Panhandling.com

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Having a problem covering your medical expenses? Need money to get out of a bad marriage? Can't afford your next vacation? A growing number of Americans are going online for help, starting a website at which they beg total strangers to fund their cause. Internet panhandling got national attention last June, when Karyn Bosnak, an out-of-work TV executive who had racked up $20,000 in credit-card debt, posted the site savekaryn.com to help pay off her Bergdorf's, Prada and Gucci bills. "Nothing is really in it for you," she wrote. "But I do believe ... if you help me, then someday someone might help you." It worked. Spurred by stories on the Today show and elsewhere, Web surfers sent Bosnak checks, credit-card numbers and cash to the tune of $13,323. Last month she announced at her site that she is finally in the black.

Her success has spawned dozens of imitators. Some 70 sites are sprinkled throughout the begging categories of such Internet engines as Yahoo and About.com. Some seem earnest, like helpjennifer.com, dedicated to helping Jennifer Glasser pay her doctor bills for Lyme disease. (She has made $4,000 since August.) Others are more tongue in cheek, like edneedsahummer.com, dedicated to getting Ed a — well, you get the idea. Many fall somewhere in between. Penny Hawkins, who is putting herself through nursing school to support her children, has made $1,400 since August via her site helpmeleavemyhusband.com. "I'm not a beggar on the street," she says. "I'm trying to improve the quality of my life. I'm just looking for a hand up." Cyberbegging has grown big enough for a backlash to start: Bosnak's appeal has spawned such cyber-responses as savekarynnot.com and dontsavekaryn.com.

Why donate to perfect strangers online, especially when there's no guarantee that the money is going where it is supposed to go? "There's an immediacy to supporting a straightforward cause that can make people feel good," says Erika Ineson, a fund-raising consultant based in New York City. It can also be contagious, a sort of cyberversion of Pay It Forward. Robin De Luca, a single mother, sent a donation to savekaryn.com because she "thought it was hilarious." In October she launched her site, sexysinglestrugglingmomneedsyou.com, to help finance her fight against hepatitis C. Her tally so far: $117.