During Australia's deadly bushfire season, online stores were launched to capitalise on the international attention.
Their pitch? Buy their koala-themed wares and a portion of the proceeds will to go to charities that help out the iconic Australian critters.
BuzzFeed News has found more than 10 different online stores that have run hundreds of advertisements on Facebook's platforms promoting products and a pledge to donate since Jan. 8.
Limited evidence suggests running one of these stores can be lucrative. But their claims of charitable giving are difficult to prove. Some stores are vague about who they're donating to. Others have not provided proof that they've donated anything. And at least one appears to have falsified evidence of a donation.
Taken together, the stores show a profitable online business model that exploits the attention created by a crisis — made possible by digital tools that are accessible to anyone.
Each of the sites uses a similar model: a Facebook Page is set up to direct people to external websites where they're selling koala-themed goods.
The majority of the pages were created in January and have fewer than 100 likes. Some regularly share viral Australian bushfire-related content, whereas others remain relatively bare.
These pages run hundreds of near identical ads on Facebook, Instagram and Messenger promoting their productions and donations. One page ran more than 500 ads in January alone.
The stores use Shopify, a popular ecommerce platform that allows users to create custom online stores without needing coding experience.
They feature images of koalas and written content about the severity of Australia's bushfires — sometimes copied from elsewhere — to pull on your heartstrings and convince you to buy something from them.
The items for sale vary from store to store, but most seem to be products that can be bought from Amazon or Alibaba, marked up several times from their original selling price.
The stores' setups are consistent with the dropshipping retail method — a type of a business where the store doesn't actually need to physically stock the items. Instead, a dropshipping store acts as a middle man between the customer and the manufacturer.
Combining dropshipping with an online ecommerce platform allows anyone with an internet connection to set up a store almost immediately, remotely and at little expense.
Interviews with people responding to messages for three of the Facebook Pages confirmed that they use dropshipping.
The stores appear to be run by different groups of people. Information from Facebook Pages' transparency pages list the users who manage the pages as located in countries such as the US, Canada, the Philippines, Ireland and China — and almost all are located outside Australia.
The stores are hosted on different servers. Most do not provide information about the websites' owners or contact details. At least one is registered to an individual who runs other ecommerce businesses.
The stores claim shoppers can help Australia's koalas by buying their products. A store has the text "Be the reason one lives!" overlaid on an image of a koala drinking from a handheld syringe.
Some pages are unclear about who they're helping or how much they're giving. One store writes "Each Purchase Made Is Funding Our Organization To Help Rescue & Nurture Thousands Of Injured, And Burnt Koala Lives" on its website, but nowhere does it explain how or who will carry out this promise.
Others clearly nominate a charity, but haven't said what they've donated, or shown receipts.
One store pledged to provide 10% of its profits to WWF Australia. At the start of February, they updated their website to say that US$2,500 had been given to the charity. However, the store hasn't provided any evidence of that claim and did not respond to BuzzFeed News' requests for proof.
Another store claims to have raised $1.2 million dollars for charity, however no proof is supplied to shoppers. Neither the store's owners nor the designated charity responded to questions about the alleged donations.
At least three of the stores have publicly provided evidence that they've donated.
The store Resqaustralia — which pledged to plant a tree for every piece of koala apparel they sold — posted a screenshot of a receipt from the non-profit TeamTrees.org, which claims that 1,000 trees had been planted for a US$1,000 donation. A spokesperson for TeamTrees.org confirmed the donation.
A user responding on behalf on the Resqaustralia Facebook Page did not answer questions about whether they could verify that they had donated for each sale.
And in at least one case, it appears as if a store used another store's donation receipts to claim they had donated.
Stores Montay.vip and Gonnawinit.com each posted on their websites identical Paypal transaction receipts for donations to WWF Australia. Gonnawinit.com also posted receipt emails from WWF Australia addressed to "Gonnawinit", as well as receipts for an additional two donations.
A response to a enquiry sent to Gonnawinit.com's support email address told BuzzFeed News that the receipts they published were funded only by donations from proceeds on their own website.
A spokesperson for WWF Australia told BuzzFeed News that the organisation had received three donations from Gonnawinit.com and is still investigating the fourth. The spokesperson said the organisation couldn't find any record of a donation from Montay.vip and Montay.vip did not respond to BuzzFeed News' questions.
There is no public data on how many sales each store has made, but verified donation amounts point to individual stores having sold thousands of dollars worth of goods. Gonnawinit's donation suggests they've made more than US$2,700 in revenue since the start of the year. Resqaustralia's donation from four days of sales is in line with having earned US$5,000 of profit.
Some Facebook users have commented and posted on the stores' Facebook Pages to encourage people to donate directly to charity and to question the page's motives. Others have thanked the businesses for trying to help with a disaster.
Cherie Williams runs the Save the Koalas & Australia's Wildlife Facebook page which posts content about threats facing Australia's animals. She told BuzzFeed News she changed the page's name from "Save the Koalas" because users kept confusing her page with pages belonging to the online stores.
"I was having people asking me where my order was," Williams wrote in a message. "I don't sell products but their page's name was similar to mine so I changed it."
As the fires across Australia have died down, some of the stores have pivoted away from selling products associated with the crisis. One store now sells bikinis. Another Facebook page is running tens of Facebook advertisements for Valentine's Day jewellery. Two of the stores have gone offline.
Wait times for products to arrive are up to a month. Some Facebook users have complained about the long delivery times and not receiving any information after ordering.
One commenter replied hopefully to a negative review left on the Facebook page of one online store.
"I was looking forward to giving my granddaughter the koalas and tell her this story when she gets older," she wrote. "Also, I'd like my donation to get to know where it needs to go. Haven't heard anything since my immediate reply thanking me for my purchase. Hope it's on the up and up!"