Even people with Ms. Scott’s resources can’t prevent swindlers from using their names. Scammers have copied the webpage of the federal Small Business Administration and impersonated the Federal Trade Commission, one of the agencies trying to combat exactly these sorts of cons.
Ms. Scott gives to institutions — universities, food banks, other frontline charities — not individuals. She has no accounts on social media like Facebook and Instagram, only her Medium page and a verified Twitter account with just three tweets. Her organization would never request fees upfront from grant recipients, a person with knowledge of her giving said. The person declined to comment directly on online deception taking place in Ms. Scott’s name or what actions she might take to help prevent it.
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Ms. Churchill did more research and realized it was highly unlikely that Ms. Scott had been in touch with her directly, but still she could not cut herself off from the scammers right away. She had invested everything she could pull together in unlocking those promised funds.
“My son needs it for a better life. And I have already lost so much,” she said at the time.
Ms. Churchill shared dozens of screenshots and web pages, unveiling a complex network invented to prey on the hopes of the needy. She said the scammers had known that she had no money, that she was borrowing from her grandmother and her sister to cover the mushrooming fees.
After a few weeks, Ms. Churchill went to the local police. They told her that she had been conned and that there was no way to get her money back.
“This experience has ruined my life, to be honest,” she said.
She had already been struggling. Raising five children largely on her own, she relies on government support. Her mother is nearby in Sydney, but she is on dialysis and not able to help much. After Lachlan, her third born, received a diagnosis of autism, doctors said he needed specialized schooling and interventions she could not afford. Her GoFundMe page raised less than $500.
At the time the message from the “MacKenzie Scott Foundation” appeared in her inbox Ms. Churchill seemed to be in the kind of emotional distress that makes people more vulnerable to scammers, said Stacey Wood, professor of psychology at Scripps College.