What online community service is – and is not

There is a for-profit company based in Florida, Community Service Help, Inc., that claims it can match people have been assigned court-ordered community service “with a charity that is currently accepting online volunteers” – for a fee, payable by the person in need of community service. There is no list on the company’s web site about what people do as online volunteers through the company, and no list of “charity partners” that use this service – at least not as of the day I’m posting this blog. There is a list of testimonials from people who have supposedly used the service — testimonials which all sound amazingly the same, as though they were all written by the same person. There is also no listing of the names of the staff people and their credentials to show their experience regarding online volunteering or community service.

I found out about this company because someone was posting about it on YahooAnswers > Community Service in response to anyone who was seeking community service per court order.

I was alarmed for a number of reasons, most of which I’ve noted in the opening paragraph, in bold, and also because online volunteering opportunities are plentiful – so plentiful that it’s nothing short of exploitative to charge people to find them. Here’s just a FEW of the many, many places to find online volunteering (Aug. 14, 2015 clarification: note that this is a list of examples of legitimate virtual volunteering with legitimate nonprofits, and it’s offered to show what online volunteering really looks like; not all of these nonprofits meet the standards required by courts or probation officers for community service):

Distributed Proofreaders. These online volunteers turn public domain books into online books, mostly for Project Gutenberg.

Electronic Emissary, one of the best known and most respected online tutoring programs, where adult volunteers help students in a variety of complex academic-based projects.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Volunteer Monitoring Program
This is a mix of online and remote volunteering. Volunteers collect data from the environments around them and submit the information online to the EPA.

Idealist/Action Without Borders has many of the volunteer tasks listed on its site that are online. To find them, do keyword search using online and virtual. You will have to read each assignment carefully to ensure they are actually virtual.

Extraordinaries, hosts a database of micro-volunteering assignments (tasks that can be completed in around an hour or two) in support of different nonprofit organizations.

Infinite Family, an online mentoring program matching adults and families in the USA with at-risk, impoverished children in South Africa.

LibriVox, a nonprofit that coordinates online volunteers to record audio versions of public domain books.

Nabuur, which recruits online volunteers to support organizations working in or for the developing world.

TestPrepPractice Math Tutors

United Nations Online Volunteering Service lists at least a few hundred online volunteering opportunities at any given time, at organizations working in or for the developing world (not just UN agencies). This is the largest database anywhere of online volunteering opportunities.

VolunteerMatch has many of the volunteer tasks listed on its site tagged as virtual volunteering.

That’s not only a short, not-at-all comprehensive list of organizations that are focused specifically on online volunteers: there are thousands of traditional organizations that involve online volunteers as translators, web page developers, researchers, writers, subject-matter experts (SMEs), pro bono consultants, and on and on (I volunteer with the Girl Scouts, and my service is 90% online; I help with communications issues). And there’s also dozens of organizations that allow volunteers to engage in home-based volunteering, knitting blankets for babies who are HIV positive, or organizing food drives for local free food pantries or local animal shelters, and on and on. (Aug. 14, 2015 clarification: note that the aforementioned is a list of examples of legitimate virtual volunteering with legitimate nonprofits, and it’s offered to show what online volunteering really looks like; not all of these nonprofits meet the standards required by courts or probation officers for community service. You can find a comprehensive listing of where to find legitimate online volunteering here, but note that not all nonprofits, online or onsite with traditional volunteer engagement, can accommodate court-ordered community service folks)

So, of course, I was alarmed to find a for-profit company charging people for access to online volunteering opportunities when such opportunities are so freely and easily accessible. In addition, there is no guarantee that an agent of the court will accept online service as fulfillment of community service; I have been approached by dozens of people who want to volunteer online for community service fulfillment, and when I’ve told them to get permission from the court first, they call or email back to say the judge or probation officer refused, because the judge or probation officer felt there was not enough monitoring/supervision. Even so, many courts have been open to the idea, so long as the nonprofit or government agency that will involve the online volunteer can provide proof that the person really did the hours needed.

(I’ve been lucky enough to have involved some court-ordered folks as online volunteers – and I have to say that all of them have ended up volunteering for more hours than they were required to do.)

