- Written by CLAIRE SHEFCHIK
- Published: 17 October 2017
Faced with the images of devastation in the Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma, many of those with connections to the territory have been eager to help, reaching for the only weapon they had: their pocketbooks.
“We are in recovery mode right now. The most appropriate donation is a cash donation, and there is a fund set up by the government that can receive them,” said Sharleen DaBreo, director of the Department of Disaster Management.
The two official Hurricane Irma Relief funds are based in the United Kingdom and United States and hosted by fundraising sites JustGiving and Pledgeling.
But with dozens of online fundraising sites allowing hundreds of multinational organisations, small businesses and individuals to ask for cash, all claiming to help the islands, many would-be donors are struggling to decide who should get their cheque.
The VI government issued a statement Sept. 11 concerning the many Irma-related fundraisers being solicited.
“Several queries from the public have been received seeking confirmation of the authenticity of a number of the relief funds proposed for the British Virgin Islands in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma,” the statement read, urging those who begin funds to provide the government with “an indication of expected use of the funds so that the authenticity of the proceeds can be assessed.”
In the USVI, acting Attorney General Joycelyn Hewlett warned that the US Department of Justice National Center for Disaster Fraud had already received more than 400 complaints about scams related to Hurricanes Irma and Maria, including “fake charities claiming to be providing relief for victims.”
“While compassion, assistance, and solidarity are generally prevalent in the aftermath of natural disasters, unscrupulous individuals and organisations also use these tragic events to take advantage of those in need,” Ms. Hewlett said in the statement.
In this territory, fundraisers have brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars for various causes. So far, some of the most prominent organisations raising funds here are OneLoveBVI, founded by Jim Scott and Lauren Taylor, both former VI residents, and BVI Unite, sponsored by billionaire Sir Richard Branson, who owns Necker Island. The website for the latter says that Sir Richard himself is covering 100 percent of the overhead, so all donations will go directly to help local residents.
“Many of the people who left after Irma are sending money back here to try to help,” said real estate agent and consultant Jessica Fry, who has been helping coordinate aid from abroad. “But there’s a feeling that it’s just sitting there.”
Given that, many businesses big and small have taken it upon themselves to start online fundraisers, either for their employees or to help the islands generally. Among the hundreds of well-known entities with pages on GoFundMe or other sites are The Moorings, Conch Charters, Myett’s, De Loose Mongoose, Callwood Rum Distillery — and even a group called “BVI Mosquito Control.”
Deborah Buzzy, a US resident and frequent visitor to the territory for more than 25 years, eschewed the large charities and gave money to a small, family-run business in East End that she knew personally.
|This article originally appeared in the Oct. 12, 2017 edition.|
“I suggest you find a particular connection to assist the islands,” she said. “Corporations will always get back on their feet. It’s the small businesses that really need help.”
Staff ‘lost everything’
Kirstie Palmer of BVI Yacht Charters explained her inspiration for starting a GoFundMe page to help her employees.
“Every one of our staff lost something, whether it was a roof, house or belongings. We had so many people e-mailing, saying, ‘What can we do to help you?’ We became overwhelmed with support but didn’t know what they could do. We decided to set up the GoFundMe for any member of staff that lost something in Irma. It will help them build roofs, buy clothes, food and water and keep them on this island to help us all rebuild it.”
The campaign has already surpassed its $30,000 goal.
Cane Garden Bay resident Graeme MacCallum has set up a fundraiser on YouCaring to bring power and water back to his district using generators.
It has been successful so far, surpassing its $50,000 goal. However, he said not every fundraiser has good intentions.
“I know at least one fundraiser set up by a former islander who hasn’t lived here for four years,” he said.
Shakti Segura, a marketing consultant based in Carrot Bay, is helping one of her clients set up a post-Irma fundraiser. She said she also knew people based abroad who were capitalising on Irma, trying to raise funds for themselves.
“They haven’t been here for years, and are asking for money,” she said. “What do they need it for?”
A Monday search of the GoFundMe site using keywords “Virgin Islands” and “Irma” turned up 260 results.
A few pages set up immediately after the hurricane show photos of individuals claiming to have lost everything, asking for funds either to help them evacuate or rebuild their homes. Others claim to be collecting food, water and canned goods to “help the VI” but provide few details on who is collecting the money or who will receive it.
Some of them have been set up by former residents from as far away as the US and Switzerland.
Watching out for fraud
GoFundMe has a section of its website addressing the possibility of fraudulent campaigns. It reads in part: “In the wake of the damage caused by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, thousands of campaigns have been created on GoFundMe to help those affected. Our Trust and Safety team is working around the clock to ensure that donors understand how their donations are being used.”
They said funds may be put on hold unless they can demonstrate the following:
• who the person raising funds is;
• their relationship to the parties they’re raising funds for;
• how the funds will be spent; and
• the plan to get the funds to the recipient.
Site staff urge anyone who suspects fraudulent activity to report it. Victims of fraud may qualify for a refund.
The site also states, “While GoFundMe and its payment partners do provide a number of safeguards to deter fraud, we must insist that visitors follow the advice stated on each and every campaign: Only donate to people you personally know and trust.”
In addition, according to GoFundMe, its site isn’t compatible with bank accounts from United Kingdom territories. Anyone running a campaign through GoFundMe in the VI must go through a third party in a country compatible with the site.
Ms. Segura offered similar advice as GoFundMe, saying that her client’s campaign “won’t be asking for money from strangers.”
“We expect that the only people who will give are customers that we’ve already worked with and who know and trust us,” she said. “Only give money to people you know.”