Reddit Donation Scandal Prompts Caution on 'Anonymous' Giving

Homeless man's hope to salvage Christmas causes mini-scandal on popular site.

Some Reddit users are concerned that anonymous scrooges are soliciting free gifts for themselves.
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In fact, most experts on charitable giving would recommend that you avoid giving to strangers you don't know, and instead donate your money to organizations with clear and transparent track records.

"The problem with a lot of these individual efforts is that it's basically the same problem of the Wild West," says Ken Berger, CEO of Charity Navigator, an organization that vets and ranks different charities. "The good, the bad, and the ugly are all out there. The opportunity for scamming is immense."

There's this notion, Berger says, that by going straight to the individual that you can "cut out the middleman, cut out the overhead" so that your dollar goes further. "But the fact is that you could end up wasting the entire donation if it's one of these scams." But he also points out that larger organizations, because of their ability to scale, may have more connections and creative programs that can help those in need in ways that individuals cannot.

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And just because you're donating to a major organization doesn't necessarily eliminate the personal connection between those who give and those who receive.

"There are national operations and local," says Bill Grein, vice president of marketing and development for Toys for Tots, which provided gifts to over 7 million children last year. "Some of the volunteer areas, because they're rural, these folks know each other. So they have the credibility because they've been there [for decades]."

In the case of Reddit, despite all the hand wringing and outrage, no one had any clear evidence Rogers was scamming the site. There seemed no real doubt that Rogers was who he said he was. In addition to posting a photo of his daughter, he also provided a scanned image of a Health and Human Services letter for his food stamps, which included the address for the shelter. In response to claims that he would merely repackage the gifts and sell them on eBay, he offered to post photos of Jennifer opening the presents and then more later of him destroying the packages. At least one Redditor vouched for meeting him in person, and a local news crew even filmed him at the shelter.

Cayla Layman, a Reddit participant from Mississippi who had been involved in the thread since the very beginning, thinks the episode is more a case of Internet mob mentality than any attempt at a scam. "A lot of them just grabbed their pitchforks and joined in the crowd," she says. "They weren't really there for the whole story. They didn't personally message him or ask about his situation."

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Even Grile, who exposed several of the Shack News threads that many found so damning, has had second thoughts over the whole ordeal. "At first, I felt like a badass Reddit policeman," he wrote in an email. "But as comments started pouring in from people I just really began to feel really terrible and had to get off Reddit because the comments were so upsetting."

Many who donated to Rogers made no effort to rescind their orders, leaving one to question whether the episode had any real negative impact on the site's charitable giving. Were those claiming they'd never donate because of what happened even likely to have donated at all?

"I actually did some checking into a couple of those people," says BadBrowni. "None of them had donated before. It was like those internet boycotts where people said they wouldn't shop at such and such a place that they'd never visited in their lives."

In fact, he found that traffic to the subreddit the next day increased tenfold, leading to an increase in charitable giving there.

BadBrowni feels that despite the negativity, the free publicity for Random Acts of Christmas did something positive.

"All in all, our homeless friend was good for RAOC," he wrote in a chat message. "God bless the law of unintended consequences."

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