I started investigating this company immediately. I contacted several associations of nonprofits, including the Florida Association of Nonprofit Organizations (FANO), a couple of DOVIAs (directors of volunteers in agencies) in Florida and various colleagues that research volunteering, including online volunteering. Not one had ever heard of this organization. So I filed a notice with the Florida State Attorney General’s cyberfraud division. The Consumer Services Department of Miami-Dade County began its investigation in December.

Today, the owner of Community Service Help, Inc. called me because of the investigation. He wanted to explain what his company does. And what does his company do? A person pays him $30, and he gives you access to online videos that are supposed to help you be a better person. You do not perform any community service at all; you watch videos. The company’s representative was adamant that watching videos is community service — and that watching them online makes it online community service. The people who use his service do no activities other than watching videos as their “community service.” Through a nonprofit organization in Michigan, he arranges for paperwork to be sent to the court or probation officer that says the paying customer has completed the “community service” and how many hours they spent doing such.

Of course, watching videos is not community service. Court-ordered community service offline looks like this. Or this. Community service involves activity, it involves engagement, it involves an action to do something that needs to be done and that actually helps the community or a cause. Note that there’s no mention at all on these real community service pages regarding watching videos to fulfill court-ordered community service.

Online community service activities look just like online volunteering activities – and also don’t involve watching videos, outside of a person training to be, say, an online volunteer mentor or, perhaps, judging videos that have been submitted to a nonprofit or government agency for some kind of contest. Or maybe watching videos to find information an organization is looking for as part of the person’s online research assignment.

One can only imagine what the paperwork that Community Service Help, Inc. submits to the court or a probation office, or that is submitted by its mysterious “charity partners,” says that the person actually did to complete his or her community service hours (good luck finding an example of such online). I’m sure the judges or probation officers have no idea that all the person did to complete his or her hours was to pay a fee and watch videos on his lap top or smart phone (or, at least, someone watched those videos — who knows who!), that there was no completion of an actual activity that helps a nonprofit, a government agency or those such agencies serve.

The further shock is that, as I’ve researched, there seems to be many of these organizations charging people who have been assigned court-ordered service for freely-available information and resources! Another one is Community Service 101, which charges a monthly fee for users to track and report their hours – something they could do for free on a shared GoogleDoc spreadsheet. There’s also this nonprofit, Facing the Future With Hope, which also offers to find online community service, for a fee. Note that neither web site offers any examples of what online volunteers actually do, what nonprofits actually involve these online volunteers, etc.

While I have no issue with a nonprofit organization, or even a government agency, charging a volunteer — a person who is helping on his or her own, or because a court or school is requiring such — to cover expenses (materials, training, staff time to supervise and support the volunteer, criminal background check, etc.), I have a real problem with companies charging people for freely-available information, and for judges and probation officers accepting online community service that consists of a person watching videos.

If it’s a for-profit company, you should be able to find on their web site:

  • A list of courts, by name, city and state, that have accepted community service arranged through this company (not just “courts in Florida”, but “the circuit court of Harpo County, Florida”
  • A list about specific activities that people do as volunteers through the company
  • A list of “charity partners” or nonprofit partners or government agency partners that use this service
  • The names of staff and their credentials to show their experience regarding online volunteering or community service.
  • A list of all fees – specific dollar amounts
  • A scan of a letter they have provided to a court, a probation officer, a school, a university, etc. (with the contact name for the person blocked out, ofcourse), so you know exactly what the organization says to confirm community service.
  • A list of every court, school and university that has accepted the community service hours this company has ever arranged for anyone.

If it’s a non-profit company, you should be able to find on their web site:

  • Their most recent annual report that notes their income and expenditures for their last fiscal year
  • The names of the board of directors
  • The names of staff and their credentials to show their experience regarding online volunteering or community service.
  • A list of courts, by name, city and state, that have accepted community service arranged through this company (not just “courts in Florida”, but “the circuit court of Harpo County, Florida”
  • A list about specific activities that people do as volunteers through the nonprofit organization
  • A list of “charity partners” or nonprofit partners or government agency partners that use this service
  • A list of all fees – specific dollar amounts
  • A scan of a letter they have provided to a court, a probation officer, a school, a university, etc. (with the contact name for the person blocked out, ofcourse), so you know exactly what the organization says to confirm community service.
  • A list of every court, school and university that has accepted the community service hours this company has ever arranged for anyone.

