Cyberbegging sites proliferate online
Origianally from CanWest News Service Published: Monday, August 27, 2007
It was the summer of 2002. Karyn Bosnak, a 20-something TV producer in Brooklyn, N.Y., realized her penchant for Prada pumps and Gucci bags had sent her into financial free-fall. She’d lived beyond her means for too long, and her credit card statement was starting to resemble her annual salary.
Overwhelmed by her bills, she sent out a desperate plea into the online universe. It was a website: SaveKaryn.com.
“My name is Karyn, I’m really nice, and I’m asking for your help! You see, I have this huge credit card debt and I need $20,000 to pay it off. So if you have an extra buck or two, please send it my way!”
It was a nice idea. Naive, but sweet.
But it worked. Splendidly. Ms. Bosnak witnessed a miracle on the information superhighway. Somehow her plea meshed with the zeitgeist and her amateur website immediately got hits from people all over the world — one million in the first three months. And people were donating.
Media attention followed and, after all those interviews, Ms. Bosnak got even more donations. One week in August 2002, she bagged more than US$2,600 from generous strangers.
Thanks to those strangers and her own penny-pinching, the debt was gone within 20 weeks and Ms. Bosnak cut off donations and cut up her credit cards. In the end, she received $13,323.08. Just because she asked.
Ms. Bosnak has, in the online world, become the patron saint of Internet panhandling, also known as cyberbegging. (Online info-hub Wikipedia suggests “cause website” is a more politically correct term, but that rings falsely altruistic.)
Here’s the way it works: Say you’re broke, or at least short on funds. And you want to get out of debt. Or make next month’s rent. Or buy a car you can’t afford on your meagre salary. The solution is simple: Set up a website and ask for money. If you depend upon the kindness of strangers, you just might get lucky.
Or you might not.
Consider John Overholser. The 25-year-old wants to get rid of his own debt, then save for his upcoming wedding, maybe even a home. He launched www.MakeMeRetire. com. His haul? Only $160 in a few months. And most of that is from family and friends.
“It hasn’t really taken off yet,” Overholser says, but he keeps hoping it’ll be the next Save Karyn.
A few years ago, cyberbegging was seen as not much more than a gimmick to make a quick buck. Now it’s become big business. No one seems to know “how” big, but Yahoo and Google both have entire directories devoted to online panhandling, showing page after page of people with needs and dreams (“Please Help This Diabetic,” “Make Me Richer Than Bill Gates,” “I Like Meat But Can’t Afford It”). And by now, cyberbegging has become so mainstream, there are sites where those seeking cash can connect, get advice and advertise their needs.
Some of these sites, including CyberBeg.com and DonateMoney2Me.com, even charge a membership fee. That’s right — they charge you money to post a message asking for money. (Here’s a good one: At the dubious Millionairehelp.org, you can pay $35 to post your plea for six months — or $99 for a full year.)
An alternative: SaveMeSites.com, a site that allows users to post their needs and ask for donations. The site is free, and it has provided a forum for more than 16,000 panhandlers; about 3,500 of them are using free web pages on the site.
Steve Donohue, the webmaster of SaveMeSites.com, says he set it up in response to all those pay sites, which he believes are scams.
He worries that too many people are putting all their faith — and maybe all their money — into panhandling online. He’s seen thousands of people come and go without making a dime.
“I don’t think it works anymore,” he says with a sigh. “It really doesn’t. Karyn got about 13 grand and nobody since then has made anything like that kind of money. If you see a few people who make a few hundred (dollars), they’re doing good.”
The sheer volume of requests is overwhelming. If you clicked and read each one, it would take a week. Still, some of the most heartbreaking requests are also the most suspicious. Donohue says he has no way of knowing which users are telling the truth and which are running a scam: “I figure about 10 percent are made up.”
Of course, there are scams all over the Internet. And now lots of those scammers are zoning in on the desperate.
Donohue’s site lists about 50 scammers he’s identified recently–people preying on panhandlers with fake promises of money and misleading offers of help.
Cyberbegging has gotten serious. It’s gotten organized. It’s got scammers. But there’s only so much money and goodwill to go around, especially among strangers online. You wonder: Is it going to collapse under the weight of its own need?
If we didn’t have the web, would some of these Internet panhandlers be standing on street corners? Collecting spare change under bridges? Is this phenomenon the result of a shaky economy and an Internet-savvy population?
Not necessarily. It might just be the weird byproduct of a useful development.
Lee Rainie is the founding director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which releases all kinds of studies about Americans’ Internet use. He says cyberbegging is just a small part of the many ways we’re using the web to try to help each other.
Remember what happened after hurricane Katrina? All over the Internet, people started offering and asking for assistance.
“People were bypassing traditional relief organizations and doing do-it-yourself relief,” Rainie says. “They’d post a little note: ‘I’m driving my truck down with water and diapers and clothes — anybody want to go with me or contribute?’ ”
As far as cyberbegging goes, since Bosnak’s windfall, it’s not enough to just ask. The competition is so great, Internet panhandlers are now forced to come up with an entertaining new twist.
Look at Christine Kent. To raise money for an animal charity, she set up SaveBuster.com and wrote in the voice of her cat. She made more than $1,000.
Christopher Allbritton, a former Associated Press reporter, started blogging about the Iraq war at back-to-iraq.com. He got $15,000 from readers who wanted him to keep blogging from Baghdad, and he’s been doing so since 2003.
Then there’s Kyle MacDonald, the young man who famously made a series of trades that started with a red paper clip and ended with a house in Kipling, Sask.
Panhandling that provides donors with entertainment –perhaps it should be called “cyberbusking.”