Funerals used to be a family affair but with the price of a full-scale funeral rising and the finances of many consumers stuck in neutral, it’s getting so that many families have a hard time coming up with the money to finance a funeral when a loved one dies. Increasingly, they’re turning to strangers for help, posting pleas on GoFundMe and other social media.
GoFundMe says that about 13 percent of its campaigns created in 2017 were described as memorials, which include funerals. There are several disadvantages to this, the most obvious being that many of the appeals don’t hit their goal. This could leave a family stuck with thousands of dollars in funeral bills that they’re not able to pay. There’s also an obvious risk to those who pony up to help strangers who appear to be in need. To put it bluntly, there’s always the risk the appeal is bogus. While this may not be too common, it is common enough that it needs to be mentioned.
Every day brings new cases of phony GoFundMe appeals, many of them somewhat shocking. Take the case of Victoria Jackson, 24, of Pinellas County, Florida. She raised over $4,000 in funeral expenses for her 10-month-old son, Malachi, found unresponsive in his crib last May. Jackson set up a GoFundMe account just a week after the baby died. “I want to give my son the best memorial service I can. He died last Friday night,” her appeal read. “I’ve never been so heartbroken in my life.”
Now police say she has admitted to killing him by holding a pillow over his face. She faces first-degree murder charges. GoFundMe says it is returning about $4,300 raised in the campaign, under terms of its donor protection program and says it monitors all campaigns to ensure they are valid.
But a site devoted to phony online appeals — GoFraudMe — publishes a steady stream of what it says are bogus campaigns, including people who fake illness, “friends” who organize campaigns and then keep the money and a surprising number of parents who, like Victoria Jackson, allegedly kill their children, then try to raise money for their funeral.
Most GoFundMe appeals well-intentioned
Certainly, many GoFundMe funeral appeals tug at the heartstrings and are probably well-intentioned. Take the case of Benjamin Cobb, 4. He was mauled to death Oct. 29 by a pit bull in the Detroit area despite his mother’s attempts to fight off the attack with scissors and later a steak knife. In North Dakota, relatives of two families murdered in Mexico are trying to raise $100,000. In Kansas City, a campaign is raising money for Martin Rodriguez-Gonzalez, a Cuban man who was killed in a mass shooting at a bar.
How can you tell whether an appeal is genuine? Obviously, appeals for cases that receive widespread publicity in the news media are more likely to be on the level than appeals for someone you never heard of. But unlike donations you make to an established charity, there is no supervision and you have no guarantee that the funds will be spent for the stated purpose.
If you think you have been scammed by a campaign that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, you can contact GoFundMe and file a claim. But the GoFraudMe site notes that there are several initial hoops you need to jump through.
First, the guarantee only covers campaigns in the US, Canada, United Kingdom, Spain, France, Italy and the Netherlands and it only covers donations up to $1,000.
GoFundMe defines “misuse” this way: The campaign organizer doesn’t deliver funds to the intended beneficiary, the campaign description is intentionally misleading to donors, or the campaign organizer or beneficiary is charged with a crime related to misrepresentations made in their campaign.
“So this means that if, say, the campaign was started in the United States, and the campaign organizer was intentionally misleading donors (this is a toughy, notice the “intentionally”), and you donated $999, AND you file a claim under the GoFundMe Guarantee 20 days after making your donation CONGRATULATIONS, you might get your money back,” the site warns. GoFundMe did not respond to an invitation to comment on this story.
Crowdfunding’s effect on established charities
Most communities are fully stocked with churches, social service agencies and other professionally run organizations that provide emergency aid to families in need. By going it alone and contributing through an online forum, you are not only putting your money at risk but also potentially depriving established charities of the donation you might otherwise have given them.
Also, it bears pointing out that donations to GoFundMe and other informal appeals are not tax deductible, unlike donations to established 501(c)(3) charities.
Then there is the matter of profit. GoFundMe is a for-profit company. It charges a 2.9 percent fee on each donation and also a 30-cent fee for processing each donation. So if a campaign raises $1,000 from 100 donors, GoFundMe would deduct $59 ($29 for the 2.9% fee and $30 for the 30-cent per donation fee).
Despite these drawbacks, GoFundMe and similar programs appeal to millions of consumers. Launched in 2010, GoFundMe says it has raised more than $5 billion from more than 70 million donors.
Alternatives to crowdfunding
The ideal solution to underwriting final expenses is to plan ahead through insurance, savings or a preplanning arrangement with a funeral home. Of course, death often comes as a surprise and many families simply don’t have the means to get ahead of their day-to-day living expenses and put a few dollars aside to meet their final expenses.
Another, perhaps more universal, solution is to keep funeral expenses to a minimum. It’s really not necessary to have several visitation sessions and a full-blown funeral complete with embalming, coffin, cemetery plot and limousines. Families can hold down expenses by choosing direct cremation, a process that cuts out embalming, coffins and burial plots. The body is taken to a crematory and after cremation, the remains are presented in a simple container. The family can hold a memorial service at a church, community center or an outdoor site at a later date. Amazon and other online retailers sell affordable, attractive urns for just a few dollars.
If a full-blown funeral is desired, it should be treated like any other consumer purchase. Funeral homes are required by the Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule to provide a printed breakdown of all charges. This enables consumers to pick only the services they want and also makes it possible to compare prices from one funeral home to another. With thousands of dollars at stake, it’s important not to overlook this step. A trusted friend or family member can be enlisted to help in the process if family members are too emotional to concentrate on what may seem like minor details at the time but which may translate into years of debt if they’re overlooked.
When in doubt, ask yourself what your loved one would want — a simple, economical ceremony of remembrance or an elaborate ceremony that leaves the family thousands of dollars in debt.
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