Real Life

Batlow bushfire family's new pain: Scammers stole our kind friends' donations

As Aussies dug deep to help us during a crisis, some people took advantage of the kindness.

There's not a single Australian who hasn't had their heart broken by the horrific bushfires that have swept our nation. Yet, remarkably, from the ashes the spirit of Aussies has shone through stronger than ever.
Across Bauer Media titles, we have launched a campaign to help our neighbours in their time of need.
Each week, in Take 5 and at Rebuild Our Towns, we will shine a spotlight on the areas affected, informing our generous readers on ways to give them a hand to get back up and running.
In this issue, we focus on Batlow in NSW…

Brigid Bates, 39, Batlow, NSW:

I hauled the suitcases into the boot and kissed my husband Thomas's cheek."Take it easy," I told him, as our sons, Dylan, 18, and Owen, 15, piled into the car. "Enjoy the peace and quiet."
It was two days after Christmas and the boys and I were driving up to Queensland to visit my brother, Brendan.
Tom was staying home to look after our pets – a cat, Boots, dog, Hoover, and goat, Dot.
"Drive safe," Tom smiled, blowing a kiss as I backed out of the driveway.
I drove past the endless fields that made up our town of Batlow, which had a population of just over 1300. We'd moved there from Sydney nine years earlier to escape frantic city life.
I wanted our sons to grow up exploring the great outdoors.
We loved Batlow's community spirit, and my parents and sister lived in the next town over.
Owen and me - we were all devastated. (Image: Supplied)
Two days after we arrived at Brendan's, news reports announced that a bushfire was heading straight for Batlow.
They'd been raging all over NSW for more than a month, but I'd never expected them to reach us. I called Tom, who was monitoring the RFS alerts.
"They're not sure which way the wind'll go yet," he said.
He arranged for our pets to be cared for in a different town, just in case.
Two days later, my phone buzzed with an alert. Batlow is now undefendable, it read. Evacuation warnings have been issued.
My heart lurched as I rang Tom. What if he didn't make it out in time?
Me with Dylan -he did his best to stay strong. (Image: Supplied)
"Just get out of there and be safe," I pleaded with him.
He grabbed passports and birth certificates, then bolted to a safe zone out of town.
I tried to keep my spirits up for the boys.
"It's just a house," I said, forcing a smile. "As long as we're all safe, everything will be fine."
But even I wasn't convinced.
I was more than 1300km away and felt completely helpless.
The next day, Tom called. "The house is gone," he choked.
Our home before the fires. (Image: Supplied)
I broke down in tears imagining our home, filled with so many happy memories, now a pile of ashes.
Dylan was watching me and he was trying to stay strong, but I could tell he was gutted, too.
When I told Owen, he was overwhelmed.
"Is there anything left?" he muttered in shock.
I shook my head. "I don't think so, darling," I told him.
Batlow was too dangerous to return to, so we stayed with Brendan for another week.
"Let me set up a GoFundMe page for you," he begged, saying people everywhere were desperate to help.
I wasn't sure. Our house was insured, but it would be ages before we were back on our feet. Still, I couldn't bear to ask for charity, not when all our neighbours were in the same situation.
Our home after we lost everything. (Image: Supplied)
"My mates in Brisbane really want to chip in," Brendan said.
Eventually, I agreed.
The next day, my sister, Rebecca, texted.
Did you just send me a link asking me to donate to your crowdfunding page? she asked.
I hadn't.
She explained that someone with the same Facebook profile photo and name as me had messaged her, asking to donate to a gogetfunding page.
Confused, I clicked the link she'd sent.
It was identical to Brendan's fundraiser, right down to the name, description and photo.
I felt sick as I realised the shocking truth.
Someone had used my tragedy to mimic my profile and scam our loved ones, trying to get money that wouldn't get to us at all.
My hands shook as I reported the fraud to Facebook.
The page was taken down, but the damage had been done.
The fake account had messaged my entire friends list and one of our friends had donated to the scam.
I tried to control my emotions, but I was furious.
Losing my home was bad enough, but these rotten scumbags taking advantage of my loved ones was worse.
I was so appalled that someone would do this. (Image: Supplied)
How could they be so cruel? It was gutless, preying on people who wanted to help.
Thankfully, after explaining the situation, my friend got her money back from the gogetfunding company.
The following week, the boys and I went back to Batlow and stood in shock, staring at our blackened house. Only some of the foundation was left standing.
It gradually sank in just how much we'd lost – irreplaceable keepsakes, like the boys' precious school projects, the candle holder Owen made and the breadbox Dylan had built, and all our photos… Every day I thought of something else and my heart broke a little more.
But our family and pets are safe and we're blessed for that.
In the middle of a crisis, we saw the worst of humanity. But those low-life scammers won't win.
Batlow showed the community spirit I'd always loved and we're proving that when we unite, we're stronger than ever.
In the middle of a crisis, we saw the worst of humanity. (Image: Rohan Kelly / Newspix)

How to help

Famous for its apple cider and fruit, things were anything but sweet in Batlow, NSW as fires ravaged the community.
What we know so far:
■ Over 130,000 hectares (320,000 acres) were burnt.
■ One death has been recorded.
■ 31 houses and 68 outbuildings were estimated to have been lost.
■ By January 11, three fires had merged, creating a 600,000-hectare 'mega-fire'.
Lending a hand
■ STAY: Book a road trip with help from Road Trip For Good. www.roadtripforgood.org.au
■ SPEND: To support locals who have lost their livelihood, buy Batlow apples, Batlow ciders, and other local produce. www.batlowcider.com.au
Join the party
On the third Saturday of May each year, Batlow's Pioneer Street becomes a party, celebrating the end of the apple harvest at CiderFest. Aussie boutique ciders are on offer and market stalls are filled with loads of locally grown produce. Now, more than ever, Batlow needs other Aussies to visit the town and splash out.
Community matters
A GoFundMe page has been set up by local woman Sharni, who has raised more than $20,000 to aid the community in rebuilding.
This town built me and I owe it to the community to have a town for the next generation to grow and dream like I was able to do, Sharni writes. Go to: [www.gofundme.com/f/batlow-rebuild]
Donate
Donations for Batlow, in the region of Tumut:
■ Name: Community Foundation for Tumut Region
■ BSB: 633000
■ Account No: 141406736