Courts being fooled by online community service scams

As I’ve blogged about before, 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. But the community service is watching videos. Yes, you read that right: you pay to get access to videos, which you may or may not watch, and this company then gives you a letter for your probation officer or court representative saying you did community service – which, of course, you didn’t. – you watched videos.

Another of these companies 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. And there’s fastcommunityservice.com, which claims that you can work off your court-ordered community service hours by taking an online “Caffeine Awareness Course.” It’s a $30 fee to take this “course” and get their letter saying you have done community service – which you have NOT, because taking an online course is NOT COMMUNITY SERVICE. And, not to be outdone is completecommunityservice.com, which follows the same model: pay a fee, get a letter that says you did community service.

At least one of these companies is affiliated with Terra Research Foundation; it didn’t have a web site when I first started blogging about this back in January, but it does now, and it’s now listed on Guidestar as “Terra Foundation”, 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.

If it’s a for-profit company saying they can help you with community service for the court, 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)
  • An official statement from a court – ANY court – saying, “We endorse such-and-such company for getting your court-ordered community service done”
  • A list of “charity partners” or nonprofit partners or government agency partners that use this service
  • The names of staff at the company and their credentials to show their experience regarding online volunteering or community service.
  • A list of all fees – specific dollar amounts – on the home page (not buried on the web site)
  • 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 luck finding this information on the web sites I’ve mentioned in this blog. The information is NOT there.

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”)
  • An official statement from a court – ANY court – saying, “We endorse such-and-such company for getting your court-ordered community service done”
  • 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.

Again, this information is NOT THERE on the web sites I’ve already mentioned.

While I have no issue with a nonprofit organization, or even a government agency, charging a volunteer 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.

I also have a big problem with judges and probation officers accepting online community service that consists of a person watching videos. Watching a video is NOT community service. Listening to a lecture is NOT community service. Watching an autopsy is NOT community service. Courts can – and do – sentence offenders to watch videos or listen to a lecture or watch an autopsy, and that’s fine, but these activities are NOT COMMUNITY SERVICE.

Sadly, courts are sometimes not catching the scam until it’s too late: I’ve been contacted by representatives of two different court systems, both in California, who had approved court-ordered community service by people who used one of these companies, not realizing that the people had just paid a fee for a letter and had not done any community service at all (and both representatives said watching a video or taking a course is NOT community service in the eyes of the court!).

You can read about what happened when I started investigating Community Service Help, Inc. in January and reported them to the proper authorities, and what the company’s reaction was (not good!). And you can read the nasty comments that are showing up on that original blog – the people who are running these unscrupulous companies are definitely feeling the heat!

I wish I could spend time reporting each of these companies to the State Attorneys General for each state where they reside, but I just do not have the time; it’s a lot of forms to fill out.

In that original blog, I asked if organizations that claim to represent the community service sector such as the Corporation for National Service or AL!VE would investigate and take a stand regarding these companies – to date, they have done nothing.

I’ve contacted the following organizations today about these unscrupulous companies, urging them to investigate. Let’s hope those who can really do something about these companies will do so!

American Probation and Parole Association

U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services System

Federal Probation and Pretrial Officers Association (FPPOA)

National Association of Probation Executives

American Correctional Association

And one final note: I’ve been lucky enough to have involved some court-ordered folks as online volunteers – I say “lucky enough” because they have all of them have ended up volunteering for more hours than they were required to do, and been really great volunteers. And, no, I did not charge them!

Also, here’s free information on Finding Online Volunteering / Virtual Volunteering & Home-Based Volunteering with legitimate organizations.

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.

16 thoughts on “Courts being fooled by online community service scams

  1. Ken

    Great article. I’ve shared this with several organizations I work with. Several of the links now go to dead pages, so maybe there are people listening.

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    Thanks, Ken. I appreciate the comment, especially from someone affiliated with Southern Arizona Nonprofits (http://www.soaznonprofits.org/) and based in such an awesome city (Tucson). I was really hoping no courts had actually been fooled, but I’ve already heard from two who now realize they were duped. You can read some of the ugly comments I’ve received from people affiliated with these companies over on the first blog from January 2011, including a couple just recently. Still waiting for CNS or AL!VE to speak out – but I’m not holding my breath.

