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Whistler GoFundMe campaign went from $26K to $0 in the blink of an eye

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 5 days ago Clare Hennig, Joel Ballard

Firefighters control a spot fire near Bredbo, south of the Australian capital, Canberra, Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020. A state of emergency for Canberra and its surrounds would remain in place until at least Monday. © (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft) Firefighters control a spot fire near Bredbo, south of the Australian capital, Canberra, Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020. A state of emergency for Canberra and its surrounds would remain in place until at least Monday. Zoey Cotton's fundraiser for wildfire aid efforts in Australia had been going exceptionally well.

She and her organizing team had raised more than $20,000 from a silent auction, while their GoFundMe campaign, Whistler Helps Australia, was quickly attracting donations. 

But when she checked the GoFundMe page on Feb. 5, she watched as the balance dropped from $26,401 to $0.

Also watch: Climate change not to blame say fire-hit farmers (Provided by Reuters)

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All the money — raised over the course of a month — had been refunded back to the donors and the donation page was locked.

"I literally felt sick," says Cotton. "It was probably one of the most stressful days of my life."

GoFundMe is an online crowdfunding tool that allows people to donate to various causes. 

Cotton says she immediately reached out to GoFundMe to find out what had happened, but the company was slow to respond and, when it did, the responses were unhelpful.

Nearly a week later, the account was still blocked and Cotton — along with co-organizers Simon Stribling and Deborah Bordignon — hadn't been able to contact the donors to explain what happened because all the contact information was stored on the GoFundMe platform.

GoFundMe unblocked the fundraising page on Tuesday afternoon, but the balance remained at $0. 

Stribling says he feels like he has let down the entire Whistler community. 

"I feel like I'm walking around the community with my tail between my legs. I'm ashamed," says Stribling, who is from Australia.

GoFundMe responds

In a response to CBC News, GoFundMe said the money was returned to donors because Cotton had failed to verify the email address associated with her account. GoFundMe and its online payment partner, WePay, require email verification within 30 days.

"Ahead of the refund, the campaign organizer received reminders to confirm their account from our payment processor," said GoFundMe.

But Cotton denies this, saying she received no emails from WePay and only has two GoFundMe emails in her inbox regarding a different matter.

CBC News has asked GoFundMe for verification that it sent the warning emails but hasn't yet received a response.

GoFundMe has said it intends to help Cotton contact the donors and post a message explaining what happened.

Many of the donations came from family and friends in Whistler, says Stribling, so he is hopeful that people will re-pledge, but Cotton fears it's too late and the fundraiser has lost its momentum.

"It's not in the moment anymore. People quickly forget about these disasters when things calm down," says Cotton.

"My concern is we will definitely have lost some [donations]."

She also fears that potential donors will have lost faith in GoFundMe, as she has.

Instead of helping to fix the problem, Cotton feels GoFundMe has avoided the issue and placed the blame on the organizers.

The money from the fundraiser was going to be split between Wildlife Victoria and Vinnies, two charities benefiting those affected by the Australia wildfires.

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