Belle Gibson. Remember that name?
She’s the Aussie girl who profited more than $1 million convincing the world that she cured her cancer utilising a wholistic approach.
Except… she never had cancer.
This is an extreme case of Munchausen by Internet. Munchausen syndrome is a factitious disorder whereby someone will fake an illness in order to generate sympathy and attention.
The internet has simply made this a lot easier to do. Belle’s story is just one in a growing list of high profile cases, such as Dee Dee Blanchard and the Warrior Eli hoax, which have been revealed to involve a complex web of deception over many, many years.
A young woman named Emily Dirr, who was eventually found to have been behind the Warrior Eli hoax spent eleven years detailing the lives of the phoney family she created, and even managed at least 71 known Facebook accounts of their supposed friends and family to perpetuate the lie.
With the explosion of crowdfunding sites in recent years, such as GoFundMe and YouCaring, it's never been easier for people with such disorders to raise money from friends and strangers to assist with supposed medical costs.
The motivation here isn't necessarily financial gain. Sufferers get so much more from playing the role of patient; the crowdfunding itself helps validate their story and increases the level of attention they so desperately crave.
Of course, crowdfunding platforms have also attracted your every day run of the mill scam artists too. More and more malingerers are turning to crowdfunding to scam money out of unsuspecting people. It's easy, simply post some pictures that tug at the heart strings, sell an emotional story, share your link all over social media and watch the money roll in.
This week, a Facebook where a 'mum' shared an emotional story about how her daughter had just been diagnosed with the same cancer that killed both her husband and her eldest daughter.
She started out by asking for prayers and good thoughts from other mums. The post quickly snowballed with hundreds of likes and comments and women from everywhere sending virtual hugs and offering support.
Sure enough, soon the woman was asking for people to contribute towards the $100,000 she needed to raise for medical expenses. But only if they could 'find it in their heart to help'.
The exact same plea appeared on multiple pages and groups. Something didn't quite add up for a few people, who started asking questions.
It was discovered that the woman's account was a sham, her personal photos were from a stock photo collection and all her Facebook friends were authors – which is a quick and easy way to get your friend count up quickly.
Once this was uncovered, the Facebook profile was shut down overnight. And a new one under the same name popped up again the next day.
Sadly, this abuse of people's goodwill is becoming more and more common. Luckily, there are a few telltale signs if the crowdfunding cause isn't legitimate. Here's how you can spot a fake crowdfunding campaign.
Check the news
Is the poster claiming a particularly dramatic or violent event that has forced them to ask for help to pay for medical bills or funeral costs? Check the news. If the crowdfunding campaign is claiming that a highly respected member of the community was killed in a freak accident on Mount Everest on Christmas Day, a quick internet search should easily confirm the validity of that story with news coverage.
Look at their online profiles
If you see someone posting online about needing help and something smells a bit off to you, dig a little deeper. Click on their social media account. When was their profile set up? If it is only a few weeks or a few months old, it could be a fraudulent account.
Do they have any friends?
Online scammers will almost always have very few real 'friends' or connections linked to their account. We all have that annoying Aunt who comments on all our photos and asks when we are getting married in a public forum. A scam account will be noticeably absent of any real interactions with close friends and family.
Another good way to validate a crowdfunding campaign is this – do you have any friends in common? If so, reach out to a trusted mutual friend and make sure this is an actual person who really needs help.
Do their online pictures seem fake?
If one plus one doesn't add up to two, do some homework. A handy tool is Google Reverse Image Search. If a social media account looks a little too perfect, run a quick search on their suspect pictures. It will tell you the exact origin of the image and any related photographs. If the picture has been taken from someone else's account, Google will tell you.
(Side note: this is super helpful for dating apps too, just FYI. If a guy's pics seem just too good to be true – run them through the Google machine. You'll know pretty quick if he's lifted the pics of those glistening sculpted abs from someone else's account. You're welcome.)
LISTEN: Robin Bailey and Bec Sparrow discuss the social media rules they always follow before hitting 'send' (post continues after audio...)
Is the story just too bad to be true?
Does this person seem to have had a crazy amount of bad luck? We've all had a bad week/month/year from time to time, but if a crowdfunding story just seems too crazy to be true... it probably is. Some fraudsters pile on the bad luck, hoping to make their story relatable, but most often it just makes the story look a bit fishy. Emily Dirr killed off the pregnant mother of her five-year-old cancer patient, Eli on Mother's Day. That outlandish plot twist led to her undoing.
Of course, there are genuine people out there who are having tough time and need a helping hand.
The important thing is this to trust your gut. If you see a crowdfunding story and feel compelled to support it, take a step back. Are there any red flags? If something doesn't sit quite right, check it out.
It will only take a few minutes and it will make sure your money is going to someone who truly needs it.
Have you ever been scammed by a fake crowdfunding page? How did it make you feel?