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The Curious Case of Charlie Binbags, the 'Homeless' Fundraiser Who Might Not Exist

Twitter's favourite feel-good story is probably total bullshit.

by Bob Trafford
01 May 2018, 5:02pm

Screenshots of the Paypal accounts linked 

"I'm #homeless. Not evil," read a tweet that went viral on the 7th of March, launching the story of @CharlieBinbags.

"I'm not stupid or on drugs or violent or dishonest or crazy or greedy or diseased or drunk or likely to kill you," the tweet – liked 29,000 times – went on. "I'm a nice guy. I just don't currently have a home. That's all it is."

Maybe, though, that's not all it is.

On the 7th of March, Charlie Hennessy, AKA @CharlieBinbags, joined Twitter. He'd just been given a second-hand phone. "Being #homeless sucks," he lamented.

With remarkable haste, though, things were on the up. He claimed to have made his way from Croydon to Brighton. "People have helped me in ways I never imagined," he said. "Food, money, love, support. Tomorrow I have a job interview."

That tweet received almost 90,000 likes, and Biz Stone – Twitter's co-founder – shared it with his 3 million followers. In the replies, Charlie was inundated with messages of support: "Fingers crossed for you!"; "You deserve better!"; "This is what social media should be about!"; "This is so inspiring <3 YOU GO CHARLIE!!"

When the story hit the clickbait press in late March, no one had been able to speak to whoever was behind the account. Something felt a little off. Charlie quickly said he was through with journalists and their "agenda". Meanwhile, suspicions about Charlie's identity started to grow, and before long we learned that the guy in Charlie's profile photo wasn't actually Charlie.

Twitter user Templeton Peck pointed it out on the 10th of April. A Twitter user in Arkansas sent him a photo of a guy she recognised who looked a lot like the guy in Charlie's profile picture. The account it was tied to, @VigilanteDev, no longer exists, but the photo was posted to that account on the 7th of March – the same day Charlie appeared.

Seeds of dissent began to grow. "He owes it to everyone to prove this wasn't a scam," wrote one concerned onlooker.

Homeless outreach group Streets Kitchen – which, at the time @CharlieBinbags appeared, was running a squatted homeless shelter for over 100 people, and which had made Charlie various offers of help – felt under pressure to vouch for him.

"We've had multiple media enquiries regarding his situation," read a statement they released on the 17th of April, and later deleted. "We feel a need to confirm he's genuine. We don’t seek to 'out' him, we won't share his information with anyone, we just want to confirm his story."

Charlie complained that the request was "abusive".

Meanwhile, the @CharlieBinbags truther movement was growing. The sleuth from Arkansas had spotted that an account that had commented on @VigilanteDev's page on the live-streaming app Periscope had also been defending Charlie on Twitter.

The account, @grumpytrump4, claimed to have spoken with Charlie, and – in the above message sent to the sleuth, which they shared with me – said she could vouch for him.

Things started to feel pretty fishy when @grumpytrump4 loudly denied having ever used Periscope, despite the below screen-grabs showing that she very much had.

The story became fishier still last week, when – as I began to express my doubts directly to Charlie on Twitter – @grumpytrump4 disappeared. And now let's wind back a couple of months, to when @grumpytrump4 posted this tweet:

This is identical to a tweet shared by two other still-active accounts, @cheyannehennaxx and @chezzalicious20. The identical tweets each promote a Paypal link to which you can donate to a man called "Payne Silvers", for the benefit of 72-year-old Ruth, who allegedly forgoes her heating and food bills to rescue cats from euthanasia.

Silvers, incidentally, raised £1,250 through JustGiving last year for his sick cat, Gizmo, and was also behind a fundraiser which made it to the pages of Indy100 and The Telegraph, raising money for an old man called Dave.

Despite ultimately being the recipient of over £3,000 in donations, Dave – according to Silver/Silvers – is a "private man", and has said he doesn't want to be contacted.

Charlie and Payne share a reticence around IRL contact, and a breezy ignorance of the notion that the recipients of thousands of pounds of other people's money might need to prove that they actually exist.

In any case, on the evening of Thursday the 26th of April, Payne's Twitter account vanished too.

Back to @grumpytrump4: in March, the Twitter account promoted the heartrending story of Anna Wellings, an eight-months-pregnant woman left destitute after leaving her abusive boyfriend. After an apparent plug (since deleted) from children’s author Neil Gaiman, the page raised £620.

