Criminals are defrauding cancer charities with false diagnoses

About two years ago, 19-year-old Madison Russo said she had been diagnosed with stage 2 pancreatic cancer. Just a few months later, she reported that she also had acute lymphocytic leukemia and that there was a tumor the size of a football around her spine.

“I don’t know if I’ll live to see the day I graduate from college, get married or become a mother,” Russo, a student at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, told her local newspaper in October 2022.

The apparently suffering young woman shared her story on the social media platform TikTok and raised nearly $40,000 for medical expenses on the online fundraising platform GoFundMe. Then, almost a year after her alleged diagnosis, police arrested Russo for faking her cancer and defrauding hundreds of donors. She pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery in June 2023, and in October she received a 10-year suspended sentence, allowing her to stay out of prison if she serves three years of probation and provides $39,000 in restitution.

Russo’s conviction and sentence barely made a dent in the money machine that is charity fraud. In 2023, there were nearly 10,000 reports of charity fraud in the United States, resulting in $22.5 million in losses for kind-hearted donors, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). That’s up 156 percent from 2019, when there were fewer than 4,000 reports, resulting in a $6 million loss. There are no reliable figures on what proportion of this involves false cancer diagnoses, but a spate of high-profile cases of scammers seeking money for non-existent cancer treatment suggests it is a disturbingly common trick.

“Cancer causes are very popular (among scammers) because almost everyone knows someone affected by cancer,” said Kevin Scally, chief relationship officer at Charity Navigator, which rates more than 225,000 charities based on criteria such as financial health, responsibility and transparency. . “So you really have to be on your guard.”

Cancer charities scams are making people sick

Rhonda Miles, 66, was one of Russo’s victims — targeted because she heads the Nikki Mitchell Foundation, whose mission is to provide comfort and relief to those affected by pancreatic cancer — including about 70 pancreatic cancer patients at to whom she provides monthly financial support to cover the consequences of pancreatic cancer. things like groceries and gas. She founded the charity after her best friend, Nikki Mitchell, died of pancreatic cancer in 2013.

“Madison was probably Googling ‘helping pancreatic cancer patients’ and our name came up,” says Miles, who lives in Nashville, Tennessee. After Russo received a request for help, Miles sent her a gift card worth a few hundred dollars. She also offered to put Russo in touch with a respected pancreatic cancer surgeon who sits on the foundation’s board. Then things started to unravel. Russo would not send her medical records to the surgeon, nor did she return the foundation’s application for financial assistance, which had to be signed by a doctor and faxed to the foundation from the doctor’s office.

Finally, Madison said, ‘It’s just too much trouble. I don’t want help.’ And – bam – she dumped us,” says Miles, who later testified against Russo in court.

Russo is not unique. In 2015, 37-year-old Jeremiah Jon Smith feigned a terminal cancer diagnosis and stole $23,000 from friends and family who raised the money through fundraisers and on GoFundMe. (Hear more about the crime in this two-episode report on AARPs The perfect scam podcast.) In 2018, 33-year-old Candace Streng was jailed for stealing more than $30,000 while pretending to have stage 4 breast cancer. And in January, 41-year-old Pamela Reed was arrested for raising about $10,000 in support of her daughter’s fake leukemia case.

“I think there is every reason to be angry because (people) … have been exploited because they have good hearts,” says Marc D. Feldman, MD, psychiatrist and co-author of the book Dying to be sick: true stories of medical deceptionon The perfect scam. “That is a very disturbing thing.”

Back To Top