On December 9 2019, a number of news outlets published a syndicated article with the headlines “Donating Toys This Holiday Season? You Might Want to Remove the Barcode,” or, alternately, “Remove The Barcode If You’re Donating Toys This Holiday Season.”
Those headlines (often the only part of the story that harried and busy people have time to read) advised those donating to childrens’ charities at Christmas to remove or deface barcodes on donated toys — but text in the body indicated that the advice was based entirely on social media speculation about the behavior of families in need:
NATIONAL — December is often a time for giving. But unfortunately, for some, it’s become a time for taking.
According to recent posts, some people are claiming to have seen parents returning toys they’ve gotten from charities for their children to department stores for store credit.
Now, whether this is actually happening or these are just posts fabricated to garner shares on the internet, there is a simple solution; remove the barcode before you donate a toy.
The article added that it might “indicate to the cashier that something may be up,” but that removing the barcode would not necessarily stop recipients from returning a toy “if it still scans.” It went on to suggest that donors actually deface toys on which a barcode was printed directly.
We must point out here that this article’s information was sourced using “recent [social media rumor] posts,” and it was based on “some people” who were “claiming to have seen parents returning” toys donated to their children via charities for needy families at Christmas. Immediately thereafter, the article admits there is no evidence that the behavior in the report is actually happening, as well as noting that such claims could be “fabricated” in order to “garner shares on the internet.”
An element not addressed by the syndicated Spectrum piece is how social media posters (or cashiers, for that matter) might know that toys being returned to stores were received from charities. Based on the provided information, it seemed likely that any such inferences were drawn by people who simply imagine that impoverished families might exchange toys for cash or credit at stores like Walmart.
WTOL’s version of the story included a video about people purportedly returning donated toys; that segment mentioned an unspecified incident in which a woman was reportedly arrested for returning toys donated to her children. In that story, the narrator noted the woman said she was exchanging the items for “age-appropriate” toys, not for personal luxuries or cash.
We spoke with [the woman] on the phone; she didn’t want to talk on camera. She said she was mortified with how blown out of proportion the situation got. She did send us a statement on Facebook, it read:
“I called and reported myself and I am completely embarrassed by this I didn’t do it for free money I did it to get my kids the one big thing that I knew they both wanted. I did return some stuff that was given to us but not all that I returned was from them. It’s a great cause and they do wonderful things unfortunately they gave the kids stuff they already had or that was not age appropriate (Legos for my 4 yr old that were marked 7-12 years old) so I returned some stuff to get them the one big item that they both wanted and a few small things that they had wanted. I didn’t know we weren’t allowed to nothing was said until after I did it and I felt bad as soon as I heard. But I knew my kids weren’t getting a big Christmas this year since I hadn’t had a pay check in over a month so I figured it would be okay to bring that stuff to exchange for less things but stuff that they really wanted that I couldn’t afford to get them due to job changes. What else was I supposed to do bring it back and say I’m sorry my kids have this stuff already and then be ungrateful? No, so instead I tried what I thought was the right thing and to exchange it but I was wrong. I’m sorry for all the stress and craziness this has caused after speaking with Toys for Tots and knowing what I knowing now if I could go back and do it differently I would have.”
In her own words, the entire series of events was deeply sad and cruel. According to her response to WCAX on Facebook, she lacked money to purchase any gifts for her children for Christmas in 2017. Toys for Tots provided toys that were not age-appropriate, and which could have posed a choking hazard to her four-year-old son.
Because of this, she attempted to exchange the toys for ones her children requested; she also said that she did not think exchanging toys was a criminal act, which indeed it is not. Some of the reporting included claims that the same woman sold toys on Facebook Marketplace, but we found no additional reporting on the outcome of the arrest.
It is possible the woman was engaged in fraudulent behavior — but it is also abundantly clear that a parent exchanging hazardous toys could be swept into arrest (or at the very least, widespread shaming on social media) on the very same charges. An Associated Press article about the woman’s arrest included some harsh commentary from a Toys for Tots representative, who called the woman’s purported actions “pretty low”:
Sgt. Chad Bassette said the returned items helped to pay off her layaway. She’s due in court in February  on a charge of false pretense.
Authorities say Drown received the items through the Toys for Tots Foundation, which helps distribute toys to children of parents who cannot afford them. Central Vermont Toys for Tots coordinator Daniel Duffey said stealing from a charity is “pretty low.”
Aside from the woman’s 2017 arrest on a charge of “false pretense” in Vermont, there is no indication that exchanging charity for cash or other items was widespread. Social media panics over returns or exchanges of donated toys were not new in 2019, either — Ohio’s WTVA ran a story on the annual rumors, also based purely on social media speculation and rumormongering:
Many in the community give from the bottom of their hearts … [and] support projects like the Angel Tree, where a child is adopted and someone donates toys and clothes for them.
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
Michelle Moss said she was standing in line when she saw a woman returning donated gifts.
“My heart was broken for the children. There were remote control cars, there was scooters, barbie dolls, clothes,” Moss said.
Returning donated gifts is a thought that angers business owner Tami King.
