Social media fundraising for refugees: A dream nightmare come true

Story and slideshow by JACE BARRACLOUGH

The creation of social media has connected people worldwide. For some, it’s a tool used to help refugees of war-torn countries. Through various organizations, a person can simply click a link that redirects them to a donation site where they can send money to provide relief to refugees struggling to survive financially, medically and educationally. But, knowing where the money is going is crucial.

Humanwire is a website geared toward assisting refugee families. It claims 100 percent of donations go to the cause. It was founded by Andrew Baron in Boulder, Colorado, in November 2015. It has marketed itself by encouraging its followers to share personal stories of their supported refugee families and donation campaigns via social media. Just like most businesses, Humanwire understands that word of mouth from those you trust bridges the gap between hesitation and execution when it comes to buying a product — or in this case, donating money.

“I was made aware of it because of another friend who posted about it on social media,” says Molly Jackson of Park City, Utah, in a phone interview. “When I saw her experience and how easy it was … [I said] I’m going to do that.”

Humanwire allows donors to choose a refugee family to support by way of social media-like profiles on its website. The amount that is donated, whether all at once or collectively, allows donors greater or lesser degrees of interaction with the family. Individuals providing smaller donations are awarded limited information about the family they have sponsored, whereas larger donations allow you to interact with them via live-stream on Skype.

Jackson says she hasn’t donated or posted about it for months. However, she receives email notifications that friends and strangers alike continue to donate to her chosen family as a result of her old social media posts. She’s received single donations to her Humanwire account totaling $1,000 to support her refugee family. Some are from people she doesn’t even know.

“It’s as easy as posting an Instagram post,” she says. “You just say, ‘Look at these people. They are in need. I’m the host. Here’s the link. Donate your money.’”

Trusting that their friends and loved ones are vetting the organization, it has left little thought for many to follow through with the research portion of the company before handing over their hard-earned dollars.

In the summer of 2017 it was claimed in a YouTube video, posted by Humanwire’s co-founder Andrew Baron, that the director of its “Tent to Home” program, Anna Segur, had stolen $10,000 via ATM withdrawals.

“The theft was followed by intense slander, criminal activity and harassment,” Baron says in the description portion of his video. “She caused many people to join her cause, misleading volunteers to believe that she owns and controls Tent to Home, and causing many of our staff members to quit out of pure fear for her slander.”

The other co-founder of Humanwire, Mona Ayoub, was living in Lebanon, taking care of the company’s donations, schools, students, teachers, employees, and registering refugees. In August 2017 after the funds stopped, Ayoub said via Facebook Messenger, she flew to the United States to get to the bottom of the issue. Unfortunately, she discovered Baron had mismanaged the funds and misrepresented the way they were being used. She said Baron claimed the money had gone toward operating costs even though Humanwire had promised all donated funds would go to the refugees.

In September 2017, Baron later admitted to the Denver Post to have taken as much as $80,000 over the last two years. However, after a police investigation, it was discovered that Baron had taken over $100,000 from Humanwire and was arrested on felony charges of charity fraud and theft.

Ayoub submitted her letter of resignation on November 1, 2017.

“Had I known the extent of mismanagement and misrepresentation prior to traveling to the United States, I would have resigned immediately,” Ayoub said.

Yet more problems have surfaced since the claims against Humanwire. The organization has started to lose its partnerships with other organizations dedicated to helping refugees.

“Standing With Alana” is a group whose mission is bringing awareness and aid to the Yezidi people from Syria who are facing a genocide at the hands of ISIS.

On October 8, 2017, Standing With Alana announced via Facebook, “Standing With Alana is no longer working through Humanwire due to financial problems within the organization. We are now communicating directly through Yezidi Emergency Support (YES).”

Yezidi Emergency Support team leader Anne Norona was one of Humanwire’s contacts overseas. As Baron tried to extinguish the flames of ridicule on Humanwire’s Facebook page, Norona added more fuel by expressing her frustrations in a reply to Baron’s YouTube video, which he later shared on Humanwire’s Faceboook page.

“I asked you in JUNE to send the money when I last went to Iraq,” she says. “There are FOUR Yezidi families you owe a LOT of money to.”

With allegations publicized, both internally and from its partners, it has left donors wondering what happened with the money intended to help their refugee families.