Good look trying to find this information on the pay-a-fee-for-community-service sites named on this blog.

Will organizations that claim to represent the community service sector such as the Corporation for National Service or AL!VE, investigate? And take a stand? Stay tuned…

November 6, 2012 update: I just got got email from a TV reporter in Atlanta, Georgia who used my blogs about this scam to create this excellent video about this scam and the people behind it. Thanks Atlanta Fox 5!

February 2013 update: Here’s the latest on what’s going on with this company.

August 14, 2015 update: this company continues to try to lure people with false promises about online community service. I have info on how they attempt to harass me online, and the blog links to all of the blogs I’ve written about this and other countries to date, including accounts of people whose community service through this company was rejected by the court.

July 6, 2016 update: the web site of the company Community Service Help went away sometime in January 2016, and all posts to its Facebook page are now GONE. More info at this July 2016 blog: Selling community service leads to arrest, conviction

27 thoughts on “What online community service is – and is not

  1. Andy Fryar-Ozvpm

    Thanks for raising this important issue Jayne.As you and I both know, the lines of what is and isn’t volunteering just keeps getting blurrier. You know, I am not even opposed to the idea that a smart ‘for profit’ might find a way of brokering court ordered community service for people too lazy to go out and find it for themselves.However, what I do know, is that watching TV in the way that you have described is NOT volunteering or community service no matter what you might choose to call it! Nor is it ‘online’ volunteering!Sadly, there must be some gulible people out there who are willing to accept this and I think it is appauling that any govt instrumentality might allow this to gothrough as community service.Thanks for making me aware about this – keep up the good fight!

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  2. Sarahjane Rehnborg

    Although I recognize that your investigative reporting at some point must come to end on this particular issue, it does make me wonder what ‘relationships’ are involved in with this and between whom. I can basically envision someone in the Florida area with a relationship with the courts who has ‘sold’ them a bill of goods. I would agree that what you have uncovered is neither service, nor does it benefit the community. Thanks for your diligence.

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  3. Erin Barnhart

    Great blog post, Jayne. You are indeed a courageous advocate for ethical service (see also: tough broad). 🙂 Well done!

    Reply
  4. AW

    Someone in our court is trying to pass community service hours through Terra Research Foundation. I cannot find any information about it but am told it’s an educational foundation. Have you heard anything about this organization?

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  5. Anonymous

    Terra Research Foundation – if it’s not listed at http://www.guidestar.org, then it’s NOT a nonprofit organization. Surely you require those who submit hours for the court to provide a letter on the organization’s letterhead confirming their hours, with the name of an employee from that organization and his or her contact info clearly identified?

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  6. Tiffany

    I recently researched communityservicehelp.com and they had my local court listed as a court that accepts this as fulfillment of community service hours. I stpoke to a representative and actually called Court Services to confirm this information. Not only had they never heard of this, they confirmed my suspisions, it was unaccepted!!! I followed-up by emailing the director of court services with the link and a summary of what I was told by the representative. I am encouraging court services to get the warning out to their clients about this NOT being accepted. If all court services make this clear to those in need of doing community service, maybe we can shut this company down!!!

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  7. Anonymous

    Thanks SO MUCH for writing, Tiffany. I just received an email from a court representative who just realized her court has been fooled by "Terra Research Foundation" and communityservicehelp.com – the court had just approved someone’s hours, but she felt uneasy, so she did some research and found my blog. She’s now taking steps to prevent this from ever happening again in her court, and to let her colleagues in other courts know as well. Terra Research Foundation now has a web site (http://www.terraresearch.org) and is now listed on Guidestar as "Terra Foundation" (http://www2.guidestar.org/organizations/27-3921712/terra-research.aspx), however, the web site has no listing of staff or their qualifications, no listing of these offices they say they have all over the USA, no listing of board members, no listing of current projects, no testimonials from those benefiting from their projects, no listing of specific nonprofit organizations they have collaborated with/assisted, no annual report, no budget information, and on and on. I have a listing of all of the **legitimate** places to find online volunteering here (http://www.coyotecommunications.com/stuff/findvv.shtml). Some courts **will** accept online volunteering as community service — I’ve worked with them myself — but you need to have a great deal of documentation showing this is a real nonprofit organization and be detailed about what you will be doing as an online volunteer (transcribing podcasts, translating documents, building a web site, etc. – not just watching videos, as the communityservicehelp.com promotes as "community service"). Again, thanks so much for writing, Tiffany.

