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  • Caroline E. Vordtriede

Vulnerable Fraudsters: Reverse Affinity Fraud in Cases of Public Hoaxes.

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Abstract

  This Article examines reverse affinity fraud, which is affinity fraud in the context of public hoaxes.  In traditional affinity fraud the fraudster targets a vulnerable group, whereas in cases of public hoaxes the fraudster portrays herself as part of a vulnerable group and targets the well-meaning and sympathetic general public.  This Article explores the mindset and characteristics of vulnerable fraudsters in reverse affinity frauds by analyzing the cases of Sherri Papini and Lacey Spears.  Both Papini and Spears utilized social media and online giving sites to defraud the public, and their cases highlight the unique challenges prosecutors have in proving wire fraud in certain types of online giving scenarios.  This Article concludes that while Papini and Spears can properly be characterized as vulnerable fraudsters, actually charging them with reverse affinity fraud is difficult due to the current lack of guidelines under federal law.

 

Introduction

In November 2016, Sherri Papini was kidnapped while jogging around her neighborhood.[1]  In September 2022, Eliza Fletcher was kidnapped during her routine jog.[2]  Both women were thirty four years old, blonde, and married mothers of two.[3]  Fletcher’s broken cellphone was found near the alleged spot of Fletcher’s abduction,[4] while Papini’s cellphone and earbuds—entangled with blonde hair—were placed two feet from the road of Papini’s alleged abduction site.[5]  Both families and communities begged for the safe return of the two mothers and conducted nationwide manhunts.[6]  In Papini’s case, their efforts included a GoFundMe page that raised $49,070 for Papini.[7]

One of these women was ambushed, attacked, and forced into a dark sport utility vehicle (SUV) by a man.[8]  Three days later, her body was found behind an abandoned duplex with blunt force trauma wounds to her face, jaw, and legs, as well as a single gunshot wound to the back of her head.[9]  Her children lost their mother, her husband lost his wife, and her students lost their kindergarten teacher.[10]  The other woman was shoved into a dark-colored SUV by two Hispanic women.[11]  Twenty-two days later, she waved down a truck on a local highway with a chain around her waist and several bindings.[12]  Suffering significant weight loss, facial and nose bruises, various arm and leg rashes, and a horrific brand on her right shoulder, she remarkably made it home alive.[13]  One of these women never made it home; the other made the entire thing up.[14]

Based on the similarities in the horrific facts of Fletcher and Papini’s kidnappings, it is hard to believe that Papini feigned her abduction.  When one hears that a young mother has been kidnapped, branded, and abused, and narrowly escaped after three weeks of captivity, an average member of the public would feel sympathy for the woman and her family, not suspicion that she faked the ordeal.[15]  As in Papini’s case, some generous people may want to show their sympathy through financial support on fundraising sites such as GoFundMe.  Instead, their kindness supported Papini in defrauding the public through the GoFundMe proceeds, wasting the resources of the local police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), and fraudulently obtaining funds from the California Victim Compensation Board (“CalVCB”).[16]

Papini’s kidnapping hoax is also similar in motivation to individuals with Factitious Disease Disorder Imposed on Another (“FDIA”) (formerly termed “Munchausen by proxy”), where a parent fakes that their child has serious medical problems for attention and money.[17]  One such FDIA case was that of Lacey Spears, a young mother that murdered her five-year-old son Garnett when Spears tried to extend his hospital stay by putting sixty-nine packets of salt into his feeding bags.[18]  The cases of Papini and Spears both involve perpetrators who utilized social media to spread false information to garner sympathy for their issues.[19]  Both women were more than happy to accept financial donations from sympathizers.[20] 

Both cases suggest affinity fraud, which targets vulnerable people by playing on their inherent trust of the fraudster.[21]  In the cases of Papini and Spears, the fraudsters themselves are members of the traditionally sympathetic and vulnerable groups.  A young mother escaping three weeks of torture and captivity and a widowed mother trying to support a seriously ill toddler tend to automatically pull on the public’s heartstrings.  These fraudsters prey on the public’s sympathy, use their positions as members of these vulnerable classes, and then exploit the relatively unvetted GoFundMe and other social media sites to deprive kindhearted people of their money.[22] 

Using the cases of Papini and Spears, this Article will demonstrate that public hoaxes committed by so-called vulnerable fraudsters are a type of inverted affinity fraud, or as I will call it, “reverse affinity fraud.”  Part I will define affinity fraud and reverse affinity fraud and will show monetary donations as the primary source of the financial frauds.  Part II will delve into the Papini case, starting with a description of her scheme and the investigation leading up to her arrest.  Part III will examine Papini’s plea agreement, proposed versus actual sentences, and potential additional adjustments and charges.  Part IV will compare Spears’ social media usage to that of Papini’s and explore the unique challenges prosecutors have in proving wire fraud in certain types of online giving scenarios.  This Article concludes with the premise that while Papini and Spears can properly be characterized as vulnerable fraudsters, actually charging them with reverse affinity fraud is difficult due to the current lack of federal guidelines. 

 

[1] See Information at 4, United States v. Papini, No. 2:22-cr-00070-WBS (E.D. Cal. Apr. 12, 2012).


[2] Natalie Finn, Inside the Disturbing Aftermath of the Eliza Fletcher Murder Case, ENews (Oct. 2, 2022, 7:00 AM CST), https://www.eonline.com/news/1348533/inside-the-disturbing-aftermath-of-the-eliza-fletcher-murder-case.


