Faking terminal cancer for financial gain? It happens

Last weekend some members of my household attended a fundraising event for a man we know who's been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. The event was held at his favorite local hangout. The proprietor donated the use of the facility, and some of his employees volunteered their time because they've known our friend for a very long time. He's their friend, too.

That story is true, but it also sounds familiar. Last week we heard a similar story in the news about Melissa Jones of Farmington. The ending to her story is much different, however. Her friends feel betrayed. That's bad enough, but they've also been financially defrauded.

She's accused of faking her cancer. She allowed a lot of fundraising to take place on her behalf, all because she said she had breast cancer. There was a fundraising event in Canandaigua, a Facebook page devoted to her cause, and fundraising was going on in two other states for her.

There is concern that this case will affect donations to the American Cancer Society, the Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester, Warriors in Pink, Breast Cancer Walks and other cancer charities, as well as, individual fundraisers like the one my family attended. That would be a terrible outcome for all the cancer sufferers in our area.

This was such a shocking story because it's hard to believe that anyone would prey on people's feeling that way. People are outraged that someone would use an alleged diagnosis of a devastating disease to defraud others. Who could do such a thing?

It's not an original idea. Most people here know about the case in Buffalo because it was mentioned many times last week in conjunction with Melissa Jones' case. Sherry Holcomb's son was diagnosed with leukemia and somewhere between $14,000 and $20,000 was raised to help pay for his treatment. Holcomb has confessed to gambling away the money at casinos.

This is a fraud perpetrated by men as well as women in a wide range of age groups. In most cases, no one knows it's a fraud except for the cancer faker. Surprisingly, these fraudsters will let their own children believe their parent has cancer.

The fakery is usually very elaborate and could include shaving off hair including eyebrows, asking a friend to have power of attorney when the disease progresses, losing large amounts of weight, taking naps to recover from "chemotherapy" treatments, and heartfelt expressions of gratitude. Some fraudsters commit forgery of medical documents and impersonate a doctor on the phone to substantiate the illness.

Gambling at casinos is a common theme when you research cancer fakers. I found several stories where the proceeds of the fraud were used for gambling. In some cases, there is a previous criminal history of fraud, and faking cancer is just one more scam. Mental illness is a clear component of many cases.

How can we prevent scams? I really don't think you can ask someone to prove they have cancer. That would be heartless. But when someone really has cancer, there is usually treatment. There's probably a combination of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. There are appointments. There's no doubt in my mind about the fundraiser my family attended because various family members have driven our friend for treatment appointments.

I wonder how many fakers get away with it. All anyone ever wants is for their friend or loved one to be cancer-free. A fraudster could have fundraisers and play it out until they can make the happy statement that they are now cancer-free. No questions asked at that point.

In Melissa Jones' case, a felony charge of third-degree grand larceny has been waived to a grand jury, and she's scheduled to appear in Canandaigua Town Court on a misdemeanor charge of third-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument.

Faking cancer for financial gain or to seek attention is truly reprehensible. I can't imagine what an appropriate punishment for that would be.

I'm not concerned that this case will affect the generosity of people toward established charities and real cancer victims. We might be more careful, but we won't lose our compassion for those going through such a financially and emotionally devastating time.

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Gina Bliss, CPA, CFE, is a senior manager at EFP Rotenberg LLP, Certified Public Accountants and Business Consultants, who specializes in internal audit, fraud audit and forensic accounting. She may be reached at (585) 295-0536 or by email at gbliss@efprotenberg.com

Published: Wed, Mar 14, 2012

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