From Bogus Cancer Diagnoses To Fake Pet Rescues: How Scammers Take Advantage Of The Public's Generosity
“I think the reason why the scams are so easy for the scammers to pull off is because nobody wants to question, you know, can I trust a story?” said journalist Adrienne Gonzales, who runs the website GoFraudMe to expose crowdfunding corruption.
Albert Lonzo Adams III was once thought of as a hero to animal lovers everywhere.
Adams claimed to use his skills as a pilot to rescue animals about to be euthanized through his Soaring Paws charity by swooping in and flying the at-risk animals to other facilities.
“He would rent a plane and then he would fly to these different states and pick up these animals, mostly dogs, and bring them to places where there were low-kill shelter rates,” Florida prosecutor Amy Casanova Ward said in the latest episode of CNBC's “American Greed,” airing Monday at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
He often documented the trips in YouTube videos and photographs. One pup is even photographed adorably wearing its own aviation headset as Adams clutches the small dog in his arms.
“We’re on our way to pick up six little 3-week old puppies and two larger dogs, two labs I believe,” he said from the air in one video.
To help pay for fuel and the costs of renting the planes, Adams ran various fundraising campaigns on popular social media platforms like Facebook and GoFundMe—even falsely claiming at one point that former New York Yankees star Derek Jeter was a major contributor.
“No one likes the idea of dogs being euthanized and if you can do something about it, you take some type of action to help him in his cause,” Det. Randall Jones, former investigator with the Florida Department of Consumer Services, said in the episode.
Over four years, Adams raised more than $140,000 for the charity. But in 2015, he claimed he needed even more money—$130,000—to purchase a new plane that would help him carry out the rescue missions more effectively. Adams even posted a photo of the plane he said he planned to purchase.
But investigators would soon discover Adams was not the hero that others believed; the number of his so-called rescue missions was greatly exaggerated.
“He claimed that he was transporting between (300) and 500 dogs each month, but the numbers were nowhere near that,” Jones said.
Adams also claimed that 100 percent of the donations to the charity went to fund the rescue operations, but authorities said that also wasn’t the case.
“It was being used for things like paying his mortgage, it was being used for parties. Throwing a party and buying a substantial amount of liquor, well, we know the dogs are not drinking this,” Jones said.
Many of the images Adams had used of the animals he supposedly rescued were recycled images from multiple campaigns and some were of missions that never occurred. Even his plans to buy his own plane were fake. Investigators learned the man who owned the plane Adams used in photos for his fundraising campaign had never been in negotiations to sell the plane and knew nothing about Adams. He was eventually convicted of five felonies for the deception, sentenced to 10 years of probation and barred from ever owning a charity.
But Adams isn’t the only one to use social media to scam unsuspecting donors.
While GoFundMe executives maintain that the number of fraudulent campaigns remains low, it does still occur.
“There’s some bad actors out there,” Rob Solomon, former CEO Of GoFundMe told NBC Nightly News in 2019. “Misuse on the platform is very, very, very rare, less than one tenth of 1 percent of campaigns result in any type of misuse.”
To track cases of fraud in crowdfunding campaigns, journalist Adrienne Gonzales founded GoFraudMe, a website devoted to exposing those who take advantage of others’ goodwill.
“I think the reason why the scams are so easy for the scammers to pull off is because nobody wants to question, you know, can I trust a story?,” Gonzales said on “American Greed.” “It doesn’t cross their mind that somebody would steal a photo of some random dog off the internet and then write this long sob story about [how] my dog got hit by a car.”
But there are some who take advantage of the public’s trust and generosity for their own benefit. One of the more prominent cases of fraud was carried out by Kate McClure, Mark D’Amico and Johnny Bobbitt.
The trio wove an elaborate tall tale that pulled on the country’s heartstrings and raised more than $400,000 on GoFundMe in 2017 after McClure claimed she had run out of gas during a night out in Philadelphia.
McClure said she had been stranded when Bobbitt—a homeless former Marine—approached her car and offered to walk to a nearby gas station and use his last $20 to purchase her gas.
The next day, McClure said she returned to the area with D’Amico, her boyfriend at the time, to find Bobbitt and give him some warm clothes, food and money. But the couple had wanted to do more and set up a GoFundMe account to help Bobbitt get back on his feet, pledging to help him get a used truck, new clothes and a few months of rent as part of the campaign.
The goal of their fundraising effort was $10,000 but when the story made national headlines it quickly soared to a total of $402,000.
The couple used some of the money to buy Bobbitt an RV, which they parked on their property, but by the summer of 2018 the case was making headlines again. This time, Bobbitt claimed he was homeless once again and told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he never got much of the money.
“Johnny said that he didn’t have his money,” Cydney Long, a reporter for WCAU told “American Greed.” “He claimed that he got $75,000 and that they were holding the money from him.”
