Charges: Woman took money from GoFundMe account set up for missing boaters

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A woman is being accused of stealing money from a GoFundMe account set up for families of three boaters who went missing on Lake of the Woods last fall.

Retina LaValla, 28, was charged Tuesday with two counts of theft after investigators say she used some of donation money to pay bills and buy groceries, Forum News Service reports.

LaValla set up the GoFundMe page (which has been deleted) after the three boaters – Keith Ayers, Justin Haugtvedt and Cody Ostendorf – went missing on Lake of the Woods the night of Oct. 2.

The bodies of Haugtvedt and Ostendorf have since been recovered; Ayers' has not.

The GoFundMe account raised more than $27,000 from roughly 400 people in the weeks it was active, reports note. The families of the victims were supposed to get roughly $8,500 each (after GoFundMe deducted 5 percent from the donations), the Grand Forks Herald reported.

But after only receiving some of the money as of Jan. 11, Carol Derosky, Ayers' mother, contacted the Lake of the Woods Sheriff's Office, which began investigating a "possible theft" from the account, Page 1 Publications says.

Derosky said LaValla gave "numerous excuses" as to why the rest of the money hadn't been handed out, reports say. After the sheriff's office started investigating, the three families reported they had been paid the rest of the money they were owed, Forum News Service notes.

At the end of January, investigators spoke with LaValla, who confessed to using donation money to pay bills that were stacking up and buy groceries, Page 1 Publications says. She told police she had planned to pay the money back eventually and the families did get their money – so it was "no big deal," reports say, citing the criminal complaint.

She is scheduled to make her first court appearance March 9, Forum News says. If convicted on both felony counts of theft, LaValla could face 20 years in prison and/or a $20,000 fine.

BBB warns of crowdfunding sites

The Better Business Bureau has warned of the dangers of crowdfunding websites because not all campaigns on these sites can be trusted and it can be hard to determine how legitimate they are.

The organization offers some tips to help people looking to donate to fundraising campaigns:

  • Do your homework. Read the detailed information on the campaign site – look for photos, videos and links that show the campaign is in process and can help verify how legitimate it is.
  • Search online for more information on the person or campaign the site is benefiting. Does the name appear on other sites? How about social media? Does it seem legitimate? A minority of crowdfunding campaigns have made-up stories used to raise money, the BBB says.
  • Review the fine print and check to see if the charity is accredited on BBB's website or research the charity on
  • Be aware of hidden fees: Crowdfunding websites take 3-5 percent of the total money raised (that's 3-5 percent of your contribution).
  • When you donate, you should get a confirmation email to show that your donation was successful. (When making your donation, BBB says use the most updated versions of Firefox or Google Chrome browsers – many crowdfunding sites don't support Internet Explorer.)
  • Don't assume your donation is tax deductible – donations to project-based campaigns probably aren't tax-deductible, while charity-based campaigns might be.
  •  If you notice something fishy, contact the crowdfunding website immediately.

GoFundMe also has tips on its website. Read more here.

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