High Tech Handouts, Online Begging

FRESNO, Calif. Tattered clothes, a handmade cardboard note, and a tired frown ... these are the telltale signs of desperation on the streets. But many people are finding a new cushion right before they hit rock bottom.

Sonia Seaberg's life was in disarray after her husband went to jail for assaulting her. The former Fresno Unified School Teacher and her son lost their home and lived in a hotel for 72 days.

"I can't even begin to describe. I've never in my life been homeless. I don't know how to be homeless. I don't know how to do any of that and all of the sudden I was facing my son and I sitting on a curb because we had nowhere to go," said Seaberg.

But as her life spiraled downwards, Sonia found a ray of light on the internet ... she found begslist.org.

The free website clearly bills itself as a spot for cyber begging and internet panhandling, but she swallowed her pride and posted that she'd used up all her savings and was facing the street.

A little while later, a South Carolina man stepped into the picture. The man on her screen saver became a life saver, signing off on a lease for Seaberg and loaning her money for rent.

"He said, 'I can't let you live on the street,' so he's been more or less supporting my son and (me) until we get on our feet," said Seaberg.

Her benefactor didn't want to be interviewed, but he was aware of the digital panhandling phenomenon that started in 2002 with http://www.savekaryn.com.

A former TV Producer raised more than $25-thousand dollars to pay off debt from her shopping addiction.

Begslist.org is the only free site, but several others like cyberbeg.com -- charge small fees. They've all grown in popularity over the last year, but they've experienced some growing pains along the way, with scam artists taking advantage of good-hearted people.

Begslist founder Rex Camposagrado said he monitors the site for fraud, but he can't catch everything. Most posters are looking for money for mortgage payments or medical bills, but some of the most successful beggars are people who aren't facing desperate circumstances.

"I've heard of people who posted funny stories like 'I need beer money for this weekend' like college kids ... they were able to get enough to pay for a case of beer," said Camposagrado.

There's even a category for those unusual requests -- like breast augmentation, new teeth, or concert tickets. They get a lot of attention, but the Chicago-based Camposagrado is happier to help people like Seaberg.

Camposagrado said, "I've been in their shoes. I've been out of a job. I've struggled. I had to do bankruptcy and foreclosed on a house."

Still, online begging isn't the answer for everybody. Steve Perrett lost his Fresno home and his business during the recession. Now, he lives with his mother. His wife and their five-year-old son live with her parents.

Perrett admits it was degrading to post on an online begging site, but he didn't have many options.

"As far as my pride, it was like 'OK, I don't know about asking my friends to help.' It was yeah, a sense of desperation," said Perrett.

The anonymity of the internet made it easier and he posted this ad saying quote: "I'm scared for the three of us and don't know what to do."

Three months later, nobody's stepped up to help, but Perrett hasn't given up hope. He said, "I'll rephrase that heading and I'll post probably three more ads."

Copyright © 2021 KFSN-TV. All Rights Reserved.