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MacKenzie Scott’s Unconventional Style of Giving Spurs Elaborate Scams

Should the philanthropically inclined do more to protect the vulnerable?

MacKenzie Scott, the billionaire ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, set out to do good last year, announcing in a late December 2020 blog post that she had given away $4.2 billion over the span of a few months. Inspired by the many impromptu COVID-19 relief initiatives by others, Scott explained that she had expedited her own philanthropic efforts because of the crippling effect of COVID-19 and the resulting windfall for some who were already wealthy (Amazon, for example, saw a 67% jump in profits as consumers shopped online due to the pandemic).

Ripe for Scams

While many praised Scott’s charitable efforts, fraudsters unfortunately saw her unconventional style of giving as an opportunity to prey on some of the most vulnerable individuals. Because Scott simply reached out via emails to organizations she wished to support and donate to, with no officially established foundation, headquarters or public website, it unfortunately became easy for scammers to fake donations purporting to be from the billionaire herself. In fact, even a food bank that received an authentic email from Scott admitted to initially thinking Scott’s email was a scam.

One victim of such a scam, Danielle Churchill, a mother from Australia in need of funds to cover treatment for her autistic son, said she received a purported email from Scott late last year and proceeded to vet whether it was a fraud by searching for Scott’s name and the word “scam.” According to The Seattle Times, “Instead of warnings, she found numerous news articles describing how Scott’s representatives had emailed hundreds of nonprofit groups out of the blue with offers of monetary support.” When Churchill replied to the email, she was asked to fill out a “membership form” to an organization called the MacKenzie Scott Foundation and then was tricked into setting up an online account with Investors Bank and Trust Co. (which appeared to have a functioning website that Churchill believed appeared legitimate). She was able to see that $25,000 was transferred into this so-called bank account but was told she needed to pay some fees (via a Bitcoin cryptocurrency app nonetheless) to access it. After eventually realizing it was all a scam, Churchill was out $7,900.         

Could Awareness Prevent Scams?

Though many will argue that the red flags were there and blame the victims for lack of common sense and falling prey to the scam, it can’t go unsaid that charitable individuals, such as Scott, need to be aware of opportunist scammers trying to impersonate them. And there’s precedent in doing so among other philanthropists. For example, Charles F. Feeney, of the Duty Free Shoppers store fortune, has a notable warning on his foundation’s website—“Do not send money or provide any personal or bank account information.”

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