“I did photo shoots and donated all the money I made to them,” says Terra Cooper of Syracuse, Utah. “It was a sacrifice for my family since usually that’s how I pay for our Christmas.”

Through Humanwire, donors like Cooper have their own financial account to hold money for their refugee family. Whenever the family needs certain items they can use that money to purchase them on Humanwire’s site and have it delivered by local representatives. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work?

“I’ve released money for surgeries and medical bills and they’ll send me a picture of them holding the check,” Cooper said in a phone interview. “They’ve been good at sending that kind of stuff.”

However, she says she’s noticed over the last few months things haven’t quite been the same. Cooper has had approximately $1,000 left of the $3,000 she raised in her family’s account, but she has been unable to use it.

“I’ve been trying to release that $1,000 for their rent for three or four months and it still hasn’t been released,” she says. “I have been emailing them and I haven’t heard back.”

Cooper even went as far as commenting on Humanwire’s Facebook page asking for answers, but says her post was deleted by the company. When trying to get in touch with her point of contact, she was made aware that person had left the organization.

“I’m sick about it,” she says. “I don’t care about me, though. That money was supposed to be rent money for my refugee family.”

Cooper’s love for her refugee family, with whom she has kept in contact, is what has fueled her to investigate the dealings of her funds. After all, at the end of the day it’s the refugees, not the donors, who suffer the biggest loss.

“The organization did do a lot of good in the beginning,” says Laurel Sandberg-Armstrong, a donor of Humanwire. “My guess is they expanded too fast and lost control,” She said in a phone interview.

The Federal Trade Commission encourages anyone who is thinking about donating to a charity to do research beforehand. Well-known organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) are generally good options for those wanting to donate.

Humanwire was contacted for comment. An employee replied via Facebook Messenger saying the accusations were misunderstood and they still encourage people to support their organization.

“Humanwire is awesome,” a representative from Humanwire said in a Facebook message. “Please give it a try and see for yourself.”

 

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Scammers prey on elder finances

by Alicia Williams

Editor’s note: The names in this story have been changed to protect identity.

“They’ve cleaned out my checking account for the last three months in a row,” 74-year-old Lilly said. “It’s a scam. Instead of depositing the money; they’ve stolen my Social Security.”

Lilly throughly reads each piece of her mail.

We’ve heard the heartbreaking stories far too often. Elderly theft occurs all over the United States to a variety of people in vastly different ways. But all the victims have one vulnerable commonality, trust. And that’s exactly what today’s thieves are banking on when they target the elderly.

Lilly said she received a fax from a business developer in Switzerland. He wanted her to invest his $22.5 million into small businesses in the United States. She had to pay the money back, in six years, but he would give her 50 percent of the profits. Con artists may create new, unique lies, but their techniques are always the same. Gain their trust, and then steal their money.

In an effort to expose the true magnitude of the problem, the MetLife Mature Market Institute published the results of their March 2009 study “Broken Trust: Elders, Family, and Finances.’’ The authors estimate elderly victims in 2008 lost $2.6 billion.

The MMMI study reports several tips to help prevent financial abuse of older adults. It’s important to keep all mail and records organized to avoid easy access to financial information. It suggests keeping informed of new scams and fraud tactics to watch out for, and most importantly, stay alert to possible situations where financial abuse can occur.

The study also that showed financial abuse is most frequently committed by a family member, friend, caretaker or someone in close contact with the victim. However, the highest theft profits came from business and industry crimes, which accounted for more than half of elderly financial losses.
Commercial organizations exude trustworthiness. Most elderly have a very trusting nature, and they often believe it must be legitimate if it’s a business. Unfortunately, dishonest businesses only operate to steal money, and the thefts are often applied in cunning, unique ways. The following true stories are good examples of the more common approaches people should be aware of.
The MMMI study shows information is a powerful defensive tool that elderly people can use to protect themselves from fraud. Taking the time to intricately explain common fraud tactics to your elderly loved ones could potentially save them from 21st Century crooks.

Dishonest Lending Institutions
Alma, 72, and her husband, Sione, live on a fixed income of $1,540 a month derived from Social Security and a small retirement pension. Alma is soft-spoken and extremely polite. She said their financial problems began in 2008 after she phoned a loan company advertising “fast money.” She’d promised her grandson some funds for his wedding.
Unfamiliar with mortgage loan intricacies, Alma and Sione signed for a high-risk second mortgage loan that has jeopardized her family’s financial security and their home.

