MacKenzie Scott gave away billions. The scam artists followed.

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NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – Danielle Churchill needed help. She was raising five children in Wollongong, on the Australian coast south of Sydney, and had to cover thousands of dollars in special therapy fees for her 10-year-old son, Lachlan, who has autism. She tried crowdfunding on the site GoFundMe, but raised a tiny fraction of what she had hoped for.

Late last year (2020), she received the message that seemed to solve her financial problems. It was purportedly an email from billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, a novelist best known as the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder, saying that she was giving away half her fortune and that Churchill had qualified for a grant.

Churchill searched Google for Scott’s name and the word “scam.” Instead of warnings, she found numerous news articles describing how Scott’s representatives had emailed hundreds of nonprofit groups out of the blue with offers of monetary support.

“People were thinking they were scams, but then they came true,” Churchill, 34, recalled thinking.

Over the course of 2020, Scott announced gifts totalling nearly US$6 billion (S$8 billion). Her unconventional model of giving was widely praised for its speed and directness. But some of the seeming advantages – no large, established foundation, headquarters, public website or indeed any way to reach her or her representatives – are exactly what made her ripe for impersonation by scammers, as Churchill would soon find out.

To receive the money, Churchill had to fill out a “membership form” sent by an organisation calling itself the MacKenzie Scott Foundation and set up an online account with Investors Bank and Trust Co. She could see that the foundation had transferred US$250,000 into the account in her name, but because she was in Australia, she was told that she had to apply for a tax number and pay some associated fees before she could get access to the money and begin spending it on speech and occupational therapy for Lachlan.

“I was doing my research, looking up everything they were telling me,” Churchill said. She added that her grandmother