19-year-old charged with running TikTok scam

Photo (c) Peter Dazeley - Getty Images

Police say the teenager collected thousands of dollars to treat fake cancer

Social media has proven to be a highly effective means to raise funds for someone sick, injured, or in crisis. In January when Buffalo Bills safety Demar Hamlin suffered a near-fatal injury on Monday Night Football, his GoFundMe account raised $6 million in a matter of days.

But for all the good uses, scammers use social media for nefarious purposes. Sometimes they get away with it, but not always.

Police in Eldridge, Iowa arrested a 19-year-old woman, charging her with first-degree theft. Officers say Madison Russo collected more than $37,000 in a GoFundMe account to help her in her battle against cancer.

But there was just one problem. Police say Russo didn’t have cancer.

According to police, Russo was active on TikTok throughout much of 2022, posting videos showing her in a hospital gown, hooked up to an IV, and in other healthcare settings. In some videos, she said she had leukemia, in another she was suffering from pancreatic cancer. In all of the videos, she looked tan and remarkably healthy.

Officers who investigated the case subpoenaed her health records and say they found no diagnosis of cancer. They arrested Russo, charging her with stealing from the 439 people who donated to her phony cause.

Police say a search of Russo’s apartment found a number of props, including tubes, IV bags, and a wig. They say the case underscores how people can be vulnerable to fake online appeals for money.

How to spot a fake

GoFundMe says it tries to ensure that all of the funds raised on its platform are used only as stated in the fundraiser story and that all donations are delivered securely to the right person. It says it seeks help from everyone who uses the platform to keep it secure.

According to GoFundMe, the fundraiser page should answer the following:

  • How is the organizer related to the intended recipient of the donations?

  • What is the purpose of the fundraiser and how will the funds be used?

  • Are direct family and friends making donations and leaving words of encouragement?

  • Is the intended recipient in control of the withdrawals? If not, is there a clear path for the funds to reach them?

“If any of the points above are missing on the fundraiser, we encourage you to message the organizer by clicking 'Contact' next to their name on their fundraiser to ask for more information.,” the company says on its website.

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