Tag Archives: fraud

Supervising online volunteers in court-ordered settings

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersA comment was submitted on one of the most popular blogs I’ve ever written, What online community service is and is not. That blog called out a company that is selling what it calls online community service hours, but which is, in fact, a ruse: customers pay a fee and receive access to videos, which they are supposed to watch, and in return for claiming to watch them, the company gives the “volunteers” a letter from a nonprofit saying they performed online community service. As someone that has been promoting virtual volunteering since the 1990s – and quality standards in all kinds of volunteer engagement – it continues to have me outraged.

I no longer approve comments on that blog, which has more than two dozen, because, for the last three years, most of the comments I get about this blog are from trolls affiliated with the company, ranting about how I hate hard-working people that don’t have time to do traditional onsite service (a rant that can come only from someone who has not actually read the blog) or name-calling such as this:

fanmail

Yes, really. Welcome to my world.

But a recent comment from Mark Waterson wasn’t either of those. I didn’t want his comment, and my response, to get buried in the sea of comments on that blog, so the blog entry you are reading now is devoted to this comment.

Mark says in his blog comment:

“This article points out online community service options that are legitimate, but really misses the point of why those other organizations exist. If you are doing community service for court, you need an official signed letter of someone in the nonprofit organization who “supervised” you saying you have completed X hours of community service. Your alternatives, while more legitimate, do not offer this, even at a price, and so no one doing court ordered community service can even consider your suggestions as possible alternatives for their purposes.”

Mark is incorrect, however, on this issue. Many of the online volunteering options I recommend on this page DO provide an official signed letter by the nonprofit organization who was assisted by the volunteer, stating how many hours the person gave as an online volunteer. And I have been one of those nonprofit representatives that wrote and signed such a letter for someone doing court-ordered community service through virtual volunteering. As I state on many of my pages for volunteers, a person needs to ask the nonprofit he or she wants to help – whether that nonprofit is down the street or across the country – BEFORE volunteering if staff would be willing to write and sign such a letter. Indeed, many will say no – even for onsite, face-to-face volunteers – but you will find some that will say yes if you keep looking, as I suggest on my pages.

As volunteerism expert Susan Ellis frequently points out, there are very few onsite, traditional volunteering activities where a volunteer is supervised the entire time he or she is performing service. Instead, the volunteers is trained, then given a desk, or a work space and materials, or a phone, or a garbage bag and some gloves, and then they do MOST of their volunteering largely unsupervised. As someone who has been fooled more than a few times by a volunteer sitting at a desk, looking at a computer screen for hours, and pretending to work – and after a day or two, I find out nothing is getting done – I’ve realized that volunteer supervision is much more than eyes-on-the-volunteer, or sign-in sheets at the door.

vvbooklittleAs Susan and I discuss in The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, there are many ways to supervise online volunteers, to ensure the work is getting done, that the quality of the work is up-to-snuff, and that the volunteer is getting the support he or she needs, such as regular Skype calls, regular emails back and forth, shared work spaces, regular reviews of work to date, etc. In taking those steps, you are going to know very quickly if you are talking to the person actually doing the work.

Could someone fake online volunteering service? Sure, just as people can fake onsite service: hand the volunteer the plastic bag and the gloves, send them down the road to pick up trash, and when they are out-of-sight, a friend brings them a full bag of trash to return to you. Ta da! Or put three volunteers at your information booth, walk away for five hours, and return, not knowing that one of the volunteers paid the others to lie about her time at the table.

Let’s imagine a volunteering scenario: a father gets a DUI and has to do a certain number of hours of community service. He finds a nonprofit that needs 400 photos on Flickr that each need to be tagged with a unique set of keywords, and because each set of keywords is different, it has to be done manually. He signs up to do the work, is accepted to do the work, but his son actually does the work. But here’s the thing: he could also do that as an onsite volunteer: he could go onsite, sit at a desk, and play Tetris until someone passes by, then switch to the Flickr screen and pretend to work until they are gone; meanwhile, his son back at home is actually doing all the work. Here’s a similar scenario: a mom gets assigned court-ordered community service and she signs up to help a nonprofit translate brochures and speeches into Spanish from English. She comes into the nonprofit, sits at a desk, but she plays Scrabble whilst her daughter back home does all the translating.

