Vouching: ideas for establishing credibility for personal GoFundMe campaigns and other small person-to-person transactions

This piece proposes ideas for solving these two problems:

  • How can someone, as an individual doing online fundraising (or some other person-to-person transaction) fairly easily establish their credibility?
  • How can someone, who is considering donating to an individual’s online fundraiser (or considering some other person-to-person financial transaction) feel more comfortable that that transaction is legitimate?

These are questions I’ve pondered a good amount over the last few years. I thought about it when I was writing my own GoFundMe (for time spent investigating a prominent fake news creator) and also when I’ve been asked to donate to fundraisers of people who I only know online. I’ve also spent a good amount of time thinking about the patterns of fake, deceptive online accounts.

Let’s start with the scenario that someone you sort-of know online asks you to donate to their fundraiser. Let’s say it’s someone you’ve interacted with a good amount on social media, and that you have a positive history with, but that you’ve never met in real life. And then one day they send you a message that something bad has happened to them and they are asking people they know for help. You want to help, but you also don’t want to fall victim to a scam (because these things are known to happen ).

What can you do to prove that this person is real? Beyond that, even if they are real, what can you do to prove that their cause is legitimate? Looked at in reverse: if you were the person asking for money, what can you do to proactively prove, in a relatively lightweight way, that your cause is legitimate, and thereby optimize your chances for success?

Quick disclaimer: I am sure the thoughts in this piece are not unique to me, but I didn’t find any resources that discussed this. If you know of people/resources talking about this, please let me know in the comments or at www.readingpokertells.com/contact, thanks.

Vouching is a strong strategy

A procedure might look something like this:

  1. Ask the most publicly-known people you know to make a public post on a social media platform that vouches that you are a real person who they know and trust.
  2. When constructing your crowdfunding campaign (or website page or whatever), include a section with links to those public posts.

Here’s an example of what such a public vouch might look like on Twitter:

I think assembling multiple vouches like this would be a strong strategy to establish trust. This could be used for a number of reputation-establishing person-to-person transactions, including:

  • Fundraising
  • Selling/pre-selling online products/services
  • Online dating

At the end of this piece, I’ll go into more detail about optimal ways to do this, but for now I’ll work through some of the weaknesses with some other lightweight ways of verifying identity and credibility, and why this is the best approach.

Knowing someone’s real identity doesn’t always help

This is where most people fail at establishing legitimacy or verifying legitimacy. Real people, using their real names and real photos, deceive people and commit fraud every day.

To take one recent example: there is a Russian woman (claiming to be anyway) that regularly asks people for money on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. When she asked me recently on Twitter, and I direct-messaged with her, she claimed she was deeply in debt due to her 20-year-old daughter’s illness. She had several social media accounts that looked pretty real, including an Instagram dedicated to her handmade jewelry/clothes, and a Facebook account, and she had many posts of herself and her family going back quite a while.

Googling her associated profile names, I found that she had also raised money for a different sick child in the past, which was also suspicious. I was 95% confident this was a scam, but how could I be sure?

As an intellectual exercise, I interacted with her, trying to hit upon a lightweight/easy approach to proving/disproving her legitimacy, including:

  • I asked about why she had fundraised for a different sick child in the past (she said she used to be okay financially and helped someone else, but had since fallen on hard times).
  • I asked for pics of her with her children (she DMed me some pictures that looked pretty convincing).
  • I asked her to post a picture of her with one of the pieces of jewelry on her Instragram (she did that).
  • She sent me pictures of her loans with her name on it (these could have been doctored).
  • I asked for pictures of her daughter, visible in the photos she’d already sent, in the hospital (she said she was only occasionally in the hospital and she didn’t have any pictures currently).
  • I asked for pics of IDs or other official documents, but she said she had privacy concerns (understandable and, even if she sent, can be doctored).
  • I asked for a picture of her with a recent publication (she did that with a few-months old one, claiming she had no others in the house).

To be clear: this is almost certainly a scam, but the question remains: how could I be sure? If she was just a desperate woman asking everyone for help, how could I feel confident trying to warn others about her? What if she was someone I sort-of knew and wanted to help if I could only prove that she was real?

I finally realized that even knowing 100% that the woman was a real person (real name, real picture) would be essentially meaningless for the purposes of determining the legitimacy of her claims. There are plenty of people who are desperate enough, or who believe themselves isolated enough from responsibility, to use their real identities to scam people. Here’s one such recent example from Colorado.

Being acquainted with the poker community, where people fairly frequently ruin their reputations by scamming for fairly small amounts of money, I’m not sure why that fact didn’t occur to me sooner.

Most people’s first instinct, if they were trying to verify someone’s credibility, would be to do something like asking that person to post a picture with a recent publication, or to get on a video chat. But no, this only gets us so far and doesn’t help prove credibility.

There are some platforms/services dedicated to establishing identity (a few examples: Yoti, Trulioo, Jumio, Cognito). These are mostly for businesses to identify the realness of customers, but some, like Yoti, market to individuals who want to establish their realness for whatever purpose. (I’m sure there are others and I don’t pretend to have extensive knowledge of the market: this description was based on a quick online search.)

But the point remains: realness doesn’t prove credibility. Also, even if they do help establish credibility (e.g., credit score, criminal history), these services are usually pretty expensive, because they’re aimed at business use. They also require lots of information and documentation (IDs, proof of address, etc.) to set up and use.

The people I’m talking about (individuals asking for money or trying to quickly verify credibility) won’t be likely to want to use these heavy-duty solutions and will want lighter-weight, simpler solutions like the vouching strategy proposed.