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  8. Julie

    Hey Jayne, You think those guys are bad? At least they have people do something. Check out these MAJOR community service scams. (I hope you’re sitting down):http://www.fastcommunityservice.comCharity running the scam: http://www.caffeineawareness.org/More on it: http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20110928095916AANt3kqThese guys take it to an entirely new level. You pay them up to $89 for 3 ebooks about caffeine of all things, you take a short 30 question quiz, your score doesn’t matter, and they send you a verification letter for your community service. Literally 75 hours of CS in 5 minutes and they’re not a company, it’s the actual charity!!! The shotty ebooks are written and hawked by the charities director, Marina Kushner, is a giant ego boosting scam.From their FAQ: Question: Do I have to pass the exam to receive my community service letter?Answer: No, the idea is to test your knowledge of the material. You will receive your community service letter regardless of the grade you receive.Pay $89 -> Download books -> Don’t read them -> Answer whatever questions -> Get letter -> Total time: 5 minutes.They have 10,000 fake facebook fans, 10,000 fake twitter followers, and their testimonials are clearly fictitious.I’m not done yet ladies. It gets worse:http://completecommunityservice.com/"American Angel Works" – Another charity actually scamming people for huge sums of money for community service hours. These guys flat out charge you $10 AN HOUR through paypal and just give you verification paperwork for the court then lie on your behalf.

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  9. Anonymous

    Thanks, Julie! Another scam! Sigh… do I have time to write each of the state attorneys general necessary to get these organizations investigated? Sigh… not really, but I will (but if anyone else would like to do so, please feel free!)

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  10. Treon Verdery

    I strongly support online community service Also I note that Oregon Traffic Court currently permits people to halve a ticket if they watch an educational video on how to drive. I strongly feel that 10 hours of watching crime reduction propaganda could reduce a persons willingness to recommit offenses. As bland as they are, warning labels are thought to have reduced tobacco use 17 pct. Thus 80 hours of watching videos spread out at 8 hours a week, on friday or saturdays about driving sober could strongly benefit the community as compared with say washing dishes.

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  11. Anonymous

    Watching a video is NOT community service.Listing to a lecture is NOT community service.Watching an autopsy is NOT community service.Courts can – and do – sentence offenders to do these activities, and that’s fine, but they are NOT COMMUNITY SERVICE. Looks like the people at these scam organizations are feeling the heat! "Treon Verdery" – I’m sure that’s your real name!

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  12. Julie

    Jayne, I don’t think anyone is feeling heat… I think the courts are gladly accepting this type of service. Per my previous post I think those are some serious scams, however, the lectures and video watching seems to have produced an overwhelming amount of happy customers and satisfied court orders.You talk about fake testimonials, but I have a hard time believing these 1,000 people aren’t real.You should see these: http://www.communityservicehelp.com/Testimonials" I had a wonderful experience with CommunityServiceHelp.com. I am a cancer patient and I am unable to perform physical community service while I am currently in chemotherapy. Therefore, I appreciate this opportunity that this website provides. Thank you. "Apoorva K.
    Northville, MII know you’re a die hard, and are trying to uncover wrongdoings, but what if people actually need this and the courts are okay with it as a form of volunteering and community service?

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  13. Anonymous

    Number of courts I’ve heard from that have said, "Yes, watching a video is community service and, yes, I, Judge xxxxxx, accept this as community service." Zero.Number of courts I’ve heard from that have said, "We just found your web site and realize that we approved this as community service, without knowing that the offenders actually just watched some videos rather than actually doing community service, and we are not going to do THAT again." Three. Note that this company still has NOT provided the information asked for under "If it’s a for-profit company, you should be able to find on their web site" or "If it’s a non-profit company, you should be able to find on their web site." If it’s a legitimate company, either way, it should be only too happy to post that information. But it doesn’t? Why? Because it’s a SCAM – a scam that works *wonderfully* for the people who pay the fee and get a letter saying they did community service (which they didn’t – they just watched some videos), and a scam that is taking in courts and probation officers all over the USA. Want to prove me wrong? Provide the information. It’s that simple. If someone wants to do REAL community service, here’s a web site where they can find such opportunities FOR FREE, where they can do these activities FOR FREE, where they will actually do *community service* – not watch videos, which is NOT community service:http://www.coyotecommunications.com/stuff/findvv.shtmlI've been generous in posting comments that are a defense of this company, obviously written by people working for the company. I will not post any more unless the company answers the questions asked for. Come clean! No more excuses! Until then, I’m going to work to make sure probation officers and courts know this is NOT community service! And thanks to everyone who is joining me in getting the word out!

