With the growing trend of crowdfunding campaigns, frauds are around every corner. MeHelp is an online crowdfunding platform that is addressing this very issue with their strict verification methods.
In March this year, Samiya Hafeez, a 22-year-old woman from Hyderabad, was arrested for running a fake crowdfunding campaign through which she collected almost Rs 22 lakh. By forging medical documents and manipulating doctors’ statements on the severity of cancer, she posted false information on social media, claiming to be a victim of cancer herself and pledging ‘Go Fund Samiya’.
The post undoubtedly went viral as many generous people from Hyderabad and Saudi Arabi began pouring in their donations. Samiya’s scam was brought to light only when several eyewitnesses saw her indulging in extravagant expenditure while in perfect health, after which more questions were raised and finally the truth was unearthed.
With the growing trend of crowdfunding campaigns, Sumiya’s fraud is just one among many such deceptions.
As a regular charitable donor to the needy in India, M K Menon, then a software engineer in Houston, Texas, was plagued by the possibility of such scams. Menon would donate around $50 for cases he would come across in newspapers or social media, but as he explains,
I didn’t know where the money was going. I’d see addresses but I didn’t know if the money was going to the middleman or reaching the needy. There was just no way of knowing whether the money was reaching the right person.
And so, when he returned to India, Menon kept a close eye on the donations he made. He verified many cases, and after attaining the know-how, launched an online portal in October 2015 called mehelp.org, so that donations could be made with complete assurance of the authenticity of cases.
While he was still in the US, Menon had been making regular donations to an epileptic child’s father in Kerala for the treatment. When he visited his village–Ottapalam–in 2003, he realised that most of his money had been flowing into the father’s drinking habit. “I then made arrangements with the chemist so that the medicines would reach the girl directly,” he says. The girl is now happily married with a small family of her own.
Menon continued to help people in his village for some years until he realised that something more ought to and could be done. MeHelp has been operational for two years now, and in these years, the principles it runs on have remained intact.
Verification of cases is something Menon takes very seriously and therefore minimises the cases going on the website. “I take cases mostly from Kerala and Bangalore (where he currently resides) because it’s easier to verify them. I’ve had requests from Saudi Arabia but I didn’t not put them up on the website because there was no way of verifying them,” he says.
Donations, which have come from all over India, UK, USA, Saudi Arabia, and UAE so far, are encouraged to be made directly to an institution rather than the individual. For instance, Menon explains, donations to support a child’s education have directly reached the school in many cases.
Sometimes, when the need is highly personal and cannot be addressed through an institution, donations reach the beneficiaries directly. One such case was of two young blind men from Mallapuram district who were looking for financial assistance as their mother was struck by cancer. They were able to raise funds through the portal and one of them was even offered a job by a benefactor who was moved by their case.
“We don’t handle the money ourselves,” Menon explains the operations which are run by him, and his son and brother. “We are enablers for people who want to help, and the site is only a mediator. We are not a registered NGO so we don’t take donations ourselves.”
Menon recalls one of the most successful donations that were made possible through his website. Nine-year old Jeevan from Thiruvananthapuram was inflicted with bone marrow cancer, the surgery for which required Rs 25 lakh. The hospital settled for Rs 16 lakh; the government of Kerala donated Rs 5 lakh, and the rest of the money was raised through MeHelp. “Eleven lakh is the biggest amount we’ve raised and it still shocks me to think it was possible,” says a humbled Menon.
Once the required amount is collected, Menon removes the case from the portal in order to regulate the flow of excess money.
MeHelp sees various types of cases and interactions on its portal. Menon talks of regular donors who, through an account set up in the school’s name, support children’s education on a monthly basis. He also recalls the plight of an old man from Ottapalam who was struggling to gather Rs 5,000 as monthly rental for a wheelchair, an amount which is now taken care of regularly by contributors.
Considering the range of cases that come his way, it’s obvious that deciding the ‘worthiness’ of cases is not an easy task. “Even if some cases are genuine, I can’t put them all up on the portal,” he says, and explains further,
I have to decide based on how necessary the money is for one’s life; extreme poverty, lack of education, lack of medical assistance–these are pressing needs. One can take a loan for building a house maybe but I want to help those who can’t possibly take a loan for a living.
Menon is not looking to scale MeHelp as he wants to maintain its smooth and simple functioning. His efforts are concentrated mainly on spreading the word so that beneficiaries and benefactors are aware that they have a portal they can trust.
“There are people in this world who are ready to help. But like how I used to, they too may hesitate because they don’t know where their money is going. But, he assures, “there are still very good people on this earth, believe me.”