ELDRIDGE, Iowa – A TikTok fraudster in Iowa has been charged with conning more than $37,000 out of hundreds of sympathetic donors by lying to them on the social media platform as well as a GoFundme page about battling pancreatic cancer and having a tumor “the size of a football,” law enforcement authorities said.
Police said Madison “Maddie” Russo, 19, fraudulently claimed to have Stage 2 pancreatic cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, “and a tumor the size of a football that wrapped around her spine.” Her charade came tumbling down and she was taken into custody Jan. 23 for first-degree theft charges. She has an exposure of up to 10 years in prison if convicted, according to the Eldridge Police Department.
Russo used TikTok and a GoFundMe page to document her ongoing con, which raised $37,303 from more than 439 charitable, yet unsuspecting donors, police said.
Before her GoFundMe page was taken down last week, Russo had bilked more than $37,300 from close to 440 unsuspecting donors. (GoFundMe)
Part of the fraudster’s tall tale allegedly included talks about her made-up health struggles at St. Ambrose University, where she was a student, and at the National Pancreatic Foundation — a claim the Chicago-based nonprofit has denied as “inaccurate,” the New York Post reported.
Police were tipped off about Russo’s scam after people noticed serious discrepancies in her social media posts about her supposed cancer battle. (GoFundMe)
“We can confirm the person in question has had no contact with the National Pancreatic Cancer Foundation and has never spoken at any of our events,” a spokesperson for the charity said, according to Fox News.
Russo also perpetuated the fraud with an appearance on the Project Purple podcast, where a spokesperson described the situation as “unfortunate.”
Russo has been outspoken about her purported health struggles and has been giving interviews and talks on the subject. (Facebook / Maddie Russo)
Her charade began to unravel on Jan. 11, when anonymous witnesses with medical backgrounds reached out to authorities, saying they noticed “many medical discrepancies” in the teen’s social media posts about her alleged battle with cancer.
The witnesses observed “terrible life-threatening inaccuracies of her medical equipment placement on her body,” according to court documents cited by station KWQC
Simultaneously, other TikTok viewers who watched Russo’s videos documenting her purported cancer treatments noted that some of her medical equipment and its placement was incorrect.
As part of her con, Russo allegedly used stolen photos obtained online from real cancer patients and presented them as her own, police said.
Investigators served a search warrant at Russo’s apartment in the City of Bettendorf. They seized evidence of the woman’s crime, which included a brown paper bag containing medical supplies, an IV pole with a feeding pump filled with cotton swabs, a wig and pills for nausea in a relative’s name, according to the court documents.
Police also obtained a subpoena for Russo’s medical records. That is when the house of cards came tumbling down. Investigators discovered she has never been diagnosed with any form of cancer or tumor at any of the medical facilities in the area where she has been a patient.
Before the GoFundMe page was taken down last week, it said, “Maddie is currently undergoing vigorous chemotherapy and radiation treatments that make her very sick.”
“As one can imagine, this diagnosis has been very hard on Maddie’s family. Just like with any cancer diagnosis, the cost of medical bills, gas, meals, and expense can be a burden, and that is something this family should not have to worry about,” the fundraiser claimed.
“If you are able to, donations would be greatly appreciated to help cover medical expenses and to allow Maddie to focus on one thing only, which is to show that she is stronger than cancer and will beat this. Please donate/share if you can.”
GoFundMe addressed the scam, saying they have “a zero tolerance policy of misuse of our platform” and they “cooperate with law enforcement investigations of those accused of wrongdoing.”
Each person who donated to Russo’s fundraiser has been reimbursed, and the con artist has been banned from GoFundMe, the New York Post reported.
Russo was booked in jail and released shortly thereafter on a $10,000 bond. Her first court date is scheduled for March 2.