A 19-year-old TikToker was charged with a class C felony of theft by means of deception after she collected donations online under the guise that she was fighting cancer, which turned out to be a lie.
The Eldridge Police Department arrested Madison Russo on January 23 while she was in class at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa.
According to Indy 100, authorities said Russo scammed roughly 439 donors and accumulated over $38,000 in contributions.
A press release said Russo made a series of false claims, including one where she said she "suffered acute lymphoblastic leukemia, stage 2 pancreatic cancer and a tumor the size of a football" attached to her spine.
Obtained medical records as part of an investigation revealed Russo has never been diagnosed with any cancer or tumor by any medical facilities in the area.
The news outlet noted a GoFundMe page was allegedly set up for her which caught the attention of the local newspaper which shared her story.
Here is Russo responding to a question about the healthy appearance of her hair, which she chalked up to taking oral chemotherapy.
The press release continued stating Russo was a guest speaker at the National Pancreas Foundation in Chicago and at St. Ambrose University.
She was also featured on a podcast for Project Purple–a Connecticut-based non-profit organization aiming to spread awareness of and raise funds to defeat pancreatic cancer.
Social media users were dumbfounded.
People from the cancer community were understandably outraged.
Chief of Police Joseph Sisler issued a statement detailing Russo's deception, which read:
"It was discovered through investigation, that separate and apart from the medical discrepancies, and from the GoFundMe page, Madison accepted private donations from other businesses, non-profit organizations, school districts and private citizens."
Those who have "who have medical experience" were enlisted to work with an investigator looking for "medical discrepancies" in Russo's photos posted on social media.
ABC News medical contributor Dr. Darien Sutton shared their findings after observing select photos.
"You can see that the actual positioning of the port per se, is not accurate," said Sutton.
"Also, the way that it's secured, the type of tape that's used, it's not the same clinical tape that we would use in the hospital."
Documents obtained byKWQC suggested Russo used various props to perpetuate her hoax.
Investigators allegedly found a brown paper bag with medical supplies, an "IV pole with a feeding pump filled with cotton balls," a wig, nausea pills prescribed under a relative’s name, and other items at Russo’s apartment.
The National Pancreas Foundation weighed in on the ongoing investigation with a statement shared with ABC News.
CEO David Bakelman denounced the young scammer, writing:
"The National Pancreas Foundation does not condone the actions of Maddie Russo regarding her deceit to fraudulently secure donors for her false cancer diagnosis."
"There are thousands of patients, families and caregivers battling this terrible disease, and Ms. Russo's actions have taken away valuable resources from these patients."
In response to Russo's arrest, GoFundMe–who stated they have a "zero tolerance policy for misuse"–announced:
"All donors have been refunded and we have removed this fundraiser. The beneficiary has also been banned from using the platform for any future fundraisers."
"GoFundMe's Giving Guarantee offers a full refund in the rare case when something isn't right; this is the first and only donor protection guarantee in the crowdfunding industry."
Louis Frillman, who fell for Russo's con by donating $500 to her fake cause, expressed empathy for the troubled teen.
After the donation site refunded him his money, Frillman told ABC News:
"My thinking is, say a prayer for this young kid because she is going to have a lot of terrible consequences."
Russo posted a $10,000 bond and is scheduled in court on March 2 for her arraignment.