I think that any volunteer manager of quality would sniff out these scams quickly, through their discussions with the volunteer, review of work, etc. And that would be true of onsite or online volunteers.  TMZ implied that Lindsay Lohan faked her virtual volunteering to fulfill court-ordered community service (be sure to scroll down to the comments – yes, I commented) – it would have been so easy for the nonprofit to know if she did the work or not, through basic volunteer management 101 principles.

Does the tiny possibility that a volunteer can fake work done on a computer mean volunteers fulfilling online community service shouldn’t be allowed to do any online work even if it’s supposed to be done onsite at the organization, rather than via their own computer? No more volunteer web site designers, database data inputters, app designers, translators, editors, podcast producers, photo taggers, and on and on, if they are assigned service by the courts? Of course not. Whether this kind of work is being done onsite or online from the volunteers’ home or a nearby library, the likelihood that a volunteer is pretending to do the work while it’s actually a relative or roommate is so tiny, and so easy to sniff out. Fear of what might happen, in this case, isn’t at all justification of not allowing people assigned court-ordered community service to engage in virtual volunteering.

The biggest challenge to court-ordered folks finding virtual volunteering isn’t fear that they will fake their service by having someone else do it; rather, it’s finding virtual volunteering at all. And many nonprofits refuse to work with court-ordered community service folks period, onsite or online. They just don’t love ’em like I love ’em.

Even though I disagree with Mark, I thank him for writing – I’ve been wanting to expand on this issue for a while now.

Also see:

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

What online community service is – and is not – the very first blog I wrote exposing this company, back in January 2011, that resulted in the founder of the company calling me at home to beg me to take the blog down.

Haters gonna hate, the latest update on Community Service Help and other similar, unethical companies

Community Service Help Cons Another Person, a first-person account by someone who paid for online community service and had it rejected by the court.

Update on a virtual volunteering scam, from November 2012.

Courts being fooled by online community service scams

Online community service company tries to seem legit.

Online volunteer scam goes global

Haters gonna hate

angryjayneI’ve been online since the early 1990s, and I have a bit of Internet fame because I’ve been researching and promoting virtual volunteering / e-volunteering / digital volunteering since the 90s as well. So, of course, I get hate mail.

You’re going to get negative comments online if you dare to post an opinion of any kind online. And my hate mail comes mostly because of blog posts I’ve made regarding companies that are selling community service hours for online activities that are NOT online volunteering. The companies are called Community Service Help, Inc., Community Service 101, Community Service Help, Logan Social Services, Court Ordered Community Service and the Terra Research Foundation. I’m sure there are more.

The latest hate mail is from “Kyle”, who listed his email as Jajalacrosse@yahoo.com. It’s representative of the kind I get regularly. On 2014/11/19 at 19:48, “Kyle” submitted this comment to this blog about these community service scammers:

You’re an idiot lady. Sorry you can’t relate to being given an unrealistic number of community service for a petty “crime” but someday you’ll understand. Keep your nose out of programs that you don’t find “suiting” for you.

Most of the negative comments I get are like this – they imply, or outright say, that I’m opposed to online volunteering. I’m not, of course – I’ve been promoting virtual volunteering since the 1990s. My latest gig to promote it was a trip to Warsaw, Poland this month. I wrote a book about virtual volunteering! I’m guessing that Community Service, Inc. tells people to write me, as a representative called me at home, outraged, when I published my first blog about his company, and the comments are always on the same blog – the company must also encourage writers to not read my blogs because, if they did, these folks would understand that I have been promoting online volunteering since the 1990s, and that most online volunteering is FREE and there is NO NEED to pay a company like Community Service, Inc. for it.

I’m sure these companies also really don’t want their prospective customers to read these comments by a person who paid for online community service from one of these companies and had it rejected by the court. Or to see all of the TV stations that have investigated these schemes (links to these stories in the blogs at the end of this blog).