    Reply
  3. Anonymous

    She says her name is Stephanie Moore, and she’s one of the people who has been defending "Community Service Help" in the comments section of my blog. I didn’t post her last comment, which was just an insult, and in doing so, I said it seemed to me that she was a part of the company. She responded, "You were wrong Jayne. I wasn’t part of the company, but I was someone who got their community service hours accepted. WHOO HOO!" I’m sure Stefanie is as classy as the offense she was convicted of (DUI? Shoplifiting? Do tell, Stephanie). She’s obviously very proud to have pulled one over on the courts. If she really thinks Community Service Help is on the up-and-up, then I challenge her to send me the name and contact information of her court liaison and the judge who sentenced her and then accepted her non-community service, and let me contact them and give them the real scoop on this company. If she’s that confident, she should have nothing to worry about letting me talk to those people, right?

    Reply
  4. Sam

    Well, for our sake, I hope it is legit. My husband went through a "personal" meltdown costing him a lengthy sentence of community service. My husband has since completed counseling and a rehabilitation program and is doing great. The problem is that he works to support our family Mon-Fri and I care for a severely autistic paient on weekends. Managing ouher jobs and two chldren is leaving us behind on completing community service hours. My husband has worked very hard completing many hours, but cant get the time to complete the remaining hours. No one is perfect and unfortunatly our entire family has paid dearly for my husbands mistake. Our "punishment" is now affect every aspect of our lives and any way that I can ease this stress, I will. I hope this company is legit and can help us to alleviate the stress of 100 hours a year. Im sorry that you find people who make mistakes "classless" losers. Im also sorry that you cant relate to a personal meltdown in this economy. I know how hard my husband has worked to better himself for our family and regardless of anoyone else’s intentions, being ridiculed by you doesnt help the situation or the community. Good luck with your "mission" to ensure perfection in the court :)

    Reply
  5. Anonymous

    I do not find people who make mistakes losers. But I do find someone who wants to pay a company to fake court-required community service reprehensible and unethical. And that’s what you will be doing by paying this company – paying for community service that this person will NEVER do. Why not, instead, own your mistake, find *legitimate* online volunteering, turn off the TV, and get the community service DONE, legitimately? And you don’t have to pay *anything* to do legitimate online volunteering, and you can go honestly to a judge with your hours, and not worry about the hours ever being invalidated. You might even make connections that lead to better employment. I am most definitely going to keep on my mission to ensure honesty and ethics in volunteering/community service! Your comment just energizes me (and others!) on that quest! Can’t wait for this company to get shut down!

    Reply
  6. Anonymous

    An update: I am still getting comments submitted to these blogs from customers of this company – it’s obvious that the company is directing people to these blogs and telling them what to say, because the comments all say almost exactly the same things: "I’m doing my community service this way, I’m disabled/ill, I couldn’t do community service any other way, I’m so grateful", and on and on. The emails never address the criticisms of my blogs – that there is NO reason to pay for online volunteering because there are *plenty* of places to do it for absolutely free (look in my blog – there’s a link to find hundreds/thousands of online volunteering opportunities with *real* nonprofit organizations, no payment necessary!), and that taking classes is *not* court-ordered community service (note: the company continues to refuse to publish what it tells courts these people have done as "volunteers", and for what nonprofit). I will NOT post these comments – but it does hearten me to know that this company is filling the pressure. Perhaps some judges are getting a clue and refusing to accept the customers’ "community service"? Let’s hope so!

    Reply
  7. jemal

    I almost paid that fee…to that company based in Florida but my gut feeling wouldn’t’t let me. Just seemed to good to be true. You know what they say…if it sounds too good to be true it probably is so whenever I get that feeling I do my research. I’m glad I did. Your blogs have been very helpful. Thank you.

    Reply
  8. Anonymous

    Thanks for writing, Jemal! Indeed, there are lots of LEGITIMATE online volunteering opportunities out there, most of which will NOT charge you a fee! I have those listed here:http://www.coyotecommunications.com/stuff/findvv.shtmlThese are *real* online volunteering opportunities. Be sure to apply for more than one if you are needing volunteering hours quickly. I’m still getting slammed with comments that this scam company is asking its paying customers to write. It’s obvious the customers aren’t reading my blog, since they write comments that imply I don’t support online volunteering. As someone who has been researching and promoting online volunteering since 1994, this could not be farther from the truth! So let me say it again: if you need community service hours, and you want to do it through online volunteering, great! But do NOT use the scammer company noted above – use a REAL nonprofit organization!

    Reply
  9. daniel

    first off thank you for the info! i just was curious which online program might be the best for doing court ordered community service… any suggestions?

