What if the Internet was your last hope? As the holidays near, posts are flooding sites like Craigslist with people trying to make ends meet. Whether it's rent money or Christmas toys, cyber begging is becoming an alternative to panhandling.
Unlike street panhandling, cyber begging is difficult to regulate. For Tampa panhandlers, life became more difficult when the Tampa City Council members voted to ban panhandling every day except Sunday.
For street panhandlers, the sense of rejection is immediate, whereas online begging offers both security and anonymity to posters. Marletta Stopper, 52, of New York posted on Beglist.org as a last resort to pay her rent. Despite her lack of success so far, Stopper remains hopeful.
"It was worth a shot and it didn't cost me any money," she said. "And I don't have to feel rejected if no one gives me anything."
Cyber Security Analyst Mary J. McLaughlin, of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said cyber begging is legal, but she doubts it'll be successful. McLaughlin said she expected to see a wave of cyber after the success of Karyn Bosnak in 2002.
Struggling with $20,000 in credit card debt, Bosnak took to Craigslist first and then did something different, she created a website called SaveKaryn.com. Her site was personal and showed that she had a specific goal and was working to save money. McLaughlin said that made the difference.
"This kind of group begging is not at all likely to be successful," McLaughlin said. "Savekaryn succeeded because it had her personality all over it. The news sites are
faceless, in spite of the pictures. There's no sense of the real person."
Still, anonymous sites are all over the Internet like cyberbeg.com and beglist.org. For many of the sites you have to pay to make a post. The founder of Beglist.org, Rex Campsogrado began the site in 2007, to offer people a place to tell their stories for free.
He created the site after he experienced success with online begging. Unemployed and in financial trouble, he took to the Internet and got back on his feet.
"You may or may not get donations, just like street panhandling, but you can't give up. You will eventually receive a donation, even if it's in small amounts. Every little bit helps," Camposagrado said.
Users create an account on the site, write their stories and wait for responses. Campsogrado said around $2,000 to $10,000 are donated per month to various beggars through PayPal, so posters and donators can protect their identities. On sites like Craigslist, many posters reveal their email address, phone number and physical address.
Beglist warns that posts typed in all capital letters or from a foreign country are often scams. Also, any donator that asks for your personal information or a check is likely committing fraud, the site said.
Pauline, of Holiday, who wishes to have her identity protected for safety reasons, said she goes online and finds people in need through the wanted section on Craigslist. In the past four months she has donated a Christmas tree, a couch, clothes and toys, she said.
"I've been on bottom. I used to live in a tent behind some railroad tracks in Orlando with my infant son," she said. "I had somebody help me and here I am able to help others. Pay it forward."
Pauline posted on Craigslist in response to posts berating online beggers. Some posters wondered why people weren't going to charities fist. For stopper and Campsogrado, their situations weren't bad enough for charities to get involved.
"I've been to Salvation Army, but you have to have an eviction notice and I don't want it to get that far where my landlord has to start papers to evict me," Stopper said. "I just don't know where the money is going to come from."
Campsogrado, who was unemployed, said he couldn't find a charity willing to donate to someone without a job.
"My situation did not seem extreme enough to have a charity step in," he said. "It seemed that asking for help from a charity was a long shot and I think most cyber beggars may feel the same way."
In Hillsborough County, there are services for the struggling and the homeless. Lesa Wiekel, the community relations manager for the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, said the problem isn't the type of help available, it's the number.
The ban, Wiekel said, won't affect the services the coalition provides. She said the coalition wouldn't tell a person not to panhandle, rather it offers sustainable alternatives.
"Most homeless people weren't panhandling because they wanted to," she said. "They were trying to get enough money for a shelter bed or a hotel room, meal or bus pass."
Homeless people are finding these services through word-of-mouth, pamphlets and library computers. Ron Garrett, 52, panhandled daily prior to the ban. Garrett said he if he could get his hands on a computer, he would start begging online, but the closest public library to him is on Ashley Drive. Whether people are begging on the streets or online, the hardest part for most is asking for help.
"I've always been able to get a better job and I've never had to ask for help before," Stopper said. "I just can't catch a break."