A TikToker shared her cancer journey and raised thousands on GoFundMe. It was all a scam, police say
By Zoe Sottile, CNN
(CNN) -- Madison Russo allegedly used social media to spread awareness about her battle with cancer and to raise almost $40,000 on GoFundMe -- but the entire operation was a scam, according to Iowa police, who have charged Russo with theft.
Russo, a 19-year-old TikTok content creator, raised more than $37,303 from 439 donors by falsely claiming she suffered from acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Stage 2 pancreatic cancer, and a tumor the "size of a football, that wrapped around her spine," according to a news release from the Eldridge Police Department.
Police said anonymous witnesses with "medical experience" pointed out "medical discrepancies" in Russo's social media presence to the investigating officer. A subpoena for medical records found Russo had "never been diagnosed with any kind of cancer or tumor from any medical facilities within the Quad Cities or surrounding cities," according to the release.
Russo, a resident of Bettendorf, Iowa, was arrested for theft by means of deception on January 23, says the release.
Police said they are still working to identify alleged victims of Russo's theft. In addition to soliciting donations on GoFundMe, Russo also "accepted private donations from other businesses, non-profit organizations, school districts and private citizens," according to police.
GoFundMe told CNN they had removed the fundraiser, banned Russo from using the platform, and refunded all donors.
"GoFundMe has a zero tolerance policy for misuse of our platform and cooperates with law enforcement investigations of those accused of wrongdoing," said the organization in an emailed statement. "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."
Russo was outspoken about her alleged struggle with cancer, conducting interviews with local press and sharing her story on social media. In October 2022, she spoke with the Eldridge-based North Scott Press for a profile focused on her experience with cancer. She also discussed her cancer journey as a guest speaker at St Ambrose University and at the National Pancreatic Foundation in Chicago, according to the police news release.
Andrea Jaeger, Russo's attorney, told CNN she had no comment at this time.
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