Christmas gifts for needy families in exchange for personal information on Facebook

Posted at 11:14 PM, Dec 08, 2016

The holiday season can be exciting for some and extremely stressful and sad for others trying to figure out how they will buy presents for their children. And on top of that, it’s the time of year that people try to scam others for their own profit.

A Pasco County mother found out the hard way how social media can nearly ruin a Christmas.

“Last year, I joined a group offering Christmas help. I was told I had four sponsors for my five children,” Angel Remeika said.

The initial Facebook post she responded to solicited sponsors to join their group page. It said, “If you are able, Sponsor a less fortunate Child today! Sponsorship is EASY… Simply visit our Group Page, choose a Child you would like to Sponsor and pm our Administration Team! If you are unable to Sponsor a Child we are accepting Donations to help Brighten the Holiday for Children without Sponsors.”

Remeika said she asked for help from the group page and met with a woman who did give her son some gifts, but during the exchange noticed something suspicious.

“She took gifts out of my son’s bag. I didn't know whether to confront her or just keep quiet. I was nervous. So, I kept quiet,” Remeika said. “She also asked for a photo of my drivers license and bills.”

Remeika believed the woman was taking the expensive gifts the woman received from sponsors and was giving the children they were supposed to go to the cheap gifts, if any at all.

After our report aired on Thursday, Melissa Bowen, contacted ABC Action News to tell her side of the story.  Initially, since Bowen was not accused of committing a crime we did not publish her name.  However, Bowen said she has been helping people get Christmas gifts in Pasco County through her Facebook group Pasco Adopt a Family for five years and wanted to set the record straight.  She declined to go on camera for an interview but sent ABC Action News dozens of photos showing children receiving gifts.  Bowen said Remeika is a liar who was upset that some sponsors for her children didn't show up.  She said Facebook comments have fueled the fire and turned her into the bad guy.  Bowen said she admits that her group may have been unorganized but she didn't commit any crimes.  She said any sponsor that backed out and left a family without a gift was a mistake they corrected for this year.  Bowen said they changed the way they handle gift giving to make sure a sponsor has a gift for a child before giving the family false hopes if the sponsor backs out. 

Remeika said Bowen did sponsor one of her children.  Another sponsor was supposed to help get gifts for her other other children, but a few days later, she got another text saying “Please DO NOT show up for pick up Sunday. Sponsor DID NOT show up for drop off. Sorry.”

Remeika said she felt duped but didn't know what to do. Then the text messages between the two turned ugly. The smile emojis and “LOL’s” were replaced with the woman accusing Remeika of being a liar and attacking her. Remeika showed us the entire text message conversation between the two in Dec. 2015. After cutting off contact, Remeika got a message on Christmas Day from the woman asking her to “Please send holiday photos for me to share.”

Remeika said the woman wants to use them to trick other families into thinking they are actually helping children. Remeika never wrote back.

Fast forward to 2016 and Remeika saw a similar post from the same woman soliciting sponsors or donations to help children in need. She made a post on social media warning other parents about her experience with the group and what happened to her children last year.

That post got dozens of comments and Remeika said a lot of responses similar to what happened to her.

“From that point forward we've had 20 plus families come forward between last year and this year saying the same person, the same group ripped them off,” Remeika said.

Remeika has taken a lot of heat on social media and said the woman even threatened her. Emboldened she is getting statements from all of the moms that contacted her and all of her correspondence with the woman and filing a report with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Department.

“Sometimes it will be real and sometimes it won't, if you do that, the gamble is yours,” Detective Bruce Cohen with said.

Cohen said a lot of people get scammed on social media and the best advise is to donate or get help from a reputable charity.  Because once you get social media involved, cases can get extremely complicated and time consuming.

“We now have to find the individual, find who they claim got it, or go to the victims and they say we didn't get anything from these people who are supposedly representing us.  And, it just goes from person to person to person until we figure out exactly what happened,” Cohen said. “If we want to be certain we set up a sting or pull bank records and find out how many deposits were made where the money went, to where it came in, where it went out.  It's a very complex thing, not insurmountable. But, it's fairly complex.”

As we mentioned, ABC Action News did not name the group Remeika went to on social media because at this point Bowen has not been charged with a crime. The investigation into the group could take weeks once Remeika files all the paperwork.

With Christmas just a few weeks away, we felt it would be best to warn parents about the dangers of using social media to donate or get gifts from your children because as the detective said, “You never know who you are dealing with.”

Bowen said her group has talked about filing for non-profit status but have not gone through with it.

Remeika just wanted to make sure no other children had their Christmas’ stolen.

“I want to see the kids have Christmas I'm just concerned about the kids that's all just definitely check into everything,” Remeika said. “God only knows how many kids went without Christmas.”

For information on how to check if someone is an actual charity or business click here.