Each year, more and more people are going online for their holiday shopping, but in these hard times, the Internet is also becoming a place where people in need can ask for a handout.
Listeners responded overwhelming to this story by offering to provide gifts to some of the needy families who went online asking for Christmas help. Michael Arthur, a father of two who feared that he might not be able to give his children anything this year, says he received such an outpouring of presents from NPR listeners that he and his sons decided to help others. He says his sons put on two Santa caps, also sent to them by a listener, and delivered some of the excess toys to two other needy families in their Maryland town. He says they donated the rest to Toys for Tots.
There are thousands of appeals on craigslist and on other Web sites devoted to begging, such as Begslist, CyberBeg and DonateMoney2me.com.
And the appeals are heart-wrenching. A single mom with no money to pay her bills; an unemployed construction worker about to lose his house. And, of course, lots of families who can't afford gifts for Christmas.
Certainly some of these appeals are scams, but many appear to be legitimate pleas for help.
Michael Arthur of Frederick, Md., says he debated for weeks before placing an ad called "Santa, Are You Out There?" on craigslist:
I'm a partially disabled single father with two young sons, seven and eight. They deserve to get a few nice toys and things for Christmas. They are really good kids. I don't make enough money to be able to buy them anything. ... If anyone out there could possibly help me obtain a few toys for my children please let me know. I hate to beg, but I will for my children.
Arthur works at a local veterinarian's office, despite his back problems. But he's had a hard time making ends meet. So he decided it was worth a shot.
Arthur says the bad economy forced him to swallow his pride.
"I mean, it's kind of embarrassing to have to do something like this, but I figured maybe there'd be somebody out there who'd be willing to help out for Christmas, you know, just a couple of toys or something," Arthur says.
But so far, no luck. He says three people responded but only one seemed really interested in helping, and Arthur didn't hear back after he sent a detailed list with his sons' clothing sizes and what they might want.
Tarisha Burton of Durham, N.C., posted a craigslist ad called "Adopt a Family For Christmas." Burton is an unemployed, single mother of three. She says she gets some public aid, but not enough for gifts.
"I'm not trying to be greedy at all, no way, no how," Burton says. "It's just, I would like my kids to have a decent Christmas this year."
But again, no response. She and others say that could be because there are so many people looking for help. Many say they've tried local charities, but they, too, are overwhelmed with requests. Still, Burton says she'd never think about going out on the street to beg.
"I think it's a little bit more discreet," Burton says. "I don't know, to me, it might be a little bit more embarrassing actually going out on the street, you know, begging for somebody to help me for something."
According to Rex Camposagrado, founder of Begslist, a free online begging site, "Doing it online is a little bit more private."
Camposagrado created Begslist a few years ago when his own Internet business went under and he was out of work. He had also had a bad experience begging online. Some sites charged him money — which he says didn't make sense — since that's what he needed.
"I thought it should be a free thing. If people on the street are begging, they're not asked to pay a fee to beg on the street," Camposagrado says.
And indeed, some sites charge up to $45 a month. DonateMoney2me.com says that's so it can provide better services, including advice on how to enhance an online appeal by using phrases such as "with your help, we can go on" and "your generosity can give a new lease on life."
Of course, the big question hanging over all this is how much of it's real. Camposagrado says his site, like others, warns donors and beggars alike about possible fraud.
"If you see a posting that's from overseas, with like a U.K. address, and the story that they're telling is in broken English and it's very hard to understand. A lot of times, it's made by a scammer," Camposagrado says.
He also suggests that people use safeguards such as PayPal instead of checks or money orders. Craigslist has similar advice and says users should only deal with those they can meet in person in a public place.
Michelle Santos of Richmond, Va., says it's advice she has taken to heart. She posted an ad last month asking for toys and clothes, which she plans to give to the needy.
"A lot of people do try to scam one another, but honestly, you run across families that are in true, true need," she says.
She says she knows this because she visits the families first.
Her ad attracted some donations, but she also got 900 e-mails from people looking for help. She hopes to help about 100.