However, a reverse-image search suggested the picture of the baby had been lifted from a 2011 blog entry by a young Utah family, while Anna's profile photo seemed to be borrowed from a Filipino actress. Moreover, an identical-looking story was told in April of 2017 by an identical-looking "Anne Williams", who raised £1000 to get her pregnant sister out of a strangely similar predicament.

The longer you look, the more you find: @cheyannehennaxx and @paynesilver1 both shared a page which raised £1,190 for a "Donna Hathaway" after she "lost [her] husband to a sudden illness".

Donna Hathaway also started two more JustGiving pages – one to finance an operation for her dog, another to help her "get back on [her] feet" after losing her husband and having to give her dog away when she couldn't pay for the operation – which were pushed by @chezzalicious20 and @paynesilver1.

An account called @annewilliamsss, but using the same photo as Anne Wellings, and @grumpytrump4 both claim to have spoken to Charlie, and have both vouched for or defended him:

Both advised Charlie to set up a page where people could donate to him, and he did. Not one, but two – one which places him in Brighton, the other in Blackpool.

Small donations to each Paypal account revealed the beneficiary's email address as cheyannehenna@rockers.co.uk – strangely similar to the Twitter handle @cheyannehennaxx.

When I asked Charlie if he knew @cheyannehennaxx, he replied: "She hasn’t contacted me. Is she claiming to have?"

When I asked him about the email address tied to both of his Paypal fundraisers, Charlie sounded rattled. "Did you set up that Cheyanne account? … Am I being set up?"

Then Charlie told me that a friend had chosen the email address for him, and he didn’t know why. "That is a weird coincidence? Too weird. I don't know who to trust."

In another weird coincidence, it was just minutes after this conversation with Charlie that the @grumpytrump4 account disappeared.

Early last week, I spoke to "Charlie" at length via Twitter DMs about some of the things I and others had found.

First, he mused on the idea that he should give one "last" interview to prove who he was, despite not being able to say who he had given an interview to before. He said I could speak to his friend, "Gareth", before coming back with: "I don't really want the people who know me talking to the media either."

"If I knew anything about that [@cheyannehennaxx] account," he said, "I would just delete it now, destroy the evidence." But while the @grumpytrump4 and @paynesilver1 Twitter accounts have vanished, @cheyannehennaxx, @annewilliamsss and @CharlieBinbags remain.

Last week, as Streets Kitchen prepared to publish their dossier of evidence, @annewilliamsss disappeared too. Today, they posted that evidence and Charlie immediately protected his account, and later deleted it.

Charlie hasn't asked for money in over two weeks, and tells me he's sent back any money he's been sent since then.

Streets Kitchen have reported the affair to Action Fraud UK.

A similar story appeared on Twitter around the same time as Charlie's, pushing a fundraiser for an unidentified "blind music school" which failed to gain traction. Again, the fundraiser photo was lifted from elsewhere, and the first two of the Twitter account's 16 tweets refer to the Charlie Binbags story.

This kind of scam is clearly low-cost, low-risk and insulates itself effectively from criticism. Like any attempt to prove a negative, our case isn't watertight, and the vulnerability of genuine rough sleepers is being weaponised to protect an operation which cons well-intentioned Twitter users out of their money, "just £5" at a time.

Over £5,000 has been raised by other accounts with conflicting personal information and stolen photographs – and that's only the accounts immediately surrounding @charliebinbags. By Charlie's admission, his own Paypal pages raised over £1,800 after surfacing during a time when lethally cold temperatures had pushed homelessness to the forefront of the national conversation.

I approached Charlie to comment for a final time, and he re-stated his story of being homeless and having his life transformed by the kindness of strangers. "You can't disprove the truth," he said.

Streets Kitchen's Thomas Wenn admitted his surprise at "how rife the internet is with fake fundraisers", and summed up what’s wrong with it.

"The characters created in these fundraising scams piggyback off the helpless, lonely and vulnerable. They seek out the best in people, for their own gain," he said. "Do your research before sending money online, and remember, sometimes, your time is more valuable than your money."

Thanks to Monica Hope, Thomas Wenn, Templeton Peck and Brandola for their help with this piece.

@bobtrafford

UPDATE 01/05/18, 18:28: This story was updated to add that the @CharlieBinbags Twitter account has now been deleted. The links to his tweets have been replaced with links to screen-shots of those tweets.