“I don’t understand why anybody would do it. It’s for the children and that’s who needs to get the gifts,” King said.
WTVA also recommended defacing or removing bar codes on donated toys to prevent people from greedily exchanging donated toys around Christmas. What WTVA didn’t include was any substantive indication that many people, or indeed any people at all, actually engaged in such behavior for reasons other than perhaps getting toys with which their children could actually play.
The WTVA story quoted a woman who “was standing in line when she saw a woman returning donated gifts.” How Moss deduced that the woman’s returns were actually donated gifts was not clear, nor did the story address how it verified that Moss had genuinely witnessed the purported incident.
Although there is very little evidence that parents of children who receive donated toys return them for cash or store credit, there’s quite a bit more evidence of social media users claiming they do in order to become virally popular on social media.
We covered one such instance in 2014, when a woman claimed (again, based purely on speculation) that a cart of returns was made up of donated toys in a popular post that appears to have since been deleted or made private:
Ok…As I was leaving Wal-Mart at 6:30am this morning, I asked the returns clerk did someone purchase these? She responded, those were yesterday’s return. I then asked the question; were these gifts? She responded that most likely all of them are gifts from organizations or toy runs.
I was sick to my stomach with her next response, “folk return them, get a gift card and then buy beer and cigarettes.”
Be aware of your blessing to others in need. Make sure that the organization or individual is truly getting and keeping the gift, especially children.
These pics are from one day of returns and the clerk said; most of time there’s more.
Be blessed friends…
As we noted in our original fact check, there are myriad plausibility issues with the claims made in that viral post. First, there’s no proof at all the conversation in question actually occurred and was not a fabricated parable created by the Facebook poster to illustrate what she believed poor people did with donated toys.
Assuming the conversation actually occurred, the claims of the cashier are similarly suspect. How would she know the items were donated toys and not unwanted or duplicate gifts? And how would she know that “folk” were buying “beer and cigarettes” unless she followed every person returning toys around the store to monitor both what they purchased and how they paid for said purchases? Presumably Walmart staff before and after Christmas have busier-than-average shifts, and are therefore less able to spend their time surveilling suspected poor people rather than manning registers or the return area, which in big stores is generally separate from the registers and located in a different section:
… even if we were to take the tale at face value, it’s still a bit hard to buy because for the cashier’s claim about beer and cigarettes to be credible, we would have to assume she was in the habit of tracking customers after they returned items, carefully observing what they purchased with gift cards or store credits.
There is also the matter of the origin of the toys. Although toys received through programs for the needy are certainly returned to stores from time to time, there’s simply no way to discern which toys seen in random photographs might have been received as standard gifts from family members or friends, which toys might have been donated via Christmas drives for the needy, and which toys might have been returned simply because they proved to be unwanted or duplicate items. No explanation was provided in the Facebook post as to why the toys in the cart were assumed to have been donated ones rather than purchased or gifted toys.
Tens of thousands of Facebook users saw and shared that woman’s claim about “folk” returning donated toys to exchange for beer and cigarettes; most likely did not see (or ignored) see a local news followup in which Walmart debunked the story:
The Facebook post claims donated gifts from organizations or toy runs were being returned to Walmart.
The Facebook user says a store clerk told him folks returned the toys to “buy beer and cigarettes.”
Bill Murdock, CEO of Eblen Charities, has his doubts.
“Sometimes these things kind of get out of hand. You know, somebody will make a comment or somebody will assume something and then all of the sudden it becomes the truth, whether it’s the truth or not,” Murdock said
News 13 called the Walmart on Bleachery Boulevard in Asheville, and was told the photos were in fact taken at that store. But store representatives say the claim the toys are all returns is 100 percent not true. They say most of the toys are items left around the store that need to be restocked.
That store also explained that the attached story was a lie, casting doubt that the alleged conversation with the cashier even occurred, which is probably the reason the original 2014 post was either made private or deleted:
News 13 called the Walmart on Bleachery Boulevard in Asheville, and was told the photos were in fact taken at that store. But store representatives say the claim the toys are all returns is 100 percent not true. They say most of the toys are items left around the store that need to be restocked … Walmart representatives say while they aren’t able to track the number of returned items that may have been gifts, they do not accept returns on items not in their original packaging.
Incidentally, searching “Toys for Tots fraud” does turn up results on search engines. Those results primarily had to do with cases in which people connected to Toys for Tots allegedly embezzled funds or defrauded the organization.
In short, we have seen this story about people exchanging or returning donated toys “to buy beer and cigarettes” nearly every year since a later-debunked Facebook post in 2014 went viral. That post seems to no longer be accessible, and the Walmart it originally referenced debunked its claims four days after it was first posted in 2014. Putting aside that there are legitimate reasons parents might exchange donated toys (impoverished children are still vulnerable to choking hazards), each year the claims are based on speculation about imaginary immoral poor people who choose “beer and cigarettes” over their children’s happiness. Evidence that people returned donated toys for cash is far less prevalent than evidence that people fabricate tales about said behavior to virally shame the poor in what has apparently now become a social media holiday tradition.