Superstorm Sandy sent New Yorkers into cyberspace to plead for cash for themselves, their friends, or acquaintances.
Social networking and digital fundraising to alleviate Sandy-caused hardship also illuminated the increasingly popular practice of using the internet to raise money for personal needs.
A review of donation portals such as Gofundme.com and Gogetfunding.com shows users looking for money for trips to Switzerland, adoptions,Olympic bobsled training, legal and vet bills, distillery apprenticeships, and even pageant expenses. Medical bills - for everything from organ transplants to in vitro fertilizations - are perhaps the leading reason individuals resort to posting on-line pleas for cash.
According to a spokesman for gofundme.com, "thousands" of New Yorkers use Gofundme to finance personal needs and projects, said a spokesman for the website. Folks also post pleas for cash on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter and email individuals directly using antiquated contact lists.
After getting assaulted in the Times Square subway station in October, Lower East Side street musician Jed Weinstein discovered many of the expenses generated by the October attack that shattered his left ankle were not covered by health insurance. So he posted a plea for cash donations on Gofundme.com.
Weinstein exceeded his goal of $1,000 by $400.
"We learned that people really cared," said Weinstein, 43, who performs "jambient" rock n' roll with his brother, Heth Weinstein, 45. Weinstein felt awkward broadcasting his need for help, but the money -- most of which came from fans and strangers -- proved a healing balm and consolation. The dozens of donations "made us feel great and eased our worries," Weinstein said.
The ease of Internet communication has unleashed people's ability to articulate "desires, wants and needs that were always there," and many younger people in particular are much freer about sharing, said Dan Post Senning, author of the upcoming book, "Manners in a Digital World" and spokesman for the Emily Post Institute.
But while a web solicitation for a bona fide need is understandable seeking cash for a lifestyle upgrade is rarely seemly, said Senning. Needing money for a liver transplant is a league away from asking "all my Facebook friends to support me in obtaining a new cashmere sweater," he said.
We are in the midst of a new "lottery mentality," where people feel very comfortable creating websites and posting pleas for cash to fund everything from cancer treatment to new computers and cars, said Ted Hart, the CEO of CAFAmerica, which helps people donate overseas, and an expert on internet fundraising for charity.
Charitable contributions are only tax deductible when made to established, vetted charities, noted Hart, who added that many individuals soliciting and receiving money online for personal needs, "don't understand that's taxable income."
To avoid being scammed by a phony sob story, said Hart, people should only give to individuals they know personally and reserve donations for vetted, established charities, which are audited and overseen by governmental entities.
But many people, moved by online stories, are unconcerned about parting with $5 or $50 for a friend of a friend, or to support a person whose suffering strikes a personal chord. Donors "can legitimately broaden their sphere and interaction without giving up all safety. Just keep your self awareness and discernment," said Senning.
But not everyone thinks so highly of the practice. In a recent online column, advice maven Amy Alkon joked that the chutzpah shown in some direct solicitations made her want to start a new website dubbed "Moochstarter."