With so many people seeking so much money—ostensibly for good causes—via sites such as Fundly, Kickstarter or GoFundMe, perhaps you’ve wondered if a person could go to jail for a fundraising scam when funds are collected for a stated purpose but instead are used in other ways.
The answer is: Yes, you could—because it’s a crime.
Specifically, such theft is among many types of crimes that are classified as white-collar crimes. Those are non-violent crimes, yet they can send you to prison just as surely as convictions for violent crimes such as robbery, assault or murder.
What penalties do white-collar defendants in Texas face if convicted of a non-violent offense?
Take the case of a woman from New Jersey who was just sentenced to 1 year and 1 day in prison for a GoFundMe scam that had brought in donations of over $400,000. Those funds were gathered purportedly to help a homeless man in Philadelphia who’d befriended her—but instead were kept mostly by the woman and her boyfriend at the time.
Their campaign became big news, with the couple even appearing on TV. In the end, the fundraising effort pulled in money from about 14,000 donors around the country and the world. They’d believed a fabricated story that the woman had run out of gas and met the homeless man, who gave her his last $20 to buy gas.
While some of the money collected by the fundraiser went to the homeless man, most of it was spent by the woman and her then-boyfriend. They used it to pay for a New Year’s visit to Las Vegas, gambling in casinos there and in New Jersey, a BMW, Louis Vuitton handbags and other items.
Federal charge leads to jail sentence
According to a report by CNN, the woman pleaded guilty to 1 count of theft by deception in the 2nd degree, a federal charge.
Last week she was sentenced in a U.S. District Court in Burlington County, NJ. Her sentencing included an order to pay restitution and serve 3 years of supervised release after her 366 days in jail, according to court documents.
It could have been worse. She could have faced as many as 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Others were involved in the scheme
She’s not the only one who was caught in the GoFundMe scheme, which was launched in 2017.
Her former boyfriend pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit theft by deception. He received a 27-month sentence in a New Jersey prison and was ordered to pay restitution to GoFundMe and donors of the campaign. (GoFundMe also has made refunds to many people who donated to the cause.)
The homeless man actually existed and was part of the scheme. In fact, he reportedly received $75,000 of the money.
USA Today reported that law officers started investigating after the homeless man sued the couple, claiming they’d kept money that should have been his.
He also pleaded guilty to the federal charge of conspiracy to commit theft by deception and was sentenced to a 5-year special probationary period, including a drug treatment program.
The man will be expected to find employment and follow a structured regimen of treatment and recovery services. If he fails to do so, he could face a 5-year prison sentence.
The woman and her former boyfriend also face state charges.
White-collar crimes have many forms
Non-violent white-collar crimes such as theft, money laundering, embezzlement, fraud, identity theft and bribery can lead to prison and hefty fines, as well as loss of reputation and damage to one’s career.
Of course, not everyone who faces a claim, accusation or charge of such a crime is guilty. Sometimes innocent persons are snared in the widely cast nets of law enforcement sting operations.
A Neal Davis client was the only one of 21 defendants to get probation—not prison—in a recent federal telemarketing fraud case involving $300 million.
Whatever the case, if you or a family member faces a Texas or federal charge for theft, fraud or some other white-collar crime, you should consult an experienced white-collar criminal defense attorney immediately.
Persons in Houston or throughout Harris County, Fort Bend County or Montgomery County can contact the award-winning Neal Davis Law Firm for legal help. While known for handling the defense of many types of criminal cases, our law firm also is nationally recognized for its work involving white-collar crimes.
In fact, Neal Davis has been named among the top 5 percent of defense attorneys in America for white-collar crimes each year since 2015. Those honors are from the publication Best Lawyers in America and were decided by confidential peer reviews.