Defendants accused in the Capitol riot Jan. 6 crowdfund their legal fees online, using popular payment processors and an expanding network of fundraising platforms, despite a crackdown by tech companies.
The Capitol riot extremists and others are engaging these companies in a game of cat-and-mouse as they spring from one fundraising tool to another, utilizing new sites, usernames and accounts.
In one case, a crowdfunding website set up in late 2020 has been adopted by a defendant charged with storming the Capitol, who used it to raise almost $180,000. His was one of eight fundraisers on the site as of last week, and his donations accounted for 84% of the money raised on the platform.
The trend isn’t limited to extremists connected to Jan. 6. Neo-Nazi Paul Miller has crowdfunded legal fees through Cash App and asked for Bitcoin donations, even after federal authorities arrested him this month for being a felon in possession of a firearm.
“It’s so predictable, and it’s never going away,” said Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University who has studied how extremists raise money online. “Whenever there’s money involved, it’s never going to stop; there will always be something new that pops up.”
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Bouncing from one fundraising site to the next
In the wake of the insurrection, the popular crowdfunding site GoFundMe said it banned fundraising for travel to political events that have a “risk for violence.”
After Jan. 6, payment processors such as PayPal and Stripe, which handle credit and debit card payments for millions of online businesses, found themselves in a seemingly never-ending shell game. Extremists involved in the insurrection worked to circumvent their systems by switching payment accounts and methods and hopping from one fundraising platform to the next.
Crowdfunding websites that were less squeamish about extremists stepped into the breach. CNN reported that the website GiveSendGo, which bills itself as the “#1 free Christian crowdfunding site,” became a refuge for insurrectionists hoping to raise a buck.
Unlike GiveSendGo, most fundraising platforms take a small cut of the money donated.
In August, GiveSendGo featured a campaign for Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot and killed two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, during a protest against police brutality. Rittenhouse’s lawyers said he acted in self-defense.
As of last week, 10 people accused in the Capitol riot were fundraising for legal fees on GiveSendGo, according to a USA TODAY analysis.
GiveSendGo didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Proud Boys Hawaii chapter founder Nicholas Ochs started a fundraiser for legal fees on GiveSendGo shortly after he was arrested on federal charges for enteringthe Capitol. On the encrypted messaging app Telegram, Ochs briefly advertised his GiveSendGo page to plead for money before telling his followers the fundraiser had been removed. The fundraiser page, which remains on the site, shows Ochs raised almost $20,000 in that brief window.
A week later, Ochs found a new site to host his fundraiser: GoGetFunding. As of March 19, he had raised about $1,300 on the site.
Texas Proud Boy Nick DeCarlo, who was photographed grinning next to Ochs inside the Capitol, also set up a GoGetFunding page for legal fees. He has raised more than $7,000.
In an interview with USA TODAY, GoGetFunding CEO Sandip Sekhon said the site discontinued Ochs’ campaign for breaching its terms, but it will allow DeCarlo’s campaign to continue. He didn’t explain why.
“We appreciate and understand this may not be agreeable in many cases, but stand firm in allowing supporters of such individuals the ability to offer financial support towards the cost of impending trial,” Sekhon said.
DeCarlo and Ochs did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
The next big fundraising platforms for the far-right?
Brandon Straka, a supporter of Donald Trump who was arrested for his allegedinvolvement in the insurrection, has reportedly raised almost $180,000 for his legal fees on the crowdfunding platform AllFundIt.
AllFundIt was created last fall by conservative blogger and Trump supporter Joe Dan Gorman as a “Christian conservative alternative to GoFundMe,” according to his blog.
In an anonymous article in The Beltway Report titled “Go Fund Me BANS Trump Supporters Campaigns While AllFundIt Welcomes All W/ Open Arms,” AllFundIt is referred to as “the fundraising site created by patriots for everyone.” The article encourages those associated with the events Jan. 6 to use the platform to raise money.
Gorman and Straka did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Another website hosting crowdfunding for defendants in the Capitol riot, Our Freedom Funding, featured two fundraisers for members of the Proud Boys, Joe Biggs and Dominic Pezzola. Both face federal charges in relation to the attack Jan. 6.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Biggs fundraiser was listed as having received $52,201. Pezzola had received $730. Biggs’ campaign disappeared from the site shortly after USA TODAY inquired about it.
Biggs did not respond to calls seeking comment. A representative of Our Freedom Funding contacted a USA TODAY reporter and defended the fundraisers for the two Proud Boys, saying the site doesn’t discriminate against customers for political reasons. The representative refused to provide his name.
Fundraising tech companies ramp up moderation efforts
For years, hate groups used mainstream technology platforms to organize, spread their message, recruit members and raise money.
Time and again, the platforms largely resisted calls to cut off these groups, arguing these tools should be available to anyone as long as they were not engaged in illegal activities.
After the death of peace activist Heather Heyer in 2017 at the white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the tech sector confronted its role in enabling hate groups.
Crowdfunding and payment apps were among a wave of companies that set more stringent rules, resulting in the removal of white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups, as well as individuals who spouted hate and threatened violence.
GoFundMe shut down campaigns supporting the man accused of killing Heyer. PayPal put out a statement saying its “services are not used to accept payments or donations for activities that promote hate, violence or racial intolerance.”
Yet even after tech companies tightened policies, poured resources into policing their platforms and booted bad actors, hate groups and their members slipped through the ramparts.
Research released in October showed that PayPal, Stripe, Facebook and Amazon continued accepting payments to hate groups in the USA.
According to the analysis by the anti-extremism think tank Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the nonprofit research group Global Disinformation Index, 73 U.S.-based hate groups had access to at least 54 means of raising money online, including crowdfunding and online payment tools.
PayPal cut all ties with GiveSendGo, but PayPal and Stripe have taken a different approach with GoGetFunding, AllFundIt and Our Freedom Funding. Rather than cut them off, the companies stopped processing payments for individual fundraisers that violate their rules.
PayPal monitors these fundraising sites for “adherence with our acceptable use policy,” spokesman Justin Higgs said.
Wednesday, a USA TODAY reporter was able to donate $10 to Biggs’ fundraiser on Our Freedom Funding, using Stripe to process the payment.
A few hours later, his campaign disappeared from Our Freedom Funding.
Friday, a USA TODAY reporter donated to Pezzola’s fundraiser using Stripe. Stripe told USA TODAY it does not comment on individual users.
A USA TODAY reporter was able to make a $1 donation to Pezzola’s fundraiser using Venmo, a payment app owned by PayPal. After being alerted by USA TODAY, Venmo removed the account.
Soon a PayPal account took its place. PayPal caught that and removed it, too.
“Any attempt to circumvent account closures is not permitted, and the company will ban these accounts when detected,” PayPal’s Higgs said.
A Neo-Nazi on Cash App
This month, Miller, known to his thousands of fans as Gypsy Crusader, used the messaging app Telegram to ask for donations through Cash App, which is owned by Square.
In a statement, the company said, “We have several teams that partner with compliance to continually monitor accounts for prohibited activity based on account use and transactional activity, and if we find such activity, we take appropriate action pursuant to our established policies.”
After being alerted by USA TODAY, Cash App removed the account benefiting Miller, but a new one soon popped up in its place.
By Monday morning, that account had also been removed.