True story: A young woman came into the office of a charitable organization looking shaken and tearful, asking to speak with someone about financial assistance. She spilled out her story: no health insurance, not much savings, single girl supporting herself, breast cancer found on both sides, fear of becoming ugly and unattractive - could she get help raising funds for breast implant reconstruction? Fast-forward several weeks: the same young woman hands over $5,800 in cash to a plastic surgeon, who does a standard breast augmentation. On returning to work, concerned coworkers ask about her health. She can't produce a note from a doctor explaining time off for sick leave. She doesn't remember the name of her oncologist. Calls are made, police do some checking, and the truth surfaces: this young woman is a cancer faker. She is now serving time behind bars and must repay all the fraudulently raised funds. How could she deceive people this way? How can you avoid becoming a victim of this type of scam?
Avoid A Cancer Scam
Asking for money involves a high level of trust. We'd like to think that any request for funds to help defray the high costs of cancer treatment is a valid one, because the idea of pretending to have cancer is odious. Unfortunately, cancer fakers are sprinkled throughout society like mold on seemingly good food. Once you've been betrayed by a fraudulent request to help a "cancer patient" it is hard to make a donation to a genuine need. If you're not sure who to trust, try following some simple rules.
- Do not donate funds directly to the patient; instead give to a bonafide clinic or hospital. Get the name of the person who needs financial assistance and their treatment center. You may contact their clinic or hospital and if you get confirmation that the person is a patient, then find out how to make a payment to their account. If the person asking for funds won't tell you where they are being treated, alarm bells should be sounding in your head.
- Don't respond instantly with a donation but do take time to check out the charity. Not every outfit that claims to be a charity or nonprofit is actually worthy of the name. Their credentials may be shaky or complaints may have been filed against them. Do some research via the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving resources.
- Do not donate cash and do not give out your credit card numbers freely. If your cash winds up in the hands of a cancer faker, it is very hard to trace and retrieve. Kiss it goodbye when you give it away, because you will never see it again. You may get a receipt for cash, but if the funding request turns out to be a fraud, your accountant won't even think of filing it as a deduction. Guard your credit card numbers like fine gold - once an unscrupulous character gets those numbers they can ruin your life quickly.
- Delete email requests from people claiming to be cancer victims who want to know your bank account number. These people may say that they are dying, have inherited a vast fortune, and want lucky you to take care of their money once they are dead. Strangely enough, all of these people are child-free, widowed, and live across the ocean from you. Many of them can't use English very well, but they do know how to ask for critical financial information. Once they have your name and bank account access, you could be ruined. Don't bother to respond, don't think twice, just hit delete.
Spot and Deal With Cancer Frauds
Suppose you met a girl who was bald, had no eyebrows or lashes, was pale, slender, and appeared to be fatigued. When you express some concern for her, she admits to having taken chemo for several types of cancer, all of which she is fighting at once. However, you can make her feel better in the short time she has left on this earth - by sending money via her website, or sending her on a free trip to Disneyland! Only later do you find out she had shaved, waxed, plucked, and starved her way into the sham appearance of a cancer patient. Once Ashley Kirilow was caught, she was sentenced to 10 months of house arrest in a psychiatric ward, 2 years of probation, and 100 hours community service. How can you spot a cancer fake before you part with your goodwill and your money? How can you gracefully deal with a suspected fraud? Try some of these ideas.
- Look beyond baldness, because it can be faked. Check other signs of chemo treatment that are difficult to counterfeit - fingernail disorders, an implanted port, surgical scars, sudden weight changes, pallor or jaundice. Do they spontaneously exhibit aversion to certain smells or fragrances? It might be hard to ask someone if you can see his or her scar or chemo port, but if you're suspicious of the person, ask about their treatment experience in a sympathetic way. After all, fakes play upon your sympathies, so go ahead and express concern and curiosity. If they are faking, they won't cooperate, but if they are truly in treatment, they might appreciate your interest.
- Offer something helpful other than cash. If you aren't sure of this person or you don't want to make a financial contribution, try offering some alternative help. Say that you could be their chemo buddy next time they have an infusion. Offer to drive them to the doctor and take notes during their consultation. A genuine cancer patient would really appreciate these kinds of help, but a fraud would demur or make excuses, explaining why money would be more appreciated. If you know the person quite well, you could offer to bring over a meal, but only if you would do this regardless of the person's health.
- If you find evidence that a person had fraudulently taken funds while posing as a cancer patient, contact your local police force. Fraud and theft are prosecutable offenses that must be investigated and handled by experts. If your credit card has been charged by a cancer fraud, contact your bank or credit agency and explain your situation. Depending on the timing of your donation, you may have options to cancel the charges.
Be Wise, Stay Safe
Most of us can't imagine what would motivate a person to pretend to be dying of a terrible illness and then extort money, goods, services and genuine sympathy from good people. So when we hear of pleas for donations to what appears to be a good cause, we often contribute without hesitation. Unfortunately, cancer is a widespread condition that can strike any age or gender, and it is expensive to treat. People do suffer from cancer as well as the financial cost associated with it, and helping out a genuine patient is a great thing. But don't instantly reach for your wallet.
Cancer frauds may turn out to be people who have serious emotional or psychological disorders. They may already be experienced scam artists with rap sheets. A scammer may be seeking attention even more than they want money, but money is a great lure and almost irresistible. A psychiatrist said of Ashley Kirilow that the tales she fabricated appeared to be a sign of Münchausen Syndrome - a disorder in which someone produces medical symptoms in order to get attention. Scams can be perpetrated in person or even more easily via social media sites. Do not donate to someone that you don't know really well.
When you're approached for a donation to someone who may have cancer, be wise. Make an effort to find out if the donations will go through a genuine non-profit or charity. Contact the treatment clinic and ask if you can make payments to an account. Be stingy with cash and careful with credit cards. Offer to swap services instead of giving financial support. It's okay to be kind, but it's also smart to be careful.