By Vicente Vera
Fraudsters and opportunists are always looking for ways to take advantage of collective grief and a community’s desire to financially support victims of tragedy.
That was no different in San Jose after a disgruntled VTA employee opened fire Wednesday at a rail yard in downtown San Jose, killing nine of his colleagues before committing suicide.
Within hours of the shooting rampage, scammers swooped into San Jose looking to make a quick buck. It’s not uncommon in the aftermath of disasters: There have been scams related to San Jose’s disastrous Coyote Creek floods in 2017, Hurricane Katrina and even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It started with a fake GoFundMe campaign for Michael Rudometkin, one of the nine men killed in the mass shooting last week. The fraud was uncovered by Councilmember Raul Peralez, a close childhood friend of the fallen VTA worker, and subsequently deleted. But then two new donation pages surfaced on GoFundMe and remain unverified by the site.
Created at about 10 a.m. on Monday, a user identifying themselves as Anthony Cremona living in San Jose started a campaign with a $25,000 goal. He stated the campaign was “For affected familie [sic] of the San Jose VTA shooting.”
The page is not believed to be connected to any of the victims’ family members. Cremona did not respond to a request for comment through inquiries made to his GoFundMe page and Facebook profile.
No money has been donated to the page as of yet.
Verifying the legitimacy of a donation campaign can be tricky. They can be created under fictitious names and include publicly available photos and testimony—making it seem as if the page was created by someone close to the funds’ supposed beneficiary.
At least an hour before the names of the nine men killed in the shooting were released, a scammer began a GoFundMe page dedicated to a man named Ben Carson. That name does not belong to one of the victims.
In the early weeks of the widespread COVID-19 outbreak, Santa Clara County’s Public Health Department released a disclaimer warning residents of scammers who may try and “solicit money, gain entry into your home, or (ask) you to divulge private and personal information about your health or finances.”
Scams also rose after the Coyote Creek flooding in 2017 when men claiming to be contractors billed customers for incomplete work, the customers said. Even firefighter impersonators popped up in the wake of the California wildfires last year, reportedly looking to loot homes.
Peralez told San José Spotlight that Rudometkin’s sister told him about the fake donation page, which was created under the name of a cousin.
“They sent it to me and my team notified the authorities, then I did that post,” Peralez said, referring to a Facebook post in which he alerted the public about the scam.
Meanwhile, for another victim’s family, duplicate fundraising campaigns could cause confusion for potential donors.
Gerilyn Serauskis, a friend of Alex Fritch’s family, launched the family’s first fundraising campaign on May 27. She has since raised more than $68,000.
But another campaign recently surfaced on behalf of the family that has collected $310 in the past day. It was not verified by GoFundMe.
But Serauskis told San José Spotlight the second campaign was created by a family friend to raise money for Fritch’s children and their education.
“We are new to (online) fundraising, so we’re still trying to navigate GoFundMe and she’s reaching out to them to get everything verified,” Serauskis said. “I’m glad there’s someone out there checking to see if all the fundraisers out there are real.”
VTA spokesperson Stacey Hendler Ross said that the only two fundraising campaigns the transit service has independently vetted are the Working Partnerships USA support fund and the Amalgamated Transit Union disaster relief fund.
“We posted public information about these funds on our Twitter pages,” she told San José Spotlight. “(Those) are the two funds that VTA has vetted and is supporting.”
In light of at least two fraudulent GoFundMe pages, the popular fundraising platform created a trusted landing page specifically for the VTA shooting with at least eight verified campaigns benefitting the victims’ families.
“We are actively monitoring the platform for any related fundraisers,” said Nicole Santos, a spokeswoman for GoFundMe. “Our dedicated Trust & Safety team is monitoring the platform around the clock and will work with organizers to ensure that all funds raised are transferred directly to those affected.”
To learn how you can help the victims’ families, including by donating to their verified GoFundMe campaigns, click here.
Contact Vicente Vera at email@example.com or follow him @vicentejvera on Twitter.
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This article was originally published by The San José Spotlight.