US couple, homeless man charged in GoFundMe scam

In this Nov. 17, 2017, file photo, Johnny Bobbitt Jr., left, Kate McClure, right, and McClure's boyfriend Mark D'Amico pose at a Citgo station in Philadelphia. (AP)
Updated 16 November 2018
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US couple, homeless man charged in GoFundMe scam

  • The GoFundMe page announced a goal of $10,000 to help Bobbitt rent an apartment, buy a used car and get back on his feet

NEW YORK: Last year, the seemingly heartwarming tale of a homeless good Samaritan who helped a woman driver in need sparked a crowdfunding campaign that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for him.
Now, the story has ended up in court — and appears to have been a scam.
Three people were charged in a New Jersey courtroom on Thursday in connection with the allegedly fraudulent scheme, which allowed them to rake in more than $400,000 on the GoFundMe site.
In November 2017, Katelyn McClure and her boyfriend Mark D’Amico launched the crowdfunding page asking donors to “pay it forward” to a homeless military veteran, Johnny Bobbitt Jr.
The couple said Bobbitt had given McClure his last $20 to buy gas for her car when he found her stuck along a highway outside Philadelphia, and they wanted to return the act of kindness.
The GoFundMe page announced a goal of $10,000 to help Bobbitt rent an apartment, buy a used car and get back on his feet. But it quickly made that amount many times over.
The story made headlines and thousands donated to what seemed to be a good cause.
But the first twist came in August when Bobbitt sued McClure and D’Amico, saying he had only received a fraction of the money — about $75,000 — and accusing the couple of pulling one over on donors.
Bobbitt claimed the couple had gone on fancy vacations and bought themselves a new BMW, which was seized at the couple’s home in September.
Ultimately, the investigation revealed a second twist: Bobbitt was in cahoots with the couple all along.
“The entire campaign was predicated on a lie,” Burlington County prosecutor Scott Coffina told a press conference Thursday.
“Less than an hour after the GoFundMe campaign went live, McClure, in a text exchange with a friend, stated that the story about Bobbitt assisting her was ‘completely made up’,” he said.
“She did not run out of gas on an I-95 off-ramp, and he did not spend his last $20 to help her,” the prosecutor added.
“D’Amico, McClure and Bobbitt conspired to fabricate and promote a feel-good story that would compel donors to contribute to their cause.”
The three were charged with “theft by deception” and conspiracy to commit such a theft. A spokesman for the prosecutor’s office said they would be seeking jail sentences “of some length.”
GoFundMe plans to reimburse the 14,000 donors, who contributed $403,000, the prosecutor said.


Moroccan saffron farmers battle knockoff spices

A photo taken on November 7, 2018 shows saffron flowers in a field in the Taliouine region in southwestern Morocco. (AFP)
Updated 17 December 2018
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Moroccan saffron farmers battle knockoff spices

  • Once dried and sorted, the flower’s crimson stigmas and styles are turned into saffron — the world’s most expensive spice — popular with top chefs across the globe
  • Counterfeit saffron can sell “for less than a euro a gram at the famous Derb Omar market in Casablanca,” said Dar Azaafaran’s head Ismail Boukhriss

TALIOUINE, Morocco: Saffron farmers in southern Morocco have long taken pride in the coveted spice they produce from the purple-petalled Crocus sativus, but some are worried knockoff versions are threatening their business.
“The pure saffron of Taliouine is the best in the world, according to experts,” local grower Barhim Afezzaa boasted, proudly noting his spice’s designation of origin (PDO) label.
But the 51-year-old is worried that “counterfeit” crops are tarnishing Taliouine’s reputation and its PDO — which guarantees a product’s origin and uniqueness.
In small plots below the snowy peaks of Mount Toubkal, saffron cultivation in Taliouine has remained largely unchanged for centuries.
The flower requires drastic climate conditions — hot summers and cold, wet winters — and it can only be harvested during a month-long window from mid-October to mid-November.
Workers start at dawn each morning, meticulously picking the delicate flowers by hand and placing them in wicker baskets. The purple blooms are picked before they fully open to ensure quality.
Once dried and sorted, the flower’s crimson stigmas and styles are turned into saffron — the world’s most expensive spice — popular with top chefs across the globe.
Morocco is the world’s fourth largest producer of saffron, behind Iran, India and Greece, according to the figures published in 2013 by FranceAgriMer, France’s specialist institute of agriculture and fishing.

The spice is both a source of pride and a lifeline in the Berber city of Taliouine, which, along with a neighboring town, produces 90 percent of the kingdom’s saffron.
Some 1,500 families in Taliouine depend on sales from the crop to survive.
Knockoff versions “damage the image of this culture handed down from father to son, which is our pride,” said 24-year-old Driss, a member of a local collective in the area.
Saffron’s rarity and its painstaking cultivation help explain its price — it takes nearly a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of flowers to create 12 grams of the spice.
In Morocco, PDO-certified saffron sells for about three euros ($3.5) a gram, according to Dar Azaafaran, or The House of Saffron, which works with 25 local cooperatives.
To maintain their PDO-label and association with Dar Azaafaran, producers submit their harvest for various tests that check for moisture content, taste, color and smell.
Counterfeit saffron can sell “for less than a euro a gram at the famous Derb Omar market in Casablanca,” said Dar Azaafaran’s head Ismail Boukhriss.
Local producers say counterfeiters often use chemical dyes and remains of other plants in an attempt to pass poor quality saffron off as a top-shelf spice.
Boukhriss said that while authorities hold PDO-labelled producers to a high standard, “the informal market is not subjected to the same controls.”
The National Food Safety office told AFP that some “non-conformities” were detected in bulk sales of saffron which had not been properly packaged or labelled.
It advised buyers to only purchase “products labelled and packaged by approved and authorized sellers.”
Some say salesmen working to sell saffron outside the PDO-approved collective networks are to blame, while other small growers sell to middlemen to avoid payment delays common to larger groups.