The worst thing about the following story –- like other con games –- is that it might inhibit normally generous people from giving to those genuinely in need. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.
A year ago, an appeal appeared on GoFundMe called “Pay It Forward.” It told the story of Johnny, a homeless veteran in Philadelphia who, according to the story, spent his days holding a sign on the highway. A young woman had written dramatically of running out of gas, heading out on foot in the cold to find the nearest gas station, and Johnny coming up to her, telling her to get back in the car and lock the doors. “A few minutes later, he comes back with a red gas can,” she wrote. “Using his last 20 dollars to make sure I could get home safe.”
She wrote that over the next couple of weeks, she would go see Johnny, paying him back and giving him a few extra dollars here and there, bringing him food and warm clothes and getting to know him as a good-hearted person. “I wish that I could do more for this selfless man,” she wrote, “who went out of his way just to help me that day.” She posted a picture of the two of them together, she looking friendly and happy, he in a long beard and knit cap, with a benign, vacant expression.
She said she was raising money for Johnny, enough to pay for the first and last months’ rent in an apartment, a reliable vehicle, and expenses for the next four to six weeks. He was very interested in finding a job. “Truly believe that all Johnny needs is one little break,” she wrote. “Hopefully with your help I can be the one to give it to him.”
She set the goal as $10,000. What made news was that her GoFundMe account, stunningly, took in $401,921. By the end, over 14,000 people had contributed.
It was a huge, heartwarming story. You probably remember it, as everyone talked about it at the time, including CNN, the Washington Post, the BBC, and...me. In her update (#25), the woman wanted “to thank everyone who has been a part of this amazing ride.” She explained how the money would be used: to buy a home for Johnny; get him his “dream truck,” a 1999 Ford Ranger; plus set up two trusts in his name, one for income until he found a job and one for retirement funds to pay for some land and a cabin out in the country. It seemed like a well-thought-out plan, put together by Johnny’s new lawyer and financial advisor. “Mark [her boyfriend] and I are beyond humbled and grateful that you took our little project and turned it into a world wide project that thousands of people supported.”
She promised an update soon from Johnny himself, now that he had his new computer.
Fast forward one year. On Thursday, the woman, Kate McClure, her boyfriend Mark D’Amico, and (this was the real surprise) the homeless man, Johnny Bobbitt, were charged by law enforcement officials in New Jersey with second-degree theft by deception and conspiracy to commit theft by deception. Scott A. Coffina, prosecutor for Burlington County, said in a news conference that from the beginning, the story was a lie.
After examining more than 60,000 text messages, prosecutors determined that the encounter on the highway never actually happened. “She did not run out of gas on an I-95 off-ramp, and he did not spend his last $20 to help her,” Coffina said.
According to Coffina, less than an hour after the GoFundMe page was up, McClure texted a friend to say, “Ok so wait the gas part is completely made up but the guy isn’t. I had to make something up to make people feel bad. So shush about the made up stuff.”
During all the media attention, Bobbitt went on “Good Morning, America,” and repeated the lie: “I got her gas to help her get on her way. I wasn’t expecting anything in return.” He added that the experience “felt like winning the lottery.”
It seems the three might have gotten away with the scheme if McClure and D’Amico had been a little less greedy. Bobbitt, the (formerly) homeless man, made a big mistake by filing a lawsuit against the couple when he didn’t get what he considered to be his fair share.
When he sued in August, accusing them of fraud and conspiracy for using the fund as “their personal piggy bank” to fund a lavish lifestyle, he apparently didn’t realize it might not be in his own best interest to call attention to the scheme.
Investigators got a warrant, searched the couple’s home and took possession of their recently purchased BMW. When Megyn Kelly interviewed them on NBC, McClure and D’Amico maintained that $150,000 remained for Bobbitt. They were holding on to some of the money, they said, until Bobbitt could kick his opioid addiction and keep a job.
But that was a lie, too, at least the part about still having money. According to Coffina, by mid-March, all the money had been spent or gambled away. “Among other things,” he said, “they bought a car, took trips, purchased high-end handbags and hit the casinos --- hard.”
Coffina had sympathy for Bobbitt but said he has “no choice” but to charge him along with the other two, as he was part of the con from the beginning. “He deserves our appreciation for his willingness to serve our country as a U.S. Marine,” Coffina said. “And he has our sympathy and concern for the homelessness he’s experienced. But it is imperative to keep in mind that he was fully complicit with this scheme to defraud contributors, promoting the campaign in multiple media appearances and posing with D’Amico and McClure for a Philly Inquirer story in front of a gas station that he did not buy gas from.”
According to Coffina, it’s not the first time Bobbitt has done something like this. In 2012, while he was living in North Carolina, he posted on Facebook a similar story about helping a woman with dinner money.
In case you were wondering about the thousands of people who donated money for Bobbitt’s cause, they apparently are going to get all their money back. Amazingly, they will get it from GoFundMe. Who knew they would take responsibility to the extent that they could also be called “RefundMe”?
So I hope no one reading about this scam will see it as a deterrent from giving, especially during this Christmas season. GoFundMe can be a lifesaver, literally, and according to their officials, “GoFundMe always fully protects donors, which is why we have a comprehensive refund policy in place.” Of course, there are many other worthwhile causes that need donations this time of year as well. It’s been a particularly hard year, with so many people across the country having lost everything --- even loved ones --- in hurricanes, floods, raging fires and other natural disasters and personal twists of fate. Your generosity can be life-changing, so don’t let a rare story about a few greedy con artists stop you from giving to people in actual need.