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

Back in 2011, and again at least once since then, I wrote the Florida State Attorney General’s cyberfraud division, the Consumer Services Department of Miami-Dade County, numerous parole and probation associations, the Corporation for National Service and AL!VE to PLEASE investigate or, at least, take a stand regarding these scam companies – to date, they still have done nothing.

Also see:

Community Service Help Cons Another Person – a first-person account by someone who paid for online community service and had it rejected by the court.

Update on a virtual volunteering scam.

What online community service is – and is not – the very first blog I wrote exposing this company, back in January 2011, that resulted in the founder of the company calling me at home to beg me to take the blog down

Courts being fooled by online community service scams

Online community service company tries to seem legit.

Online volunteer scam goes global

Could your organization be deceived by GOTCHA media?

Social media: cutting both ways since the 1990s

Community Service Help Cons Another Person

It’s happened AGAIN – the shady company Community Service Help – communityservicehelp.com – has conned another person.

I just approved this comment on one of my blogs about this deceptive company. The comment says, in part:

“I wish I would have read this article before wasting my time using the community service help website. Of course the court did not accept it and now I have been put in a real bind trying to complete my hours… I have PTSD and social anxiety from my military service and was searching for a way to complete my hours when I stumbled across the website which seemed perfect for me due to my disabilities should have known it was too good to be true. I wish I could leave a review somewhere to prevent people from making the same mistake I did.”

I’m so sorry for this person’s experience – as an advocate for virtual volunteering since the early 1990s, it makes my physically ill that this company, as well as many others, are ripping people off with their scheme to charge people money to watch videos and call it “volunteering”, and to claim it will be accepted by courts. I’ve encouraged this person to contact this company and demand his money back. I also have asked him if he would be willing to talk to someone from the media about his experience with this fraud – there have been at least two local TV news stories about this shady company, and I would love to see many more.

Back in November 2012, I got an email from a TV reporter in Atlanta, Georgia who used my blogs about this racket to create this excellent, DETAILED video about this scam and the people behind it. Thanks again, Atlanta Fox 5! Of course, after an NBC affiliate in Columbus, Atlanta did a similar, shorter story, this scam company put a tag on its web site noting as featured on NBC news!

I would love to know this deceptive company’s response to the court refusing his community service hours – it’s a response they have to make regularly to people who find out the court will not accept “community service” that consists of watching videos rather than actual volunteering.

I’ve also told this person that most recently commented on my blog that, if he still needs community service, and he wants to do it online, there are MANY places to find such, with legitimate nonprofit organizations that won’t charge the volunteer, and where the volunteering will be *real* – it will actually help the organization, which is what volunteering should be.

Here are other blogs I’ve written about this deceptive company:

Back in 2011, and again at least once since then, I wrote the Florida State Attorney General’s cyberfraud division, the Consumer Services Department of Miami-Dade County, numerous parole and probation associations, the Corporation for National Service and AL!VE to PLEASE investigate or, at least, take a stand regarding these scam companies – to date, they still have done nothing.

And, yes, I still get harassing emails and blog comments from people who supposedly are satisfied customers of this company. The commenters never use their names or location, the messages are packed with misspellings and grammar errors, they ramble on and on about how watching videos really is community service, and they call me some rather vile names. I’ve been deleting those comments – but I think I’m going to compile some and make a blog post just about those, to show you the caliber of support for this company.

12.March.2014 Update: Just found this story from Portland TV stations KATU about a similar scam in Seattle. Another example of a judge rejecting watching videos as community service.

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

Online community service company tries to seem legit

Back in January 2011, I discovered a for-profit company called Community Service Help, Inc. that claimed it could match people that 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: people assigned community service pay to get access to videos, which they may or may not watch, and this company then gives each a letter for their probation officers or court representatives saying that the person did community service – which, of course, the person didn’t. – he or she just watched videos.

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.