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  14. James Don

    This is absolutely community service. You have no idea how much calculus, physics, economics, basic astronomy, and finance, I have learned from these videos. You people obviously have no need for math, science, engineering, and many other caches of important information that individuals "in the system" desperately need to become more knowledgeable and successful. Do you actually think somebody can’t cut the corners in what you deem traditional community service. You ACTUALLY THINK PICKING UP TRASH IS MORE BENEFICIAL!!! I am a convicted FELON, and have primarily educated myself through youtube, scholarly articles on google, science daily, the guardaian etc. I have learned HTML, CSS, PHP, XML and some JAVA through such sources. You probably think that I am some talking head that works for this company. Go ahead, I couldn’t care less. I actually watched these videos, and took extensive notes. I learned something above and beyond any court ordered, dehumanization, degrading bull schlaken you would rather have me do. I understand that some people are going to avoid actually paying attention, but THAT IS HOW THE WORLD IS. Go do something worth while, and do some community service for yourself, or better yet go read a book or two and lay off the working class for a couple years. It’s sad because, me, a convicted felon, has more knowledge than some college graduate, inept, babble spewing idiot. Go ahead, do your worst, because in the end it’s going to be people like me that keep fighting, outliers such as myself that rise above people that complain day in and day out. (Of course I am complaining, but sometimes you have to release your emotions, haha). cheers, no hard feelings either.

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  15. Anonymous

    These guys are feeling the heat! Note how the previous poster did not address any of the issues that have been brought up about these scam companies! I have to thank this person for this post – it’s prompted me to write another blog on this subject AND to get in touch with all the various probation associations in the USA – let’s shut these companies down!

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  16. Anonymous

    Comments on this blog entry are now closed – I’ve gotten two more insult comments, so it’s time to close – and I’m not posting them, which is my prerogative as the blog owner . Please read the November 2011 blog to know what’s new on this subject, and if you want to respond on that entry, great – but make it clear if you represent one of the companies I’ve talked about – no reason to pretend to be anything else, unless you have something to hide.

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  17. Anonymous

    I am a Community Service Restriction Coordinator, and I find this sad and funny at the same time, my boss had sent the Web link to http://www.communityservicehelp.com/, being very sarcastic said this won’t count. Then two days later someone actually brought it into my office. I was laughing out loud and calling my boss all at the same time. The guy understood that It was a pipe dream. In my county probationers mow cemataries , county land, and many of the community service organizations we help, do laundry for thrift shops, help out and then clean up after fairs, festivals and all sorts of shows from cars to goats. This is real work and a lot is hard work.

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  18. Anonymous

    Thanks for writing, "Pollywog." You are the third court-based community service coordinator I’ve heard from on this issue. I’m glad word is getting out about this company! One clarification though – online volunteering *is* real "work". There are online volunteers that build web sites, translate documents, write content for newsletters, manage online discussion groups, build databases, design software, etc. But virtual volunteering needs to be done through real nonprofit organizations – not some scam group like communityservicehelp.com. I’ve managed hundreds, even thousands of online volunteers through various nonprofit organizations, and there was no way for these volunteers to fake their service – if web pages weren’t translated, then they were doing their work, for instance. Most of these volunteers were self-motivated but, a few, indeed, were court-assigned volunteers (and I always made them get permission from the judge or probation officer FIRST – I even talked to one on the phone to make sure he knew I, and the nonprofit, and the work, were all real). If you or anyone from your court ever want a workshop on legitimate virtual volunteering, and how your court *might* be able to allow such in certain cases, I would be happy to do a conference call with you. I have no online volunteering service to sell – I’m just a researcher and trainer. Even though I usually charge for trainings, I offer you and your office a freebie workshop, no charge, just because i want to make sure you understand the difference between legitimate online volunteering, like through the nonprofit organizations listed here http://www.coyotecommunications.com/stuff/findvv.shtml , and not at all legitimate "community service" like what’s offered from communityservicehelp.com (and so many other companies that seem to be popping up all over). Regardless – thanks for writing! Glad you weren’t fooled by this very unscrupulous company (that sends me hate mail at least once a month).

