Shamokin fire victim's family claim fundraising fraud
CECIL, N.J. - The family of a teen who died in a Shamokin fire Dec. 10 claims a woman who asked for donations on gofundme.com hasn't given any of the money to the family.
Joseph "Wes" Vecchio said Victoria Fortune, of 1625 Pulaski Ave., Coal Township, started a page on the crowdfunding website Dec. 10, the day his stepdaughter, Melissa Lee "Missy" Pangburn, 13, of 5 S. Rock St., died in a fire that also destroyed five row homes.
A Dec. 10 post on Fortune's Facebook page said, "please donate to the family that have lost their daughter for funeral expenses and other expenses. RIP MISSY" and included a link to the gofundme.com site.
The page couldn't be found Wednesday, but a cache search showed a version from Sunday. Vecchio said Fortune deleted the page shortly after Pangburn's mother, Barbara Wiley, contacted Fortune on Facebook Wednesday. Fortune also blocked Wiley on Facebook Wednesday, Vecchio said.
Vecchio said Wednesday Fortune visited the family shortly after the fire and said she'd do what she could to help Pangburn's family. Six weeks later, none of the donations have made their way to the teen's family.
"We have not received any donated money from this woman," Vecchio said. "I feel she will do this again."
Page said $705
Vecchio said donors raised more than $700 in his stepdaughter's name during December, but the page hadn't been updated in about a month.
Fortune, who contacted The News-Item by phone Friday, said Pangburn's family said they didn't want her help, but she was unable to cancel the website before people started donating money.
"I tried canceling it when my friend bought them a carseat. They said they had everything they needed and they didn't want the money," Fortune said.
Wiley said she overheard Fortune tell the friend she'd reimburse her for the carseat from the $500 already raised on the website. That was Dec. 12, Wiley added.
"She said when she reached $1,000, she would give the money to our family," Wiley said.
Fortune said GoFundMe wouldn't allow her to suspend the fundraising page in the beginning, but she successfully canceled it completely Wednesday. According to the website, a page can be canceled at any time by clicking the "Turn off donations" button in account settings.
Fortune said she doesn't know how much her page raised, how much the company kept in fees, if any was returned to donors or if any money was sent to her by GoFundMe.
"If the money doesn't go back to the people who donated, I'm more than willing give them (Pangburn's family) something every month. I'm more than willing to do that even if the money goes back to the donors.
"I'm not a thief," she said.
When asked why she would make monthly installments instead of an in-full payment - assuming the money hasn't been returned to donors and is in fact, according to GoFundMe's policy, in her possession - she said she doesn't know where the money is.
A Coal Township man, who asked to remain anonymous, donated $25 on Fortune's site. He said the money was drawn from his bank account Dec. 17 and he hasn't received a refund of any kind.
Vecchio said he's been in contact with Shamokin police Patrolman Raymond Siko II. The family plans to press charges if police determine a crime has been committed.
Siko said Thursday he is still trying to determine if Fortune broke the law and, if so, which department would handle it. Because Vecchio and his family live in New Jersey, Fortune lives in Coal Township and the money was raised on a website that reaches people worldwide, Siko is unsure if city police would even be involved.
"We're all in limbo," Siko said.
Claimed to be a firefighter
Fortune was interviewed by a WNEP news crew the day of the fire and said, "Being a firefighter and I feel sorrow for the family(sic). I wish I was here to provide help for them, but all we can do is give our thoughts and prayers to the family." Despite claiming to be a firefighter, she has no training, according to Greg Berezovske, fire chief of Beaverdale, where Fortune and her husband, Wayne, are members. Wayne has some training, and Victoria "helps out when she's around," Berezovske said.
Berezovske first heard about the situation when he was messaged by a member of Pangburn's family on a social media site.
"We knew nothing about it until Facebook," he said. He said Beaverdale Fire Company was not involved in the fundraising efforts.
Vecchio said neighbors and friends were generous after the fatal blaze, and many handed them money and gift cards to help them through the tough time. A benefit held by several area parents and Pangburn's friends, Kaitlyn Merlino, Nicole Bainbridge and Bethany Bordell, at Club Echo in Shamokin Dec. 14 brought in about $500, which was given to the family, Vecchio said.
Vecchio, who is currently out of work, said he and his family are "thankful and blessed" for all the support they've received and aren't bringing attention to this fundraising situation because of the money.
"We just don't want these people making money off of Missy dying," Vecchio said. He said there are at least two other situations in which he believes local people have benefited from scams involving his stepdaughter's name and story. He's considering hiring lawyers.
Willing to pay back
Fortune said she withdrew money only once: Right after the first donation - $25 - was made. She said she doesn't know where the rest of the $705 went, saying GoFundMe keeps 8 percent in fees.
Eight percent of $705 is $56.40, which means Fortune's efforts would have raised $648.60.
According to GoFundMe, a 5 percent fee is collected from each donation and a 3 percent fee is deducted from each payment.
The website also states in the FAQ section, "With GoFundMe, the money you collect goes directly to you. There are no deadlines or limits - each donation you receive is yours to keep."
Fortune said several times Friday, "I am more than willing to pay them back if they'll work with me," but said Pangburn's family refused to give her an address where she could send a check.
She said her bank balance is in the negative and family members have been making deposits to help her financially. She said she's on a fixed income and doesn't work, but is willing to pay $50 to $75 per month.
"I was the one who did the fundraiser, so I might as well (give them the money). I'm not going to be a bitch to them," Fortune said.
Vecchio, however, said he doesn't believe Fortune and said she used the money for herself.
"It's disgusting," he said. "How many other victims is she doing this to?"
What is GoFundMe?
Brad Damphousse, CEO, and Andrew Ballester, CTO, started GoFundMe in 2010 and call it the official home of crowdfunding, a process of raising a money from a large group of people who each give a modest sum. It's used to fund causes of all kinds: from personal events such as graduations and vacations to tragic situations such as accidents and natural disasters. Other crowdfunding sites include Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Crowdrise.
GoFundMe is based in San Diego and accepts donations via credit card, wire transfer or WePay.
Money is donated in real time and, in most cases, is available to the person raising the funds immediately, according to the site. Money raised can be withdrawn at any time and are sent to the person who created the fundraising page by check or electronic bank transfer, according to gofundme.com.
All-or-nothing campaigns require fundraisers to reach a pre-established goal within a set timeframe before money is received. In those situations, donors make pledges and money is not withdrawn from their accounts unless the goal is reached.
Donors generally give small amounts of money, but because the website is accessed by people worldwide, large amounts of funds can be raised quickly.
Each campaign has a chart to show how much has been raised and the profiles of donors are also listed.
In February 2012, GoFundMe raised $1 million in a single month. By November, the payment volume nearly surpassed $5 million per month, according to the website. GoFundMe and the crowdfunding phenomena have been featured in media outlets such as Time, Forbes and U.S. Today.