As Christmas grew near, Gina Wilken was growing frantic. She had no money for gifts and five young children eagerly awaiting Santa.
She contacted the Salvation Army, Toys for Tots and other agencies, but the application deadline had passed weeks earlier. So she sat down at a computer and placed an ad on Craigslist.
"Hi, my name is Gina and I am a mother of 5 beautiful children," she wrote. " ... This year has been extremely difficult for us financially ... and we are worried because we cannot afford Christmas presents for our children. I feel very uncomfortable even asking ... but I am desperate for help."
Just as Internet giving has been on the rise in recent years, a growing number of people have turned to the Web to ask for handouts during this economic downturn. In this latest twist on panhandling, people anonymously appeal to strangers for financial assistance for anything, from buying a new wheelchair to catching up on late mortgage payments.
They often pour out their life stories in the ads, detailing the loss of a job, an illness or a past drug problem that landed them in a dire situation. They personalize the stories by sharing anecdotes about their children and often give the children's names and ages.
"It's tugging at the heartstrings," said Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor of philanthropic studies at The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. "If you are a needy person working the Internet, Christmas is a good time because people are more receptive to giving. It really appeals to the impulse giver who's like an impulse shopper."
While Craigslist is a popular site, others devoted entirely to cyber begging have sprung up in recent years, including CyberBeg, Begslist and DonateMoney2me.com. Prospective donors are often left to sort through the myriad of requests, and sometimes can find it difficult to decipher legitimate ones from scams.
Although some requests are legitimate, experts said it is risky to donate to strangers over the Internet. Names and e-mail addresses can be captured and used for repeated solicitations, donations are not tax-deductible and there is no way to know that the gifts will be used as promised.
"I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of these are scams," said Eszter Hargittai, associate professor of communications studies at Northwestern University. "These things are completely anonymous and really vague. There are so many other ways to be charitable that are much clearer."
During the holiday season, the sites have been deluged with ads from desperate parents such as Wilken asking for clothes, toys and gifts for their children. It was her last option for her family to have a nice Christmas, she said.
"It was extremely difficult and very embarrassing for us," said Wilken, 27, a stay-at-home mom from Elgin whose children are all under age 11. "But I get a big lump in my throat every time I hear, 'I want this for Christmas, I want that for Christmas.'"
Things were different last year, she said. Wilken's husband, Matthew, 29, a cable company technician, is working fewer hours, so their income has declined. She had a part-time photography job, but it cost $600 a week for child care, so she quit. And there is that $240,000 hospital bill that has been hovering over them for four years. Their youngest daughter, now 4, was born three months premature and stayed in the hospital for 2 1/2 months, she said.
Rex Camposagrado, 38, an Arlington Heights man who founded Begslist two years ago after losing his business and falling on hard times, said he attempts to monitor the Web site for scams and warns people to be careful. The funny stories, he said, often get a better response than sad ones.
"When college students say they need beer money for the weekend or someone needs $30 or $40 for a concert ticket, lots of people might donate a dollar," he said. "But when you someone says they are $30,000 in debt, it's hard to get that many donations."
During these tough economic times, as once-stable families are facing unemployment and foreclosures, soliciting over the Internet can seem easier than working through the maze of social service agencies that are bursting at the seams with requests.
"We see a great increase in the number of people who have never had to ask for services before," said Marilyn Farmer, executive director of MorningStar Mission Ministries Inc. in Joliet. "They are used to having a paycheck and being self-sufficient. They don't really know how to access services, and they are terribly embarrassed by it all."
For the Wilken family, the ad worked. After several responses that promised help that never came, a woman offered to meet Wilken at Wal-Mart and give her a $350 gift card. Now the children have gifts under their Christmas tree.
"She said she wanted me to know there are people out there willing to help out complete strangers," Wilken said. "I was crying my eyes out the entire time. We greatly appreciate what she did."
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