It began as any uplifting holiday story should. Kevin Rogers, a homeless Houston resident, set out last week to find Christmas presents for his 7-year-old daughter Jennifer. The two live in one of the only shelters in the city that would house a father and his child. Rogers, 37, has been a single father for five years now after splitting up with Jennifer's mother when the child was two.
"We struggled along in hotels for two years, selling pretty much all I had in possessions, and finally got to the point where I had no more money," Rogers says. "We lived in our car for 10 days before finding this shelter."
It was in the wake of all this financial difficulty that Rogers stumbled across an online social community on the Reddit website called Random Acts of Christmas. Though he didn't know it at the time, he would soon find himself the subject of a heated online battle, at the mercy of an Internet mob determined to expose him as a fraud. The incident would bring to life a fierce debate on the nature of charitable giving in an online world of semi-anonymity, leaving Reddit users questioning how they can ever truly trust a faceless pseudonym claiming to be in need of their help.
The concept of Random Acts of Christmas is simple: You're either a giver or a receiver. In the new community, users who were in need of gifts could post a request to the subreddit, always with a link to an Amazon wishlist of items. Often these requests are on the behalf of children, and as verification the users post photos of the child holding a sign that mentions the subreddit. Alternatively, a user can also post an item he or she wants to gift to someone.
"[Random Acts of Christmas] ended up generating over $8,000 of gifting in 2011," says BadBrowni, a moderator of the subreddit who asked that his real name not be used.
So last week Rogers posted a new thread to the subreddit with a photo of him and his daughter, a link to an Amazon wishlist, and a plea for help. The outpouring of gifts was almost immediate, with users flocking to the comments section to list out their purchases. A user who went by the handle sngldad13 bought 12 items from the list in a single swipe. "Wow. May the real life karma come back to you tenfold! Brought tears to my eyes just seeing that list," wrote one Redditor in response to the purchase.
But when Rogers' request made the high-traffic front page of Reddit, some began asking hard questions.
Purdue University student Steven Grile stumbled across the thread after it made the front page and, while reading the discussion, discovered some startling accusations aimed at Rogers.
It turns out Rogers had made a number of controversial posts on a gaming forum called Shack News. In one posting, Rogers, who at the time was complaining about his struggle to raise his daughter, admitted to going to a strip club. In another, he mentioned a vintage Atari collection that he was reluctant to sell off, a statement that raised the ire of many commenters who thought he should be doing anything he could to bring in money for his family.
More than once he was accused by forum users of being a deadbeat moocher who used his daughter to generate sympathy and obtain free things.
"What really set me off was after people bought him gifts [from Amazon], he added more gifts, things that could be easily resold on eBay," says Grile. "For people living in a shelter—I don't know if it's me being ignorant or being a jerk—it just really rubbed me the wrong way."
Rogers denies the accusations that he simply wanted to resell the gifts, and he admits maybe he should have been more circumspect in what he confessed on Shack News.
"I've been more forthcoming with information than I should have," Rogers says. "But everything I've posted on there is true. Out of thousands of people who are on there, there are a handful of people I rubbed the wrong way."
The tone of the original Random Acts of Christmas thread quickly shifted, with users engaged in a virtual pile-on. What's more, many claimed that the incident made them more reluctant to donate goods to strangers. "Sh*t like this is why I keep my money in my pocket," wrote one user. "I would gladly give every dime I own for a child to have Christmas but this a**hole makes that impossible for me." Those who had originally donated were encouraged to cancel their Amazon orders if they still could.
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.
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."
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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