Suburban man pleaded guilty to GoFundMe scam

A 29-year-old New Jersey man pleaded guilty on Thursday to a federal charge of mail fraud for his role in a GoFundMe scam that raised tens of thousands of dollars for a homeless man in New York and then targeted others for a similar scheme, federal prosecutors said.

In a plea agreement, Angelo Peruggia agreed to admit to one count of mail fraud for fraudulently soliciting money from donors to a GoFundMe page that was intended to help homeless EMT Eric Wagenblast, prosecutors said. The prosecutor’s office said in a statement that Peruggia and a co-conspirator falsely represented that Peruggia was Wagenblast’s uncle and regularly encountered him and his dog near New York University’s student housing.

The plot unraveled when Peruggia traveled to New York City, claiming he wanted to meet Wagenblast and that he had some money to lend to the homeless man to buy a ticket for him to New York City to undergo surgery and could then fly him home for his birthday, according to the statement. Authorities determined that Wagenblast never planned to travel to New York City for surgery, prosecutors said.

When Peruggia flew to New York City, he was arrested on the warrant from a state court, where he had been convicted in January of making false statements in connection with charitable solicitations. Peruggia was accused of falsely portraying himself as a cousin or uncle of Wagenblast to collect charitable donations to which he was not entitled, according to the statement.

Peruggia was accused of promising donors that the donations were being used to pay for Wagenblast’s medical bills or a ticket to return to his native country for a man who suffered a military injury. But no donors received any funds, and Peruggia received only about $16 from a single donor, authorities said.

“The Peruggia case was a classic case of soliciting donations from people to fund private vacations, vacations in luxury cars, trips to Las Vegas, and other luxuries that donors knew Peruggia had nowhere near the means to pay for,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said in a statement. “That the defendant managed to run up a grand total of $4,000 after defrauding many donors underscores the root of the problem, as fraudsters use the internet to scam new audiences with the free air of legitimacy that comes with social media.”

The U.S. attorney’s office said it also uncovered a separate, similar GoFundMe campaign that falsely advertised that the website would reimburse donors who contributed money to cover Peruggia’s travel expenses. The campaign was a calculated attempt to sap money from others who planned to send money to a different charitable organization that was initially behind the original GoFundMe account, prosecutors said. The successful campaign raised more than $10,000 for the same nonprofit.

Both solicitations had fake email addresses and asked donors to donate to the same charity, including the International Association of Red Cross Blood Donors, an unregistered entity that told donors it raised money for medical blood donations, according to prosecutors.

Peruggia acknowledged in the plea agreement that he deleted incriminating social media posts before he was caught in a sting operation and that, when he was aware that friends and family members were noticing he had made bogus contributions, he stated that the money was all put into a checking account.

Peruggia will be sentenced on Oct. 19, prosecutors said. He could face between 41 months to 41 months in prison and is cooperating with the government, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

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