The viral story of Keaton Jones began when his mother posted a video to social media, showing a tearful 11-year-old addressing the bullies who called him ugly and poured milk on his head.
“What’s the point of it? Why do you find joy in taking innocent people and finding a way to be mean them?” Jones asks, choking back tears. “People that are different don’t need to be criticized about it.”
The video was viewed more than 22-million times on Kimberly Jones’s, Keaton’s mother, personal Facebook page with celebrities like Justin Bieber, Mark Ruffalo, Katy Perry, Chris Evans, and LeBron James among others offering support for Keaton, with Evans even inviting Keaton to attend next year’s Avengers sequel.
But just as the story spread like wildfire across the Internet, so too did the backlash after social media posts showed the Tennessee family appearing to pose with Confederate flags. Another bizarre twist to the story came after reports indicated Keaton’s estranged father is a white supremacist currently in prison.
Jones confirmed to ABC News the images of the family were real but the family is not racist.
“I feel like anybody who wants to take the time to ask anybody who I am or even troll through some other pictures, I mean, I feel like we’re not racist,” Jones said. “I mean, people that know us, know us.”
As the viral story began to spread, scammers and other fraudsters attempted to capitalize on Jones’ meteoric rise to fame, with a fraudulent Instagram account attempting to solicit PayPal donations and several crowdfunding pages popping up.
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Nearly a 1,000 miles away from Tennessee, a father in New Jersey touched by the video created a GoFundMe campaign that reached nearly US$58,000.
“I decided to do this GoFundMe to help with this child’s future. I know that money may not be the answer for this problem that we are facing in our communities with bullying,” Joseph Lam said in his original post.
Global News reached out to Lam for an interview but did not receive a response.
Questions about crowdfunding
Early last week, Lam paused the donations amid questions about Keaton’s story and his mother. The campaign actually fell to just under $55,000 after people began asking for refunds.
The Jones story is a cautionary tale about sudden social media fame and questions about the accountability of crowdfunding.
Toronto charity tax lawyer Mark Blumberg said crowdfunding sites often face challenges of accountability as money can be raised for anyone or anything.
“In many cases, there is no due diligence really on the project or what is being funded,” Blumberg said. “You have none of the normal safeguards with crowdfunding that you would have with a registered charity.”
Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, GoFundMe and Indiegogo raise billions of dollars each year. GoFundMe alone raised roughly $5 billion from its crowdfunding campaigns in 2017.
While exact statistics on how widespread fraud among crowdfunding sites are hard to come by, there is report after report after report of it happening. Police in Hamilton, Ont., launched a fraud investigation earlier this month into an unauthorized GoFundMe account raising money for funeral expenses for a murder victim Yosif Al-Hasnawi.
“In my experience in Canada, prosecutors don’t seem that interested in the issue of charity fraud and people doing things that are highly nefarious as it relates to charities,” Blumberg said. “They have sort of abandoned the field, it appears.”
A spokesperson for GoFundMe said the organization uses “multiple layers of protection” to ensure the safety and security of all donors and campaign organizers.
“We deploy proprietary fraud prevention technical tools and have multiple processes to verify the identity of campaign organizers,” said Rachel Hollis in an email.
“We have a community of 50 million users — when they see something they think might not be right, they tell us, and our team looks into it. If a campaign receives a complaint, the funds cannot be withdrawn until the issue is resolved.”
Here are five tips on how to avoid fraudulent crowdfunding:
- Avoid pages with minimal information. Look for pages that list who is raising money, who the funds are for, the relationship to the person receiving the funds, and how the funds will be spent.
- Contact the person who created the campaign directly. Crowdfunding sites generally make it easy to email the users who’ve created a campaign.
- Always perform a reverse image search with Google. Some fraudsters will steal a photo of a child or dog in need to elicit sympathy for their campaign. Right-click the main photo on the GoFundMe page and select “Search Google for image.” Lots of similar results could mean the campaign is fake.
- Check the social media accounts of crowdfund campaigners. Social media accounts that are created around the same time as the crowdfunding campaign or have limited engagement can be warning signs.
- Look for updates from contributors. The more engagement, like updates or “thank you” notes, are a good sign.
“If it’s someone that you know and you’re very familiar with the people engaged and involved with it, then I think crowdfunding may make perfect sense,” Blumberg said. “If it is something more broad where you need a greater level of accountability … then people should think in terms of a registered charity.”
Meanwhile, Lam has said he is still hoping “something good” can be done with the money raised for Keaton. He has suggested $25,000 could go towards a college fund for Keaton, while the money could also be donated to two other families who lost their children to suicide following incidents of bullying.