“I needed the money, and they were nice. They handled everything over the phone, and they came to my home so we could sign the papers,” Alma said.

The company didn’t require any pre-qualifications for income, credit, or debt to ratio. The last monthly statement provided the principal balance of the first mortgage, and a tax notice established the value of their home. After confirming there was substantial equity, the lender approved the loan and closed it within 48 hours.

Alma said she didn’t know the 30-year loan for $10,000 has an interest rate of 29 percent. “Is that bad?” she asks. In fact, she doesn’t remember much about the transaction, other than the title people told her a monthly payment amount she said “sounded right.”
The new payment is $349 a month, but when you add it to their existing first mortgage payment of $1,065, they’re now paying $1,414 a month. That leaves them exactly $126 a month to live on.

They can’t afford the payments Alma said, and the lender has started foreclosure proceedings. Alma said she’s very afraid her family will find out. She’s too embarrassed to ask her brother for help, she said, and she doesn’t want to financially burden her children.
“My husband is very ashamed. He doesn’t like me to talk about it,” Alma said. “Sometimes at night, I can’t sleep. I know it was a mistake, but we needed the money.”

Alma said she still doesn’t know if the lending company did anything wrong. Despite all of her current financial problems she said she would do the loan again, she really needed the money.

Miracle Cures and Consumer Scams

A few of the products Lilly takes each day to keep herself healthy.

Some elderly are desperate for age-defying products. Lilly’s intense energy is barely contained as she describes the wondrous product that’s changed her life, water. The multi-level marketing company’s Web site reports the alkaline ionized water to be “rich in minerals, purged of free radicals and free of contamination.”

Currently, Lilly buys the water by the gallon from a local distributor; she had 30 of them in the back of her mini van, a month’s supply. But, she said she’s saving money so she can buy her own machine. She quickly explains how the $4,000 machine pays for itself. Once she’s a distributor, she only needs to get eight people to buy one, and then she’s made all her money back, plus she’ll get to drink the water for free.

There’s a problem though, Lilly can’t seem to save any money. Recently divorced, her only source of income is an $868 monthly Social Security check. She’s rented a place with her twin sister, Diane, after losing her home to foreclosure in July. They’re two months behind, and they were served a three-day eviction recently, but Lilly said it’s not her fault.
Investment scammers drained her checking account. The bank has assured her the money stolen last month will be returned Lilly said, because they convinced her to keep the account open. She said she’ll pay her rent, when she gets her money back.

Within a few minutes, Lilly switches the conversation back to health products. “You wanna know why I’m so healthy?” she asks with a broad smile. “I drink Alaska’s wild blueberries. They keep me young.”

Confidence Scams
Not all elderly fraud victims are poorly informed or easily deceived. Bill, 83, is a retired structural ironworker. He considers himself very business savvy as the owner of several rental properties in Utah and Pennsylvania. He said his wife of 51 years, who passed away in March 2008, was a licensed realtor and investor.

In 2007, the couple contacted a title company to obtain information about a potential investment. The friendly title officer paid special attention to them, eventually creating a personal relationship. Bill said that’s when she extended an invitation to invest in her private real estate venture.

Actually, the first investment was very good, Bill said. In late December of 2007, the couple loaned the title officer $15,000 as a second mortgage on her fixer-up property. She paid the loan back with interest by July 2008. One month later, Bill, now without his wife’s expertise, loaned her $50,000, on the same property. Only this time, the loan wasn’t put on the property as a second mortgage; Bill was placed in a very risky, forth position.

“Trustful. I really trusted her,” Bill said. “Why wouldn’t I?”

The title officer made two mortgage payments, before she stopped paying altogether. Bill said she periodically contacted him, during the foreclosure process. Then one week before the property went to auction, she requested an additional $15,000 loan from him. She said she really wanted to try saving it. Bill said he politely declined.

Because the home didn’t sell at the November foreclosure auction, the title reverted to the first mortgage lender. The second, third and fourth lenders all lost their investments. Bill said the experience has made him more aware. He’ll definitely speak with an attorney in the future to avoid being taken advantage of again, especially by someone he thought he could trust.

“As far as I know, it’s (the $50,000) a complete loss,” Bill said. “But, she keeps promising me that she’s gonna pay me back, even though they’re going bankrupt.”