    Reply
  10. Anonymous

    Daniel, here is a list of all of the various legitimate places to find online volunteering:http://www.coyotecommunications.com/stuff/findvv.shtmlLook for online volunteering that interests you and that you have the skills to do – no nonprofit is under obligation to involve you as a volunteer, and may even be turned off by applicants who *need* to volunteer vs. that *want* to volunteer. The Online Volunteering service has the largest selection of online volunteering opportunities:http://www.onlinevolunteering.orgAnd remember that online volunteering does not happen when you have some extra time – MAKE THE TIME. Set aside particular times of day for your online volunteering. When you apply to volunteer, emphasize your interest in the assignment and why you chose it. Also, apply for several assignments, as, just like with a job hunt, it make take several applications before you get started. And BEFORE you start on the assignment, affirm from the organization that they are willing to write a "to whom it may concern" letter, on their organization’s letter head, signed by someone at the organization, saying how many hours you volunteered, when you volunteered and what you did as a volunteer. In your application, you may be asked to disclose any convictions. Be honest! Also see:http://www.coyotecommunications.com/stuff/community.html

    Reply
  11. Anonymous

    I am continuing to get a TREMENDOUS amount of hate mail for taking on this unethical company. And I want to post one of the messages I received recently, to show you just how hateful this mail is. Does it come from the owner of the company, or one of his customers who paid a fee for faked community service and then got turned down by a judge? My campaign against this company, and promotion of honest, ethical, FREE online volunteering is obviously having a detrimental affect on this "business," as these angry emails full of personal attacks show. This is what you can expect when you take on a scammer – it’s why more people don’t do it. But messages like this prove that I’m right about this company’s ethics, and energize me to keep exposing these and other unethical companies regarding online volunteering.This post is from a person who calls himself/herself "sarafina":Jayne, I hope you are REALLY researching what you are talking about. The sad truth is, you are an ugly lady who can’t get laid by her signifigant other, and it is causing you to take it out on the rest of the world. Try to get fuccked and maybe you won’t be so damn negative towards the rest of the world. Your mission isn’t saving anyone. Youre not helping anyone. Why don’t you get out there and do something POSITIVE. ALL I see here are negative–can’t wait for the co to get shut down, etc. You obviously like to tear things down, not build them up. What is your personal beef with this co? I mean, at the core of it? Crush on the owner of the co and he didn’t respond to your overtures?? :) Bitch!

    Reply
  12. John Darroh

    It is not easy to find community service hours, I have called 15 of the "community service" centers listed for me to find hours, YMCA, several churches, all of my surrounding city offices, Animal Shelters, even Animal Control, they all give me more phone numbers to call, more time holding, more time wasted. I have spent HOURS on the phone trying to go work for free for someone. I had a much easier time getting a real job.. So no, it is not easy, or free, to find community service hours. Most places hear its court ordered, and say, Sorry! we dont do that.

    Reply
  13. Anonymous

    That’s absolutely true, John – not only do most places hear "court-ordered" and then say "no" to those potential volunteers, most places don’t call *most* people back who say they want to volunteer, including those who aren’t ordered by the courts. That’s because most organizations have little funding and no training on involving volunteers. I hope that doesn’t prompt you to pay this unscrupulous, unethical "Community Service Help" for forged community service hours – that could get you into even MORE trouble. Instead of calling organizations that may or may not have volunteering opportunities, use a nonprofit like VolunteerMatch or AllforGood to view actual, real volunteering opportunities in your area. Apply to those assignments just like any volunteer. When it comes time to note on your volunteering application if you have ever been convicted of a crime, then do so (some volunteering opportunities never ask this question, actually), and then spend time with the person who is doing the volunteering recruitment – bring your professional resume and a list of references to show that you are a competent person ready to do an assignment to the best of your abilities, all the way until completion. When it’s time to schedule your volunteering, THEN you tell the volunteer organization that you need documentation confirming your hours. Also, see this list of real online volunteering opportunities – these are all real, with real nonprofit organizations, unlike "Community Service Help", which is a scam:http://www.coyotecommunications.com/stuff/findvv.shtml

    Reply
  14. Trish

    My son just signed up for this….do you know how/if he can get his money back he has been searching for legit places in his town to do his community service but has been turned down, he did do his community service last year completed all 60 hours, I faxed the paperwork over to the probation office but apparently they never received it, and the original paperwork has been lost any advice help would be greatly appreciated.

    Reply
  15. Anonymous

    Trish, your son needs to contact your State’s Attorney General *immediately*. He might also want to contact local television stations. There are plenty of FREE places to do online community service. But it doesn’t involve scams like watching videos – it’s about actually *doing* community service. Here is a long list of places to do *real* online community service, with *legitimate* nonprofit organizations:http://www.coyotecommunications.com/stuff/findvv.shtml

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>