Faking cancer isn’t some new thing brought on by the ease of GoFundMe and platforms like it which allow the easy transfer of money between generous donor and slimy faker with a shaved head. It is, however, made far more profitable thanks to social media.
GoFundMe warns on its own website that you should only donate to people you know and trust. In the case of cancer scammers, it is their own family members and close friends that often feel most violated after the fraud is revealed. These people trusted and supported the scammer, some even drove their friend to and from fake doctor’s appointments. Children have been led to believe their parent is dying, and in some cases spouses are preparing to be single parents. The fraud encompasses every aspect of the scammer’s life, drawing in members of the community, distant friends, and strangers on the internet. It’s easier than ever to lure people into giving their hard-earned cash with just a click.
In light of the Jenny Flynn Cataldo case — the Alabama woman is accused of faking cancer for years, draining her parents’ savings, collecting over $38,000 on GoFundMe, and even tricking church-going pals into passing collection plates for her benefit — we thought now would be a good time to look at some of GoFundMe’s worst cancer scammers to date.
You’ll note in many of these cases it was a tip from a concerned citizen to police that spurred an investigation into cancer claims so the anti-terrorism slogan applies here: if you see something, say something. If something just doesn’t feel right, maybe that’s because it isn’t.
Police are still investigating the Westchester, NY woman after allegations surfaced in 2016 that Shivonie Deokaran raised over $60,000 by claiming she was dying of leukemia when in fact she was just fine. One GoFundMe campaign started by her son in August of 2015 stated that his mother had just 18 months to live. In May of 2017, Deokaran’s ex-boyfriend Nikhlesh Parekh gave an exclusive interview to CBS2, saying that Deokaran made the whole thing up. “She has never had cancer,” Parekh said. “Shivonie has lied to me; has lied to my friends, my family, her kids, my kids!”
Former Marine Michael Kocher was, according to those who were taken in by his cancer lies, a charming, likeable, and well-spoken guy. Perhaps that’s why he was able to fleece them out of over $8,000 via GoFundMe and countless more in personal loans he often requested in the middle of the night via text. Kocher’s scam was eventually revealed and his tale ended tragically in March of 2017 when he barricaded himself inside a Denver home with hostages and was subsequently shot and killed by police.
Florida woman Kelly Johanneson first began her cancer scam in 2013, when she briefly disappeared and reappeared claiming to have stage 4 breast cancer. Friends and family quickly rallied together to support her. Suspicions arose just as quickly as support, however, and police began investigating her based on a tip that she was faking. She was arrested in March of 2015, with a sheriff’s department detective saying “It just seems so implausible that someone would use a horrible illness like cancer for personal gain.” Indeed.
In January of 2017, students at Wilkinson Middle School rallied support for beloved teacher’s aide Kenneth MaBone, who they believed had prostate cancer. In a matter of days, the GoFundMe campaign to benefit him surpassed $10,000, and a ceremony was held in MaBone’s honor to present him the funds and a car. Rather than getting surgery to remove the tumor as he told students and school district staff, MaBone was in federal court for an earlier case involving misuse of government credit cards. He was later charged with theft by deception for the phony cancer claims which led to the creation of the GoFundMe campaign.
Former singer of Pennsylvania hardcore band Counterfeit (yeah, that ended up being prophetic) Hali Etie had the full support of the local hardcore scene behind her after she announced stage 3 cervical cancer. From religious sharing of her GoFundMe link to organizing a benefit to T-shirt sales, she had no shortage of help. Unfortunately, she never actually had cancer, and was accused of spending the funds raised for her on travel and tattoos. Charges were never filed.
“Nothing ticks me off more than someone trying to use you for a good cause just to get money for themselves,” read a Facebook post by Ashley Lively from January of 2016. By April, Lively would be arrested for tricking her small community of Sweetwater, TN into believing she was suffering from stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Over $8000 was raised for her between a GoFundMe campaign to T-shirt sales, she had no shortage of help.
It’s one thing to fake your own cancer and scam good-hearted people into throwing cash at you, it’s quite another when you fake cancer in your child. That’s exactly what 32-year-old Jessica Good of Enid, OK did. While mom was busy posting on Facebook about the fake cancer and putting up GoFundMe campaigns, she was convincing her own child that she had cancer. An expert told detectives this is nothing less than psychological abuse and prosecutors agreed; in addition to charges relating to the fraudulent fundraising, Good was charged with felony child abuse.
Joyell “J.D.” Riley
If just faking cancer isn’t hard core enough for you, maybe you can take a cue from Joyell “J.D.” Riley and add stolen valor to your list of talents. The Mansfield, OH woman — who operated an unlicensed charity providing food to veterans — claimed to be a ‘highly decorated’ Marine and breast cancer survivor, though she was neither. At first she called the accusations ‘bullcrap’ but eventually pleaded guilty to a federal wire fraud charge in relation to her fraudulent GoFundMe campaign.
Victoria Morrison, like Jessica Good before her, is accused of manufacturing her son’s cancer for financial (and, likely, emotional) gain, however Morrison took the deception just a small (read: extreme) step further: she also pretended her kid died and even held a funeral service for him. Morrison was arrested in April of 2017 for obtaining money under false pretenses and all four of her children have been placed into the custody of child protective services.
Cynthia Lynn Smith
Although Cynthia Lynn Smith did not fake cancer specifically, we’re including her on this list because A) she raised a ridiculous amount of money and B) her scam was perpetuated in nearly the same way many cancer scams are. The Canadian woman claimed to have Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy, a super rare but generally manageable disease. Friends, family, and total strangers rallied together to raise over $126,000, while Smith claimed her health was deteriorating rapidly, leaving her bed-bound and on the brink of death. Turns out she made the whole thing up; she was arrested and placed on probation in late 2016.