Melissa Bachilla always managed to get by on her own until this Christmas season. The 35-year-old unemployed Las Vegas mother realized she didn't have enough money to buy her daughter any presents. So for the first time in her life, she said, Bachilla posted a plea on Craigslist. It reads:
In the past I have given to many charities. This year I'm unemployed and wanted any kind of help getting information on how to sign up for toys or some kind of charity for Christmas. My daughter is 12 so I'm not sure if we can get any help due to her age. But it's worth a try. Thank you.
"I'm not looking for money," Bachilla said. "I just want help finding a bike for my daughter. I went to a thrift store, but the bikes there were $45. That's a lot of money for me right now."
Since placing the ad a week ago, she has had just three responses. One directed her to an area food bank, which Baschilla says she intends to visit. So far, however, no one has come forward with a bike.
Over the past decade, hundreds of sites have popped up on the Internet that provide people like Bachilla with a place to make direct appeals for assistance. Cyberbeg, Begslist and DonateMoney2Me are just some of sites where people in need can post unscreened, unedited ads.
Those making direct appeals tell of medical problems, home foreclosures, lost jobs and deadbeat dads. Similar stories are heard on the streets of major U.S. cities every day. Online begging, however, is more anonymous. In fact, on sites like Cyberbeg, donations are made via PayPal, so the beggar and benefactor don't have to correspond, much less meet.
That anonymity also makes the arrangement ripe for potential fraud. Unlike a trusted umbrella organization like the United Way, none of the begging Web sites vouches for the authenticity of the people who post there. And the ads tend to blur together, a catalog of hard-luck stories that makes discerning the truly needy from the truly opportunistic that much more difficult.
"We caution donors to be wary of cyber-begging," said Maria Stokes, spokeswoman for the United Way of the Bay Area. "Instead, we recommend making a donation to one of the many trustworthy nonprofits who help needy families during the holidays, as well as throughout the year."
Stokes notes that many of the needs advertised on Internet begging sites can be addressed by calling United Way's 211 national phone service, which assesses a person's individual situation and matches them with nonprofits that can help.
Yet, for all the reasons to be skeptical about online begging, the direct appeal sometimes works.
Two weeks ago, Bob, a 56-year-old vice president of operations at a Minneapolis food manufacturing company, visited Craigslist for the first time. "I saw all these people, asking for things, for help with Christmas presents. I'm pretty well off, so I started responding to ads, partly thinking they were just scams."
Bob, who did not want his last name used for this story, noticed that several ads detailing what appeared to be unique stories of people making pleas for assistance provided identical contact information, tipping him off that they were fake.
But some ads rang true, and Bob sent replies to nine of them. After exchanging a few follow-up e-mails, he asked to meet the people. "In most cases, when I tried to set up a time and place, they'd cut off communication. Maybe they were frauds, or maybe they were scared I was some creep."
But one woman did agree to meet Bob at a St. Paul Walmart. "She was a single mom, in her 20s, three kids. Husband left her. No child support. She said she was nervous about going alone, and asked if she could bring a friend. I said yes, and then thought, am I the one being set up?"
Despite his misgivings, Bob showed up at the store. "I had her e-mail me a picture, so I knew what she looked like," he said. The friend waited in the front of the store while Bob escorted the woman to the toy section. After much consternation, she selected six items for her kids totaling about $60.
"She was a bit overwhelmed, maybe a little ashamed. I told her she could buy more, but she refused," Bob said.
He said he doesn't know if he'll ever see her again, but that he'll definitely offer more help to other cyber-beggars. "In a way," Bob said, "maybe the giving means as much for me as it does for them. I don't know."
Though placing an ad for money or gifts sometimes pays off, it also requires a thick skin. Thirty-four-year-old Amanda Carson -- not her real name -- posted the following ad on Craigslist in the first week of December:
Carson said she was diagnosed with a heart disorder in 2008. She is unemployed and accepts food stamps. She said her ex-husband has not been reliable with child-support payments of late, and that made buying Christmas presents next to impossible.The last thing I wanted to do was to ask for Christmas help but circumstances have been beyond my control in this. I am a single mother to two wonderful boys who deserve so much more than I can ever give this year. If you can help, please contact me, I will give you any information you ask for to verify my situation, whatever you need. If I can do anything service wise in return, babysit, pet sit, whatever, please by all means let me know because if I can repay it in any way I will.
Still, she received many unkind replies, including one that suggested that if she really is so desperate, she should perform sexual favors for money.
"I was raised with stubborn Irish pride," Carson said, "which is why I want to repay any money that is given to me, or work for it."
Fortunately, a California man also read Carson's ad. He spoke with her briefly on the phone, then sent her an envelope containing $200 in cash. "He also requested that I didn't contact him further," she said.
Though she knows that $200 won't change her long-term fortunes, Carson said that being able to spend a little money on her sons has made cyber-begging worth it.
"I never thought I'd ever beg," she said. "Hopefully, I won't have to again."