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Cancer Fraud: People Who Fake Illness to Scam Others, Gain Sympathy, Get Rich, and Avoid Other Problems

Pulling on heartstrings - and wallets - to make a buck.

I came across this article yesterday and just couldn’t get my arms around it. A Baltimore apparently woman lied for months to friends and former high school classmates about having terminal stomach cancer and duped them into grant her dying wishes.

It made more sense when I learned she had a criminal history that included various and sundry other forms of fraud. Surely, I thought, she is a rare example of the dregs of human nature.

When I typed “cancer fraud” into Google, I quickly found out that she is no lone ranger. Looking at just the first 200 results (out of over 14 million possible), here are just a few of the characters I came across:

  • Melissa Rice, a 24 year old woman who fooled national cancer foundations into donating thousands of dollars and gifts to her by pretending to be a 15-year-old boy with brain cancer named Jonathan Jay White.
  • Victoria Gotti, who, after telling the world on TV she was battling breast cancer (including a resultant 25 lb. weight loss and chronic exhaustion) was forced to retract her claims when it turns out she’d actually had precancerous cells that did not require immediate treatment.
  • <!--[if !supportLists]--> <!--[endif]-->Michael Guglielmucci, an Australian youth minister who’d inspired hundreds of thousands of young Christians with his very public terminal cancer "battle" of two years (including an appearance on YouTube with an oxygen tube in his nose) admitted he was perfectly healthy.
  • Heather Faria, a 27 year-old teacher, who spent the 37,000 her friends and family raised for her alleged cancer treatment on a fancy vacation, huge TV screen, and jewelry.
  • Howard Richman, a former vice president who faked cancer for three years in order to avoid an SEC investigation.

What’s the Motive for Fraud?

I couldn’t find any studies specifically related to cancer fraud so I’ll tell you some of my impressions after reviewing several cases. Some of the fakers (it seemed to be about half) had a history as scam artists; for these, cancer fraud seemed to be just another step down the ladder of depravity. Others clearly had a secondary motive, whether it was to avoid or delay consequences (such as our vice president above) or gain something else (One woman faked cancer to get her community to fund her boob job).

Interestingly, some of the people seemed to almost accidentally stumble upon their scheme. They experienced a medical scare, suffered from another chronic (but much less serious disease) or had even been successfully treated for cancer and somehow they sympathy they received, or the financial assistance, planted the seed that then grew. Then there were the attention-seekers, who seemed to just want to bask in the spotlight of sympathy for as long as possible.

Cancer Scams Up-Close and Personal

It’s not that I’m naïve. I’m well aware of the hundreds of bogus cancer “cures.” I’ve also encountered the email version, where a supposedly distant relative is dying of cancer and needs to transfer his funds (for a fee, of course) to you before he dies. Abhorrent as these are, looking someone who loves and trusts you in the eye and taking advantage of their good will just seems to take it to a whole new level.

And any of us could be a victim, especially if we’re goodhearted. For one thing, it’s easy to produce fake documentation. But, really, who would ever ask for it? How painful would it be to ask a genuine victim to prove his or her diagnosis before we offer financial or emotional assistance?

So What Do We Do?

There’s certainly nothing wrong with making sure our money is going to a worthy cause. Because of the growing number of cancer fraud thieves, some experts suggest donating to a larger donation like the American Cancer Society rather than to an individual. You can make the contribution in the friend or family member’s name.

Of course, that’s not going to help the person who’s trying to whittle down her medical bills. Some hospitals will permit a family member to create an account that others can contribute to; sometimes these accounts can be used to offset medical bills for individual cancer patients. And, if you donate and later discover you’ve been a victim of cancer fraud, contact your local police; perpetrators face criminal charges.

Let’s not let the misdeeds of a few influence our generous spirit or optimistic view of human kind, though. I remember an interview I watched of a mother whose daughter helped a cast-wearing Ted Bundy carry books to his car – and lost her life for it. When asked what she thought of the fact that her daughter’s kindness had led to her death, she smiled and said, “I wouldn’t have raised her any other way.”