Say What Now? Iowa Woman Who Claimed to Have Cancer in Online Scam Must Pay $39K Restitution |

Say What Now? Iowa Woman Who Claimed to Have Cancer in Online Scam Must Pay $39K Restitution

An Iowa woman who lied about having cancer and pocketed nearly $38,000 from unsuspecting GoFundMe donors has been ordered to pay restitution.

via People:

On Friday, Madison Russo was handed down a 10-year suspended sentence, according to the Associated Press. While Russo avoided serving prison time, Judge John Telleen ordered her to pay $39,000 in restitution and a $1,370 fine. Her sentence also includes 100 hours of community service.

If she successfully completes three years of probation, she will remain free. However, Judge John Telleen denied a request from the defense that would have cleared the conviction from her record upon the completion of her probation.

He said people should know Russo once engaged in a “criminal scheme,” and that “serious crimes must have serious consequences,” per the AP.

“Through this scheme, you deceived your friends, your family, your community, other cancer victims, charities and strangers who were motivated by your supposedly tragic story to donate to help support you,” Telleen said.

In October 2022, Russo, then a 19-year-old St. Ambrose University student, claimed in postings on various social media sites including TikTok and Facebook that she had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

She also spoke about her purported diagnosis to the North Scott Press. “I feel like I’ve been rocked to my soul, and right now, everything is kind of uncertain,” she told the Iowa newspaper. “I just want to know my game plan, and right now, I don’t know what that is.”

She claimed to have been given an 11% survival rate for five years. “At 19 years old, I don’t know if I will live to see the day I graduate from college, get married, or become a mom. In the meantime, I will fight,” she told the North Scott Press.

Russo went on to bilk nearly $38,000 from more than 400 donors on a GoFundMe page she created by falsely stating that she had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, Stage II Pancreatic Cancer and a football-sized tumor wrapped around her spine, the Eldridge Police Department said at the time in a statement obtained by PEOPLE.

Her claims began to unravel when medical professionals came forward to say they noticed “many medical discrepancies” in her story, according to the statement. Eldridge police subsequently subpoenaed Russo’s medical records and determined she had never been diagnosed with cancer at any medical facility in the Quad Cities area.

Police also executed a search warrant at Russo’s apartment in Bettendorf, Iowa, “where officers did find items of evidentiary value,” the statement said. According to court documents obtained by KWQC, investigators seized bank records, medical supplies, an IV pole and a feeding pump, among other items.

The police investigation also found that Russo “accepted private donations from other businesses, non-profit organizations, school districts and private citizens.”

Russo was arrested on Jan. 23 and charged with theft by means of deception, a class C felony. In June, she pleaded guilty to first-degree theft.

During her court appearance on Friday, Russo said she concocted her false cancer diagnosis in an attempt to reconcile her family.

“A lot of people have made speculation as to why I did this and how somebody who looked like they had everything together could have such a mess,” she said, per the AP. “I didn’t do this for money or greed. I didn’t do this for attention. I did this as an attempt to get my family back together.”

Russo also apologized to her victims. “I fully acknowledge what I did was wrong. And I’m incredibly sorry,” she said. “If there was anything I could do to take it back I would. The reality is I can’t.”

Scott County prosecutor Kelly Cunningham recommended against prison time because Russo had no prior criminal history, earned good grades in college, was employed and was unlikely to reoffend in the future, the AP reported.

Russo paid the $39,000 in restitution earlier, and the money was being held by the court. GoFundMe has already refunded the donors.

In a statement obtained by PEOPLE following Russo’s arrest in January, GoFundMe said it “has a zero tolerance policy for misuse of our platform and cooperates with law enforcement investigations of those accused of wrongdoing.”

“All donors have been refunded and we have removed this fundraiser,” the statement continued. “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 fundraising industry.”

We wonder how many people have gotten away with GoFundMe scams over the years.

Share This Post