He started a GoFundMe campaign to bring his father's body back from Cuba. Then the U.S. froze the funds

When David Carbery's father, Bill, died unexpectedly while travelling Cuba, he knew he had to find a way to get his body back to B.C.

Carbery set up an online fundraiser through GoFundMe so family and friends could donate money to help with the repatriation costs.

But a week into the fundraiser, Carbery could tell something was off, as his account was flagged for a possible violation of U.S.-Cuban sanction regulations.

Now, almost a year later, Carbery says he has been sent on a wild goose chase with GoFundMe and its online payment processor, WePay, while the donations remain frozen by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

"It was devastating to me," says Carbery referring to his experience dealing with GoFundMe, while also grieving the sudden loss of his father.

"It's a roller coaster of emotions, everything from anger to embarrassment."

Carbery says he hasn't been able to reach out to his donors — who have yet to be refunded — to inform them of what happened because his GoFundMe account is locked and donor history is only available on the online platform.

The fundraiser had earned just under $2,000 by the time it was blocked.

"It's not a huge amount. But still, that's other people's money. It's my friends and family," he says. 

Throughout the ordeal, Carbery says he was never once able to speak with someone at GoFundMe or WePay over the phone because they only correspond by email.

Flagged for connection to Cuba

In a written statement on Monday, a GoFundMe spokesperson told CBC that the decision to freeze the funds was made by WePay.

"After our payment processor reviewed the campaign, they determined that it was necessary to block the funds pending receipt of a specific licence from the treasury that authorizes this activity," the statement said.

WePay and the U.S. Treasury have yet to respond to CBC's requests for comment. 

Carbery set up his online donation account GoFundMe on March 20, 2019.  At first, everything was running smoothly as loved ones began donating money to help bring his father home.

The Canadian consulate estimated it would cost more than $6,000 for cremation and transportation fees to Ontario, as well as a $60-per-day storage fee for holding the body in Cuba.

As costs rose, Carbery and his family were eager to access the donations quickly, but GoFundMe contacted him on March 25 with concerns that the funds could be going to a sanctioned country.

WePay required more information about who would receive the funds and a description of how the donations would be distributed, he was told by GoFundMe.

Over the next few weeks, Carbery provided GoFundMe with the answers to all of their questions.

And so he waited, all while the repatriations costs kept rising, forcing Carbery to take out a loan to bring his father back, with the hopes of then using the donations against that loan.

Frustrated, Carbery asked for the funds to simply be refunded to the donors, but GoFundMe said that wasn't possible while the information was being reviewed by WePay.

More than a month after he started the campaign — and after multiple follow-ups about how long it was taking — his account was cancelled.

"WePay blocked and reported the funds in this account to the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control as a potential violation of Cuba Sanctions Regulations," an email from GoFundMe said.

"As a U.S. company, we are prohibited from engaging in most Cuba-related transactions, unless such transactions are authorized by OFAC. We are also prohibited from facilitating a Cuba-related transaction by a non-U.S. individual."

Account reported to U.S. Treasury

Now, instead of simply refunding the donations, Carbery was told WePay wouldn't release the funds until he obtained a campaign licence from the U.S. Treasury's OFAC.

Carbery was provided with a phone number for OFAC as well as an online application.

And so began his next unwanted adventure.

Facebook/GoFundMe

Carbery says he contacted OFAC by phone multiple times and left them detailed messages requesting assistance. All of which went unreturned.

He says he, his wife and his sister were all unable to complete the online application because it required information on the campaign that they no longer had access to because it was blocked by GoFundMe.

Again, he pleaded with the fundraising platform for help.

"We are unable to provide any guidance or assistance in applying for a specific license from the U.S. Treasury Department," an email from the company says.

Almost 1 year later, funds still frozen

Flustered and still grieving, Carbery says he reached a boiling point, while the money sat frozen due to U.S.-Cuban political relations.

"I basically begged them to give the money back," he says.

"I want to make sure the people that were trying to donate to this cause are going to, at least, get their money back."

After eight months of back-and-forth with GoFundme and WePay, Carbery sent his final pleading email in October 2019.

"I was broken and I just ended up walking away from it," he says.