My many blogs about this company, such as the first one, What online community service is and is not in (January 2011), as well Online volunteer scam goes global (July 2011), Courts being fooled by online community service scams (from November 2011), and Update on a Virtual Volunteering scam (November 2012), have lead to investigative TV reports on Atlanta Fox 5 and an NBC affiliate in Columbus, Atlanta. Just to show how unscrupulous this company is, after the NBC story, the scam company put a tag on its web site noting “as featured on NBC news!” Ugh.

The pressure hasn’t lead to the company folding, unfortunately. Instead, the company is now trying to go legit, paying for this press release on PR Web to encourage nonprofits to use its service to list virtual volunteering opportunities with the company, which it will then have its paying clients do. The company claims that it will provide “electronic supervision, volunteer hour tracking, time sheets and logging, court reporting, and any necessary phone calls and customer support” for the volunteers it provides to any nonprofit that signs up. Those services are free for the nonprofit, but the volunteers pay the for-profit company for the volunteering. So, now the company can claim that volunteers do real volunteering, provided by legitimate nonprofits.

My thoughts? I think any nonprofit staff that list opportunities with Community Service Help, Inc. should have their heads examined:

  • There is still 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.
  • 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 still no listing of the names of the staff people and their credentials to show their experience regarding online volunteering or community service.
  • Its statement on its home page, The only place to complete your court ordered community service online!, is a blatant lie. There are many places to complete online volunteering for court ordered community service – where the volunteer pays NOTHING, or pays a tiny fee, much smaller than what Community Service Help, Inc. charges.
  • The company has no profile on Yelp.com.
  • So far, no online volunteering service has been performed at all through this company. None. The people who use this service do no activities other than watching videos as their “community service.” Through a nonprofit organization in Michigan, the company 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.

I really hope nonprofits continue to steer clear of this company. List your online volunteering opportunities with your local volunteer center, through VolunteerMatch, or through any other legitimate nonprofit service (all are free).

And for those of you that need to perform court-ordered community service, check out this  list of LEGITIMATE nonprofits that would be happy to involve you.

Still waiting for officials in Miami-Dade County, where this organization is based, any parole and probation associations, the Corporation for National Service and AL!VE to PLEASE investigate or, at least, take a stand regarding this and other companies.

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

Courts being fooled by online community service scams

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

— Original blog from 2011 below —

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.

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

Aid workers need to help local staff avoid scams

Today, I got an email from a close friend in Kabul, a young Afghan woman who works in an Afghan federal ministry. She forwarded me an email from another Afghan colleague, telling her she had “won” a USA visa and that she had to pay $150 in order to finalize the process. She wanted to know if it was real.

Most every young Afghan woman I know is trying to get out of Afghanistan. They are not only terrified of what the withdrawal of coalition forces will bring; they are terrified of being forced into marriage, and forced to give up their jobs, being imprisoned in a stranger’s home with a family who treat female non-blood relatives as indentured servants – or worse. Afghan women are desperate and vulnerable — in a perfect position to be taken advantage of by someone promising exactly what they want to hear.

For someone with intermediate English skills, the email looked oh-so-real. For me, it was obvious that it was fake, but I’m a native English speaker, a pretty savvy Internet user, and an amateur researcher regarding myths and urban legends. I did my best to explain to my friend how to know when something like this is fake, as this email is. And it made me wish I was there to do a workshop for all of my Afghan colleagues, especially the women, to show them how to avoid email scams.

If you are working in aid, development or humanitarian affairs on site in a developing country, I hope you will consider doing a lunchtime workshop for your locally-recruited colleagues about online scams. Just 30 – 45 minutes would be so helpful. Talk about visa scams, inheritance scams and phishing. Even if locally-recruited staff are particularly savvy about knowing when something is a fraud, their family and friends may not be, and you would be helping them to help their family and friends avoid being taken advantage of.

I am the first to tell a friend that a warning they have posted in their Facebook status or an email warning they have sent to all their friends is a fake. It turned a couple of people into ex-friends – how dare I tell them such a thing is false? Where’s the real harm in forwarding these kinds of messages? Today, I was reminded yet again where the harm is — the very real harm.