McClure and D’Amico immediately went on the defensive, appearing on “The Today Show,” and claiming that Bobbitt still had somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000 but they were holding it for him because of logistical concerns.
“In the beginning it was as simple as he didn’t have a bank account. He had no documents, no ID, no birth certificate, nothing,” D’Amico said at the time.
He added the couple had also wanted to make sure that the money was protected in some way.
“We saw the pattern that was developing that he was going to do something foolish and end up right back where he was. Every dollar he ever touched was used for drugs,” D’Amico said, claiming the couple was in the process of getting Bobbitt his own lawyer and setting up a trust fund to distribute the money.
But Bobbitt filed a civil suit against the couple to access the funds and officials discovered that the money was gone.
The trio was soon part of a criminal investigation that concluded the entire story had been a hoax. McClure and D’Amico had met Bobbitt—who did live on the streets—nearly a month before the GoFundMe campaign was initiated. The trip to the gas station had never really happened and the story had been concocted to take advantage of generous donors.
After raising hundreds of thousands of dollars with the fake plea, authorities said McClure and D’Amico spent most of the money on themselves. They bought a BMW, spent $10,000 on purses, withdrew large quantities of cash and took a trip to Las Vegas.
McClure insisted that while she helped spend the money, D’Amico had been the alleged mastermind of the plot.
Federal authorities said Bobbitt had also been in on the con.
“He deserves our appreciation for his willingness to serve our country as a United States Marine but it is imperative to keep in mind that he was fully complicit with this scheme to defraud contributors,” Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina said while announcing charges against all three.
Bobbitt eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit theft by deception and a federal charge of conspiracy to commit money laundering. He was sentenced to five years of probation on the condition that he successfully complete a court drug program.
McClure also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit theft by deception and a federal charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud for her role in the crime. She’s awaiting sentencing in both cases.
D’Amico pleaded guilty to a state charge of misapplication of entrusted property but is also awaiting trial on federal charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. If he’s convicted, he could face up to 30 years in prison, according to “American Greed.”
GoFundMe returned the money donors had contributed to the campaign after the deception was revealed.
“In the rare case misuse does occur on GoFundMe, we take action to protect our donors. Our GoFundMe Guarantee—an industry first—ensures donations go to the right place or they will be refunded,” the company said in a statement to “American Greed.”
Hundreds of miles away, Alabama mom Jenny Flynn Cataldo also found a cunning way to fleece those around her.
Cataldo claimed to be suffering from terminal brain cancer that quickly spread throughout her body, causing her to lose one kidney and damaging the other, according to “American Greed.”
Believing their daughter was gravely ill, her parents dropped her off at her medical appointments and helped pay the struggling family’s bills.
“They were just paying the entire family’s bills. They paid their mortgage, grocery bills, light bills, everything. They would go and just ask her how much money she needed for the month and they would write a check,” Josh Moon, journalist for The Alabama Political Reporter told “American Greed.”
But, Cataldo also sought money from other sources and collected donations from churches, private sources and various crowdfunding campaigns on GoFundMe, including one plea for money to take her young son on a final trip to Disney World.
“This cancer roller coaster has been incredibly hard and incredibly draining and it’s gonna end incredibly horribly,” she said in one Facebook plea for money, according to Monday’s episode.
The community responded generously, raising more than $27,000 in one GoFundMe campaign and another $10,000 in her campaign to go to Disney World. It's estimated that, in total, she fraudulently raised more than $260,000.
Cataldo also made a bizarre claim to her father, Robert Flynn, that Alabama officials were trying to steal a $17 million medical malpractice verdict from her. The lie would ultimately be her undoing after Robert Flynn called Moon to report on the allegation for The Alabama Political Reporter.
Cataldo told Moon she was being represented in the case by attorney Jamie Muncus, who had been a childhood friend of the Flynn family.
But Muncus hadn’t spoken to Cataldo in years and was surprised to get a call from Moon about the supposed malpractice verdict.
“It was obvious she was using me,” Muncus told “American Greed.” “I hadn’t had any contact with Jenny in probably at least 25 years.”
Muncus determined there never was any $17 million verdict and reached out to the FBI, who began an investigation into the former school teacher.
Muncus assisted by agreeing to record all his conversations with Cataldo.
“I started thinking about all the other people who had given her money and at this time she was actively soliciting more and more money through the GoFundMe platform,” Muncas said, adding he even donated several hundred dollars himself to her campaign so that she would continue to talk to him.
Caltaldo was ultimately arrested in the spring of 2017. Investigators revealed her cancer diagnosis was bogus and she pleaded guilty to wire fraud and bank fraud and was sentenced to two years behind bars.
For more on these fraud cases, watch "American Greed," Monday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CNBC.