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  19. Anonymous

    <table cellspacing="0" cellpadding="0" border="0" ><tr><td valign="top" style="font: inherit;"><DIV>Jayne,</DIV> <DIV>&nbsp;</DIV> <DIV>I sincerely apologize, Yes I know that there are legitimate online <SPAN>CSR</SPAN> sites. My sister , not as a probationer, helps nonprofits fill out grant applications.</DIV> <DIV>&nbsp;</DIV> <DIV>What I am saying is that the majority of the people I work with do not fit the self motivated category. They also do not have a the skill set for these types of CSR. I am lucky if I get someone who can file and yes I must ask if the person can read. I work with what I would call a very large portion of functioning illiterates. They can read and do enough math to get by in this world, but just barely. It is sad state of affairs. It makes me want to help these people&nbsp; as much as I can by at least steering them in the right direction of social service to help them, including free legal aid is some cases.</DIV> <DIV>&nbsp;</DIV> <DIV>Thank you for pointing out my error. I truly did misspeak</DIV> <DIV>&nbsp;</DIV> <DIV>Pollywog</DIV> <DIV>&nbsp;</DIV> <DIV>&nbsp;</DIV> <DIV><BR><BR>—</DIV></td></tr></table>

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  20. Anonymous

    "What I am saying is that the majority of the people I work with do not fit the self motivated category."The majority of people *I* work with do not fit the self motivated category either, LOL! While I’ve been promoting online volunteering since the mid 1990s, I also will say MOST people are cut out for online volunteering! Everyone loves the idea, but most people don’t get past the sign up process, let alone actually get anything done! I’ve worked with a few people as online volunteers who have been assigned community service, and they have all been great – but they had to work really hard to get it approved by a judge or court officer, so they showed incentive that most of your folks wouldn’t have and, to be honest, that MOST people don’t have. So I think we’re in agreement – it’s not for everyone. And I think we’re also in agreement that any organization that would pretend to offer online volunteering and actually just take money and provide a letter that says someone completed volunteering when all they did was watch videos should be SHUT DOWN. They are perpetuating a fraud! ARGH!

    Reply
  21. Pingback: Online community service company tries to seem legit | Jayne Cravens Blog

  22. Pingback: online volunteer scam goes global | Jayne Cravens Blog

  23. Pingback: Courts being fooled by online community service scams | Jayne Cravens Blog

  24. Pingback: Update on a virtual volunteering scam | Jayne Cravens Blog

  25. Susan

    Dang, I was really hoping that their community service hours for taking school courses online was legit because there’s no way that I can satisfy the community service hours that I must work (144hrs @~$7/hr) because I have no car, no drivers license (suspended bc of citation,) I have no where to keep my dogs because I’m mostly homeless, and I have an inoperable spinal injury that causes me to suffer a lot of insane, chronic pain which requires me to take a break very often. And this was for a stupid speeding ticket even though it was rush hour traffic and I wasn’t speeding. Yeah, yeah, I went to court but it’s a cop’s word against mine and the court always believes them over us. I tried to get modified work bc of my injury but without having a primary physician because I have no medical insurance it’s hard to get any other dr to fill out the court forms, it requires so much effort that I failed in getting it satisfied last time and as a result I got my license suspended
    Wow, how disappointing. I guess now, I won’t be able to do anything about it and I guess I’ll never be able to get my license reinstated. College at 16, worked hard my entire life, only to have it all taken away and left with a chronic problem that will hinder me until I die bc some idiot ran a red light and crashed into me. He’s driving around fine but I can’t even get a job to pay a bogus citation.

    Reply
    1. jcravens Post author

      Susan, re-read the article. There are LOTS of legitimate online volunteering opportunities. I’ve linked to several dozen. None of these will charge you for volunteering, the way communityservice.com will.

      Reply

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