy touch. Beware. And have a great remainder of the week!
Mornin’, Joe. Scammers should know better than to mess with you!
Several years ago, someone cloned my FB account and started asking my friends for $$. A massive PITA to get FB to remove the cloned account. When it happened a second time, I closed the account and got off FB for good.
On the positive side, a couple of writer pals and I started a GoFundMe for the owner of a local bookstore after a water pipe broke under her building. It raised $10K + needed to jackhammer the slab, replace the pipe, and restore the floor. Neighboring businesses, local authors, and customers contributed and it was a heartwarming experience.
So sad. And those who are swindling ruin it for people who are genuinely in need who might not get helped because it’s hard to know who has a legitimate need. Grrrr!!!!!!
So true, Brenda. But, as I mention in the comment to Joe above, crowdfunding can yield wonderful results. We just have to make sure the recipient is legit.
Sorry I don’t have time for a long response, Debbie. I’m in the middle of helping a Nigerian prince move millions of dollars out of his country.
LOL, Jim! How generous of you!
How strange. So am I! Hahaha
Before I give to an organization I look them up to see how they spend their money—how much actually goes to help people.
I have a few places I donate to on a regular basis and I know they are legitimate. And I give to a few Gofund me accounts but I know those who started them. I would have given to your building fund, Debbie.
That’s so nice, Patricia, thanks!
Online sites like CharityWatch.org rate charities by how much $$ goes to the end user vs. “overhead” expenses.
Great story, Debbie. Good warning.
I’ve heard of plenty of scams similar to the one you describe. I usually stick to organizations I know and trust. Otherwise, like Patricia, I check the organization and see what percentage of their budget goes to “administrative expenses.”
And I’ve learned from making the mistake a few times: Don’t loan money to relatives. Give, if you want, but loans can cause long lasting family strife.
Have a scam-free day.
Same here, Steve. We only donate to our local veterans food bank/thrift shop and a few trusted charities.
Friends and family loans are a minefield. Thanks for the reminder.
Wishing you the same!
Thanks for this cautionary post, Debbie. The only GoFundMe drives I’ve given to have been for people I know personally, or who I know by reputation and can verify. Otherwise, I donate to legitimate causes such as the Oregon Food Bank or the ASPCA.
Especially for a GoFundMe or purported charity, “verify, then trust.”
Wise advice, Dale!
Thanks for revealing yet another sneaky crime, Debbie. Swindlers seem to have no end to the schemes they come up with.
I have only donated to a GoFundMe request once. It was for an acquaintance who had fallen on hard times, and I knew it was legit. Other than that, I’m wary of online donations.
My husband and I have certain religious organizations and charities we support where we know the money is being put to good use.
Kay, the variations are endless.
To quote Maxwell Smart: “It’s a shame they didn’t use their imagination for niceness instead of evil.”
There’s only a few organizations we donate to, and I never donate from my phone or computer.
And, I completely agree with Steve about “loans” to relatives. If we can, and there’s a legitimate need, it’s always a gift. Never a loan. Life is simpler that way. There comes a time, and I’m there, when life is too short for hard feelings.
Thanks, Debbie, for a great reminder. And fodder for a story? Hmm…
Deb, excellent point about donating from your phone or computer! Online scam solicitations often direct you to click on a link that uploads malware to your device and/or steals your personal data. Phishing and spearfishing never go out of season.
I am online most of the day, every day. I see scams at least once a week. I assume you are a thief until proven otherwise. I only give to a select few charities and haven’t added a new one in a few years.
Alan, isn’t it a sad world where you have to assume someone is a crook unless they prove otherwise?
I rarely give to GoFundMe for this reason. Instead, I like to get to know the people first, see what they’re about, research what % of funds go to the cause and what % is for “administration” costs. And I only give them one chance. If they screw it up, I’m out. For example, I recently donated to an organization whose goal is to plant one billion trees. They were asking for $5 or $10. Well, when you go to donate they hit you up to be a monthly donor. I clicked NO. They asked me to be an annual donor. I clicked NO. Not because I’ll never donate again, but because I don’t want them deducting funds from my account.
Long story short, they sent the receipt and it read: “Thank you for subscribing as a monthly donor….blah, blah, blah…we’ve deducted the first two months from your account.”
It didn’t matter which button you pressed, yes or no, the system automatically signed you up. Total BS. Thankfully, customer service people were great. They immediately canceled the subscription, but they still charged my card for those two months!
Meant to add: I use a loadable credit card for donations. That way, if it’s a scam, they can only steal what’s on the card. Nothing more.
Sue, cheesy companies (whether charitable or for profit) know that most people don’t have time to fight a small unauthorized charge. They get away with cheating a little from a lot of people. A bogus charge for $1 repeated a million times adds up to real money.
I’ve never supported a GoFundMe project, although if I did, it would be for someone I knew. Like others here, I always check to see how much of a donation goes to the charitable work rather than administration. I’m most generous with fundraising for my daughter’s “Walk MS” and “Bike MS” events, because the money goes to finding a cure for MS, which she has. I’ve also donated to our local animal rescue shelter and other reputable organizations whose works I support.
Back in the day when people paid for everything using checks, my father would include a letter with his charitable donations saying this was all they would get this year, and if they asked for more, they would be off his list forever.
Sadly, most of the time, the people opening the mail weren’t the ones who had any say in the mailing campaigns, and the people who were never saw the letters, which were probably trashed.
Right now, I’m on my way to a Ribbon Cutting Happy Hour celebration at the community building where we take our yoga classes as a thank you for our donation (which wasn’t all that large, so they must be hurting for donors).
Terry, enjoy the Happy Hour! Donations to your local community makes life better for friends, neighbors, and yourself.
I’m very reluctant to give to charity unless I know them well, and especially to individuals promoting scams and frauds on GoFundMe and similar fora.
The takehomes for me out of this whole sorry situation are 1) keep your mouth shut if you intend to commit a crime. Stay off your phone. Shut it off. Better yet leave it home.
2) People like these grifters always think they’re smarter than everyone else. They’re wrong. Money leaves tracks.
Caution is the order of the day, Robert. Thanks for stopping by.