When Pet Food Stamps, a nonprofit organization to provide pet food to low-income families, first made its debut, it gained national media attention. Responses were overwhelmingly positive, since a pet food program for low-income families could reduce strain on animal shelters, which are often forced to take in (and often kill) cats and dogs whose owners can no longer afford them. In less than a year, Pet Food Stamps reported receiving 225,000 applications from desperate families all over the United States. Almost all of those applicants, still empty-handed, have declared Pet Food Stamps a scam.
One year and seven months after the start-up of Pet Food Stamps, the organization’s Facebook page contains dozens upon dozens of reviews and comments from people saying that they submitted applications but never received a response. The application process, which requires sending proof of identity, personal contact information, verification of income, and photos and detailed information about pets, supposedly takes “up to eight weeks” to complete, according to Pet Food Stamps, but hundreds of applicants claim that they applied a year ago or more. The website’s only positive public reviews are from people supporting the nonprofit’s goal. No one has verified that they, in fact, received assistance from Pet Food Stamps.
In November of 2013, Channel 3000 reported that there were extensive customer complaints about Pet Food Stamps from applicants who never heard a response, and that the New York Attorney General was in the process of investigating the nonprofit organization. Donors and applicants alike are understandably concerned. Is the private identifying information of Pet Food Stamp applicants safe? And, if the organization’s funds aren’t going to pet owners in need, where are they going?
Mark Okon, the founder of Pet Food Stamps, told Channel 3000 that the applicants’ data is carefully encrypted, but concerned applicants aren’t likely to take that claim at face value. Scam Adviser lists the Pet Food Stamps website as “High Risk,” citing several red-flags in the website’s registration. Scam Adviser also contains the complaints of dozens of Pet Food Stamp applicants who believe that their information was stolen for the purposes of fraud or theft. Although it seems unlikely that Pet Food Stamps would steal the information of people who are known and verified to have low income and few resources, that doesn’t necessarily alleviate the concerns of its applicants, who have little or nothing to spare and can’t risk being the victims of theft.
Donors are likely to be equally concerned. Anyone donating to Pet Food Stamps clearly has the intent of helping animals and people in times of desperate need, not lining the pockets of a scam artist. But there is little reassurance that the organization’s funds are being used as reported. In October of 2013, the owner of PetFlow, which Pet Food Stamps lists as its only supplier, said that he had not received an order from Pet Food Stamps in several months. In response to an inquiry in April 2014, PetFlow confirmed that it does indeed have a standing relationship with Pet Food Stamps, but could not immediately disclose the frequency or value of orders from the nonprofit.
Speaking to Channel 3000, Mark Okon defended his organization, stating, “Calling somebody a scam for not getting you free food quickly enough seems just a little bit irrational to me.” He cited very high numbers of applications and said that he can not process them quickly and that he works over 80 hours per week attempting to juggle the management of his nonprofit. The organization’s Facebook page is, however, updated several times daily and is instantly moderated, with most negative comments deleted within seconds or minutes. Perhaps Pet Food Stamps would have more time to process applications if its operator didn’t have to spend so much time defending himself against people who claim that his organization is a scam.
As of April 2014, Pet Food Stamps remains an IRS-registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and its owner has not been convicted of any form of identity fraud or theft, so there is no way to say with certainty that the organization is– or is not– a scam. However, with hundreds of thousands of applicants waiting for assistance, and no sign that they will be answered soon, it’s probably best for low-income pet owners to seed help elsewhere. An answer from Pet Food Stamps itself likely won’t arrive any time in the foreseeable future.