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Some who don't have a lobbyist to protect their economic interests may have to appeal directly to the public. They are cyber begging, as it's called. Thousands ask for money on the Web site Craigslist. NPR's Pam Fessler has been scanning other sites, like Begslist, CyberBeg and DonateMoney2me.com.
PAM FESSLER: 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.
Mr. MICHAEL ARTHUR: 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're really good kids. I don't make enough money to be able to buy them anything. Everything I make goes to�
FESSLER: Michael Arthur of Frederick, Maryland says he debated for weeks before placing this ad on Craigslist. He 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.
Mr. ARTHUR: 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.
FESSLER: Arthur says the bad economy forced him to swallow his pride.
Mr. ARTHUR: I mean, it's kind of embarrassing I have to do something like this, but I figured maybe there'd be somebody out there that would be willing to, you know, help out for Christmas, you know, just a couple of toys or something.
FESSLER: 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.
Ms. TARISHA BURTON: And I'm not trying to be greedy at all, no way, no how.
FESSLER: That's Tarisha Burton of Durham, North Carolina. Her Craigslist ad was entitled "Adopt a Family For Christmas." She's an unemployed, single mother of three. She says she gets some public aid, but not enough for gifts.
Ms. BURTON: It's just I would like to have my kids to have a decent Christmas this year.
FESSLER: 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, like others I spoke to, Burton says she'd never think about going out on the street to beg.
Why is this different?
Ms. BURTON: I think it's a little bit more discreet. 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.
Mr. REX CAMPOSAGRADO (Begslist): Doing it online is a little bit more private.
FESSLER: Rex Camposagrado is the founder of Begslist, a free site devoted to online begging. He says he gets about 20 posts a day, even more around the holidays.
Camposagrado created the site a few years ago when his own Internet business went under and he was out of work. And he had a bad experience begging online. Some sites charged him money � which he says didn't make sense � since that's what he needed.
Mr. CAMPOSAGRADO: 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.
FESSLER: 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.
Mr. CAMPOSAGRADO: 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.
FESSLER: 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 who they can meet in person in a public place - which is advice Michelle Santos of Richmond, Virginia says she's taken to heart. She posted an ad last month asking for toys and clothes, which she plans to give to the needy.
Ms. MICHELLE SANTOS: I mean it is Christmas-time. A lot of people do try to scam one another, but honestly, you run across families that are in true, true need.
FESSLER: She says she knows this because she visits them families first. Her ad attracted some donations, but she also got 900 e-mails from people looking for help. She hopes to help about a hundred.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.