Online info (mostly) makes insufficient proof

When I asked people on Twitter how they’d prove their identity using online methods, one response was to provide links to all social media accounts, and to any mentions in articles or other “official” online resources. But again, this is insufficient; all of these can be gamed in some way.

Let’s take a scenario where you are attempting to prove to me that you are an established author named Cosmo Kramer III. You show me all your social media accounts, which look quite respectable, and you send me a link to a New York Times article that quotes you and shows your picture. This is impressive to me, and I quickly shoot over some money to you to fund a new non-profit activity you’re working on.

But obviously, you could just be pretending to be Cosmo Kramer III, so all of these would be meaningless in terms of proof. You might even look like the actual Cosmo Kramer III, and use photos/video of yourself. Or you might know how to manipulate images or video (something becoming easier every day.)

Or there might not even be a Cosmo Kramer III at all, and the New York Times was fooled, which led to you also being fooled. Being mentioned in reputable-looking articles is a good way for scammers to fool people; it can lead to a snowball-like effect to achieving credibility and realness. (Couple examples: piece I wrote about a fake conservative young woman account who has been mentioned in three online articles; piece about a deceptive white nationalist whose work under a pseudonym has been published in Wall Street Journal and other reputable sites.)

Similarly, being well-known or having written books doesn’t prove that someone is credible. The Twitter account @sixthformpoet comes to mind; this person has had a lot of viral tweets and tweet threads and has even gotten a book deal. But in the end, they are anonymous, and we should be skeptical as to whether they are telling the truth, no matter how much we may be entertained by their stories.

Again, the point is: it is difficult to prove the realness or credibility of someone using online evidence. Let’s face it; even personally knowing someone in real life for quite some time, it can be hard to know whether that person is trustworthy. I’d argue that vouching from reputable sources is the best lightweight approach we have for verifying credibility.

Who makes good vouchers?

I would propose that the best people to vouch for someone are Twitter’s verified users. Reasons for this:

  • To best of my knowledge, Twitter has done the most in-depth work in assuring that verified accounts are who they say they are. Sure, this does not ensure all verified accounts are real, but this is better than, for example, Facebook or LinkedIn, which have no verification process at all for regular individuals, and which are full of fake accounts.
  • Twitter has verified many non-celebrity, everyday people who are “of public interest.” They even verified regular old me just for writing some books. The large number of verified accounts means that it’s more likely that someone can find an acquaintance, directly or through the grapevine, that has been verified. (In 2017, Twitter put the ability to become verified on hold, but there are still many verified accounts.)
  • Being verified on Twitter is valuable monetarily and career-wise, as it increases exposure and gets attention. For that reason, most verified users generally have something to lose and are likely to take a vouching request seriously.
  • By starting a tweet with someone’s @ handle, the post is only visible to people following both accounts, so this gives a public vouch less visibility than, for example, an Instagram post, which is seen prominently. This makes it easier for people to vouch for someone without it being prominent, but while still being easy for the vouched-for person to link to that tweet.

One could get public vouches from people on other platforms. For example: a LinkedIn profile with a lot of details and lots of contacts and publicly-available contact information would make a good voucher. The more trustworthy-seeming the person’s public profile, the better. The more ways there are to publicly contact someone, the better. But the point I want to make is that Twitter verified accounts might be one of the best options to first consider.

And obviously, not everyone will be good friends/acquaintances with someone that has a verified Twitter account or something similar. But often, even pretty isolated people will know someone who knows someone, and may be able to convince their acquaintances to set up a second-hand or third-hand vouch, which could still be valuable, provided there’s some decent explanation in their campaign descriptions around why it was difficult for them to get vouches.

And again, having vouches will of course not be surefire evidence of credibility, but seeing several vouches from several seemingly-trustworthy public accounts will do wonders when convincing someone thinking of donating to a person/cause.

Other popular social media platforms don’t have a robust verification system. Facebook pays lip service to the idea that all accounts must be associated with a real person, but its site is rampant with fake accounts; they offer Facebook verification only for “eligible brands, media organizations and public figures”).

Instagram’s verified status is strong but not practical for a couple reasons:

  • Relatively few people are verified: mainly celebrities and big influencers.
  • Verified people are unlikely to make a public post merely vouching for someone, because Instagram real estate is very valuable/public (unlike Twitter).

Format of the vouching statement

The @PublicVouch mentioned first in the tweet is an account I created for people to use if they don’t want that tweet to be seen in their main public feed. They could just as easily use any Twitter account, including the person they’re vouching for.

Things to potentially include:

  • Length of time they’ve known the person
  • Details about how they know the person
  • Willingness to answer any enquiries about the person

Also, it’s probably best to avoid the term “vouch,” or any language that might give someone the impression that the voucher would be held legally responsible if the vouchee does end up doing something bad.

Conclusion

My opinion is that this should be a new standard for people doing online fundraising; that when they’re putting together their campaign description, this would be a prominent and persuasive part of the process. Because just speaking from personal experience of what I’ve seen, most people’s fundraising efforts are severely lacking this convincing and persuasive aspect.

I think we should have two main goals when it comes to reducing the effects of online fake news and propaganda and fraud:

  • Make people more skeptical of things they see online
  • Make people more accountable for the things they say online

Some people are of the opinion that social media platforms should have more proof-of-authorship and identity verification options. I agree with this and think it’s one of the main solutions. (Some articles about this: opinion piece in Forbes, opinion piece from TheHill.com.) The main problem there is that social media companies balk at putting up obstacles to people quickly using their products.

Hope this was helpful. Feel free to let me know what you think via Twitter or in Comments.

Have psych podcast “People Who Read People.” My research into online deception featured in NYT, WaPo, more. Wrote books on poker tells (translated 8 languages).

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