Courts getting tougher re: online community service

justiceFor years, I’ve railed against companies that, for a fee, provide a letter claiming that someone has completed community service as part of a court order or probation requirement. The person that pays for that letter has NOT done any community service – that person may or may not have watched some videos – but there’s been no actual volunteering done.

My blog from November 9, 2011 about one of the biggest fraudsters promoting pay-for-a-community-service-letter remains my most popular blog ever. It often gets more hits in a day – yesterday, for instance – than a blog I’ve just published. The comments on my first blog about these companies earlier that same year has statements from both people who feel this fraud is just fine (and who have participated in it themselves), managers of volunteers who are outraged about the practice and even from someone from a court who knew immediately this was a scam when it came to his attention through someone assigned community service.

I’m so proud that the web site of the company Community Service Help, one of the biggest perpetrators of this racket, went away sometime in January 2016, and all posts to its Facebook page are now GONE. I hope I played a role in that company’s demise, which seemed to be at the hands of a court in Washington State, per this Consumer Protection Division civil complaint and subsequent consent decree. I was also thrilled to learn in July 2016 that selling community service letters lead to an arrest and a conviction in New York state of another “nonprofit”.

I remain angry, however, that there are still companies out there selling community service letters. These companies are giving people a way out of actually doing court-ordered community service – you can easily find them on any city’s Craigslist volunteer section, or by just searching Bing or Google for pay for community service, and there are people that are proud to fool courts regarding their community service.

I’m just as angry that these companies are giving virtual volunteering a bad reputation. Virtual volunteering – editing documents, translating text, designing graphics, managing social media, researching and gathering data for a report, mentoring someone, training someone, and on and on – is real volunteering. But because of these companies selling letters that claim someone did online service when they really didn’t, many courts are looking at virtual volunteering with skepticism, and more than 20 years of virtual volunteering examples and a book and a United Nations program aren’t enough to change their minds.

I’m thrilled that the Kirkland Municipal Court in Washington State has a community service verification form that is trying to prevent people from paying for a letter that says they have completed community service when, in fact, they have not. I’m thrilled because it means that at least some courts in the USA are on to these fraudsters and are actively trying to deny them customers. Here is the wording from Kirkland’s form:

The Court will not accept community service performed for a prior or current employer, family member or an agency for which you have management responsibility. This court does not accept community service hours from online agencies or from agencies in which you must pay a fee to get credit for your hours (some examples of this include, but are not limited to: Terra Research, Community Service Help, Fast Community Service, American Angel Works, Caffeine Awareness Association).

Readers of my blog will recognize those names of companies selling community service – many have been mentioned by me on my blogs.

But I really hope Kirkland Municipal Court will change the wording on their form to:

This court will accept online volunteering only if it is with an established, verifiable, credible nonprofit organization, and only with prior permission from the court before volunteering begins. This court does not accept community service hours from agencies in which you must pay…

vvbooklittleI also wish that this court, and all others, realized that it is possible to supervise online volunteers in court-ordered settingsI want court-ordered folks to have the option to volunteer online. I’ve said it before: I’ve had great experiences involving court-ordered community service folks as volunteers, onsite and online. True, I have a rather tough screening process for any volunteer engagement program I manage, and it’s probably screened out people I would have NOT liked as volunteers. But those that have made it through my screening process have been terrific (and you can create your own screening process for online volunteers using The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.

I also wish states’ attorney generals would get busy shutting down these pay-for-a-community-service-letter companies!

Finally, if you are looking for legitimate virtual volunteering opportunities, see this page. It features a long list – the longest you will find anywhere – of nonprofit organizations that have opportunities for online volunteers. But always – ALWAYS – let the organization know first that you need community service hours and what documentation you will need from them to show your service hours, because they may say no. And once you get their agreement, you may also need approval from the court or your probation officer.

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