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How a ‘scam’ COVID-19 aid effort solicited donations from Duke students on social media

Duke students have organized to provide money and resources to local communities amid the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, a network of now-deleted social media accounts attempted to solicit donations for alleged assistance to the Duke and Durham communities with unclear identities or intentions.

Members of Duke Mutual Aid, a student-led Facebook group of around 1,800 members that provides resources to the Duke and Durham communities, discovered that a group called Duke Students Against COVID-19 (DSAC) was asking for donations through Venmo, alleging to provide “provision packages” for “at-risk localities” affected by the coronavirus. DSAC hid behind GroupMe and Facebook accounts to disseminate promotional information about the group without revealing who controlled the money. 

To Duke Mutual Aid, DSAC was acting in “bad faith” because DSAC was not transparent in how it operated or used its funds, failed to disclose who was responsible for the group and used anonymous Facebook and GroupMe accounts and the Facebook account of a “non-existent Duke student” named Henry Wilson. Duke Mutual Aid’s accusations were provided in a statement sent to The Chronicle written by sophomore Amy Yoon on behalf of the group.

After members of Duke Mutual Aid contacted a Duke student alleged to be involved with promoting DSAC, the DSAC Facebook page and Venmo account were deactivated. That Duke student who was alleged to have been involved with DSAC did not respond to requests to comment.

“The student we were in communication with told us that it was a scam, and DSAC’s Facebook page and Venmo account were then deleted,” according to Yoon’s statement.

How DSAC reached Duke students

DSAC used a GroupMe account, a Facebook page named after the group and another Facebook account of someone named “Henry Wilson,” an alleged Duke student not listed in the Duke internal directory. The screenshot of the account’s profile picture also generates dozens of public image results. 

The anonymized DSAC GroupMe and Henry Wilson Facebook accounts encouraged people to share a graphic about DSAC, including a Venmo account with the username @DSAC-19, its email address and a description of its resources, according to screenshots obtained by The Chronicle.

Its email address coronavirus@dukestudents.org would have operated through the domain www.dukestudents.org, which was created March 19, according to a WHOIS search, and no longer exists.

In its graphics and messages, DSAC claimed to be a “student-led organization” that would provide “provision packages” through working with “wholesale suppliers to procure essential items at no-profit costs, which volunteers then distribute in identified at-risk localities.” DSAC claimed to offer a “safety and hygiene care kit” and a “food relief care kit.”

Another one of DSAC’s graphics described that a $15 donation would cover the costs of the safety and hygiene package, and a $25 donation would cover the costs for the food package.

A GroupMe account called “Duke Students Against COVID-19” promoted DSAC in student GroupMe chats for the Duke Cricket Team and Duke Diya, sharing information about the provisional packages. The now-deleted Henry Wilson Facebook account posted a message with similar wording in the Facebook group Duke University Dogs and Pals, in addition to including three graphics to share.

Henry Wilson’s Facebook post advertising DSAC in Duke University Dogs and Pals was live for around 19 hours, senior Carly McGregor wrote in a message. She deleted the post from the Facebook group as soon as someone told her to “watch out” for DSAC.

“Anyone who is a member of the group can post because we seldom have spam issues—we're a group about Duke animals with only about 1,500 members, so we're not exactly go-to targets for this sort of thing,” McGregor wrote.

Sophomore Margot Armbruster said that members in Duke Mutual Aid were “immediately on edge” when they started learning more about DSAC and became even more so when they saw DSAC’s messaging to student groups.

For instance, Armbruster pointed to the posts’ “demeaning language” toward homeless people.

“Homeless are hardly aware of the dangers of Coronavirus and the solutions available to fight against it,” one of DSAC’s GroupMe messages reads. “The current Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak continues to spread, with growing numbers of cases and deaths worldwide. The millions of the homeless living on the streets with lack of ability to self-quarantine, access to medical care are acutely vulnerable.”

She added that there was also no mention of local partnerships in DSAC’s communication through GroupMe or Facebook.

Sharing what they knew at the time, which was after the deletion of DSAC’s Facebook and GroupMe accounts, Armbruster posted a March 28 statement on Facebook on behalf of Duke Mutual Aid, which stated that DSAC “is operating in bad faith, has exploited community members into believing its claims, and cannot adequately fulfill its promises.” 

DSAC’s friend on Venmo, @Steve-Mnuchin-7

Before DSAC’s Venmo, @DSAC-19, was deleted, members of Duke Mutual Aid took screenshots of the account feed. The feed displayed no transactions and one friend, @Steve-Mnuchin-7, according to those screenshots. 

The Venmo account @Steve-Mnuchin-7 had the account name “Morning Brew,” the same name as a daily business newsletter designed for millennials, and used the newsletter’s logo as its profile picture. The account had 494 friends, charged several accounts for “Coronavirus donations” and was paid by at least seven unique Venmo accounts.

@Steve-Mnuchin-7 was also deleted the same day as the DSAC Venmo account, according to Yoon’s statement on behalf of Duke Mutual Aid.

Morning Brew had $13 million in revenue in 2019 and now has nearly 2 million subscribers, whose average age falls in the late 20s. 

Samir Sheth, senior vice president and head of content for Morning Brew, wrote in an email that the company had no knowledge of the Venmo account until they were contacted by Duke Mutual Aid and The Chronicle.

In its March 18 daily newsletter and March 17 Instagram post, Morning Brew jokingly told its readers and customers to “Add @Steve-Mnuchin-7 on Venmo now” as a reference to the federal government’s coronavirus stimulus package.

“The Trump administration might send $1,000 or more your way,” Morning Brew wrote in its newsletter. “Checks for a thousand smackeroos to some Americans could sneak into a $1.2 trillion stimulus package the president and his team are trying to push through Congress.”

Morning Brew has since changed the caption of the Instagram post from “Add @Steve-Mnuchin-7 on Venmo now” to “Social distancing relief.” 

The post was edited once Morning Brew learned about the “Steve-Mnuchin-7 Venmo scam,” Sheth wrote in the email, and Morning Brew’s COO and co-founder immediately notified Venmo.

Once Morning Brew hears back from Venmo, Sheth wrote that the newsletter plans to inform its Instagram followers and newsletter readers that the @Steve-Mnuchin-7 Venmo account was “not a Morning Brew account or donation drive of any kind.” 

Morning Brew hadn’t heard back from Venmo as of an April 7 email to The Chronicle, but Sheth added that Morning Brew will be mentioning the situation in their newsletter and Instagram that week. If @Steve-Mnuchin-7 had been active at the time they found out about it, they would have immediately made the announcement, he wrote.

“As you all know, this was a joke to imply that one could receive an aid check via Venmo and was in no way meant to imply anything donation or relief oriented,” Sheth wrote in an April 2 email. “We were unaware that the account was created and had solicited donations until your emails; we were also sad to hear that this has been a situation at Duke with other accounts.”

Editor’s Note: Amy Yoon is a member of the Community Editorial Board. Margot Armbruster is an opinion managing editor of The Chronicle. 

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