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Homeless vet will get his full $400,000, GoFundMe says

Veteran Johnny Bobbitt Jr., left, Kate McClure, right, and Mark D'Amico pose at a Citgo station in Philadelphia, Nov. 17, 2017. (Elizabeth Robertson/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

Johnny Bobbitt Jr. will get his $400,000.

GoFundMe and Cozen O’Connor, the Philadelphia law firm representing the homeless man, announced Thursday evening in a joint statement that Bobbitt will receive an amount equal to the balance of the funds he did not get from the online fundraiser set up for him in November. The campaign was established to help the man whose story of helping a stranded motorist inspired thousands of people to contribute.

What happened to the actual donations is now under a criminal investigation made public in dramatic fashion Thursday when police executed a search warrant at the New Jersey home of Kate McClure and Mark D’Amico, the couple who launched the online plea for Bobbitt, a 35-year-old North Carolina native living under an I-95 ramp who spent his last $20 to help McClure when she ran out of gas in Kensington late one night last fall.

“Johnny will be made whole and we’re committing that he’ll get the balance of the funds that he has not yet received or benefited from. GoFundMe’s goal has always been to ensure Johnny gets support he deserves,” said the statement, which was emailed to reporters by Bobby Whithorne, director of North America Communications for GoFundMe.

“We’ll continue to assist with the ongoing law enforcement investigation,” the statement continued.

Earlier in the day, GoFundMe announced it was taking steps to make it easier for donors to the Bobbitt campaign to get their money back.

Whithorne said the crowdfunding platform, which has reported raising more than $5 billion from roughly 50 million donors since it was founded in 2010, was waiving part of its refund policy that could have prevented Bobbitt’s donors from requesting reimbursements.

GoFundMe refunds individual contributions up to $1,000 if it determines that donations were misused, according to the company’s guarantee policy.

But there are exemptions in this policy and requirements that donors must meet to get paid back. Typically, donors must submit claims within 30 days of donating.

The campaign benefiting Bobbitt — which raised more than $400,000 from roughly 14,000 people — began accepting donations in November, nearly 10 months ago.

Whithorne said the 30-day policy will not apply to Bobbitt’s donors.

“This is an extremely rare situation and we are working with law enforcement officials to get Johnny the money raised on his behalf, which means the 30-day policy does not apply in this case,” Whitehorne said in a statement issued earlier Thursday.

The 30-day window to file a claim is restrictive, said Daniel Borochoff, president of the watchdog group CharityWatch. “Typically, you wouldn’t even know the money was misspent because there wouldn’t be all of this reporting,” he said.

To Borochoff, the Bobbitt case is an example of why donors are better off contributing to nonprofits that are subject to regulations and financial reporting requirements.

“GoFundMe is a business,” Borochoff said. “Their biggest concern is not overseeing the legitimacy of all of these campaigns they’re conducting, so there’s very little in the way of regulations. It’s easy pickings for a scammer.”

There are other limitations in GoFundMe’s guarantee policy. Rather than offer refunds, GoFundMe may redirect donations to the intended beneficiary, or provide refunds in the form of credits redeemable for donations to other campaigns, according to the policy.

A minimum donation may apply to qualify for benefits, and donors are typically required to reach out to campaign organizers and wait 72 hours for a response before submitting a claim. The policy also exempts claims over a “disagreement with how a campaign organizer or beneficiary uses funds raised in excess of the stated campaign goal at the time of your donation.” The campaign for Bobbitt exceeded its fund-raising goal of $10,000.

“This campaign is backed by the GoFundMe Guarantee, which means that in the rare case that GoFundMe, law enforcement, or a user finds campaigns are misused, donors and beneficiaries are protected,” Whithorne said.

Victims are more likely to get compensated if criminal charges are filed, said Stephen Stigall, a partner at the Philadelphia-based Ballard Spahr law firm.

“If the government can establish that your intent was to dupe people to provide you money, then that certainly is a crime,” he said, listing wire fraud and theft by deception as possible charges. “If there were charges and then a conviction, usually … there is a mandatory restitution that goes along with that.”

GoFundMe’s terms and conditions also includes an arbitration clause, meaning users are largely required to resolve disputes with the platform out of court through an arbitration process. And the service agreement makes it clear that GoFundMe does not guarantee donations will be used for fund-raising purposes.

“All donations are at your own risk,” the service agreement states. “It is your responsibility to understand how your money will be used.”

The language in the service agreement is not unusual, said Matthew Mousley, a partner in the intellectual property practice at Duane Morris. Platforms such as GoFundMe are not “set up in a way to ensure or guarantee all the private transactions happening on their platform are happening in a way that they can control and police.”

By providing a guarantee policy, which also covers beneficiaries such as Bobbitt, GoFundMe is actually going above what would be the “default” language in a platform service agreement, Mousley said. GoFundMe has given $20,000 to a bank account created by Bobbitt’s legal team to provide assistance during the investigation.

GoFundMe allows users to raise money to pay for a variety of causes and expenses, from medical bills to college tuition.

Users create campaign web pages that include personal stories, photos, and fundraising goals. The campaign pages can be shared on social media and donors can make contributions on GoFundMe’s website. Campaign organizers can then withdraw donations by wire transfer or check.

GoFundMe charges a 2.9 percent payment processing fee plus 30 cents per donation to cover “the cost of third-party card processors and the safe and secure transfer of funds,” Whithorne said. He said the company no longer charges a separate “platform fee” as of December.

The Bobbitt case is unusual, Whithorne said.

“Normally, the campaign organizer would never touch money, but in this unique situation the campaign organizer was permitted to withdraw the funds,” he said. “Regardless, we have taken steps to prevent this extremely unique situation from occurring again.”


© 2018 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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