[3] Id.; Affidavit in Support of Crim. Compl. & Arrest Warrant at ¶ 7, United States v. Papini, No. 2:22-cr-00070-WBS (E.D. Cal. Mar. 3, 2022) (No. 3:22-mj-00001-DMC SEALED) [hereinafter Papini Affidavit].


[4] Finn, supra note 2.


[5] Papini Affidavit, supra note 3, at ¶ 9.


[6] Michele Chandler, “The Lies Are Out:” Sherri Papini Sentencing Takes Place Monday in Sacramento Courtroom, Redding Rec. Searchlight (Sept. 15, 2022, 11:58 AM), https://www.redding.com/story/news/2022/09/15/sherri-papini-kidnapping-hoax-case-nears-end-monday sentencing/10367516002/; Jordan James et al., Search for Missing Jogger Eliza Fletcher Continues, WVNS (2022), https://www.wvnstv.com/news/national-news/search-for-missing-teacher-eliza-fletcher-continues/amp/.


[7] Papini Affidavit supra note 3, at ¶ 53.


[8] Shweta Sharma, Eliza Fletcher Autopsy Reveals Brutal Cause of Death in Memphis Kidnapping, Independent (Sept. 30, 2022, 2:05 PM BST), https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/crime/eliza-fletcher-autopsy-results-fentanyl-b2181394.html [https://perma.cc/ZX5A-S67Q].


[9] Id. 


[10] Finn, supra note 2.


[11] Papini Affidavit, supra note 3, at ¶ 17(c).


[12] Id. at ¶ 15.


[13] Id.


[14] Dakin Andone, California Woman’s Alleged Fake Abduction Cost the Public Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars, Authorities Say, CNN (Mar. 8, 2022, 7:36 PM EST), https://edition.cnn.com/2022/03/08/us/sherri-papini-detention-hearing/index.html.


[15] See Michelle Del Rey, Why Carlee Russell’s False Kidnapping Claims Won’t Harm the Search for Missing Black Women, AL.com (Oct. 17, 2023, 9:20 AM), https://www.al.com/reckon/2023/10/why-carlee-russells-false-kidnapping-claims-wont-harm-the-search-for-missing-black-women.html (demonstrating that since “[c]ases of people faking their kidnappings are rare[,]” people are not automatically suspicious of kidnapping cases).  See generally Why Are We More Likely to Offer Help to a Specific Individual than a Vague Group?: The Identifiable Victim Effect Explained, The Decision Lab [hereinafter The Identifiable Victim Effect Explained], https://thedecisionlab.com/ biases/identifiable-victim-effect, for a discussion of the identifiable victim effect, which can explain why an average member of the public would feel sympathy for a kidnap survivor.


[16] United States’ Amended Sent’g Memorandum at 5, United States v. Papini, No. 2:22-cr-00070-WBS (E.D. Cal. Sept. 14, 2022) [hereinafter Papini Sent’g Memo].


[17] See Factitious Disorder Imposed on Another (FDIA), Cleveland Clinic (Oct. 18, 2021), https://my.cleveland clinic.org/health/diseases/9834-factitious-disorder-imposed-on-another-fdia


[18] The Associated Press, Lacey Spears Convicted of Murder in Son’s Salt Poisoning Death, AL.com (Mar. 2, 2015, 3:57 PM), https://www.al.com/news/2015/03/lacey_spears_convicted_of_murd.html.


[19] See Traci Schrader, Love, Lacey (The Garnett Spears Story), Medium (Aug. 26, 2018), https://medium.com/ @tracina.schrader/love-lacey-the-garnett-spears-story-78be8d382708 (Spears’ use of social media); Bevan Hurley, ‘I Didn’t Believe it for a Moment:’ Inside the Case of ‘Supermom’ Sherri Papini Charged With Fake Kidnapping, Independent (Apr. 12, 2022), https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/crime/sherri-papini-kidnapping-charged-california-b2034558.html (Papini’s use of social media).


[20] See Devil in Suburbia: Failure to Thrive (ID Discovery broadcast Sept. 13, 2022) (detailing donations made to Spears); Papini Sent’g Memo, supra note 16, at 7 (arguing that “Papini took her hoax even farther when she applied for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration and victims benefits from CalVCB. Papini continued to receive these benefits until she was arrested.”).


[21] Affinity Fraud, FBI.gov (Dec. 18, 2017) [hereinafter FBI Affinity Fraud], https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/beware -of-affinity-fraud [https://perma.cc/D8KF-M677].


[22] See generally GoFundMe is Working Overtime to Moderate Scam Campaigns for Manchester Bombing Victims, GoFraudMe (May 26, 2017), https://gofraudme.com/gofundme-working-overtime-moderate-scam-campaigns-manchester-bombing-victims/; Nevada Mom Who “Killed Off” Her Kid for GoFundMe Scam Sentenced to Prison. A Lot of Prison, GoFraudMe (May 23, 2018), https://gofraudme.com/nevada-mom-fake-leukemia-gofundme-scam/; Ange McCormack, ‘Go Fraud Me’: The Woman who Hunts Down Fake GoFundMe Campaigns, Austl. Broad. Corp. (Nov. 9, 2017), https://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/go-fraud-me/9135226.

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