Monday, December 6, 2010

Faking Cancer

With so many individuals fighting terminal illnesses, many of them in need of support emotionally as well as financially, and with so many families devastated that a loved one is gravely ill, it would be morbid, if not cruel, for anyone to pretend to have cancer simply to play on the sympathies of the people around them for attention and as a way to cheat them out of their money.

And yet, people will sink that low; a few of them right here in my own province...

The first, Ashley Kirilow, a 23-year-old Burlington, Ontario native, started telling people she had breast and ovarian cancer after a benign lump was removed from one of her breasts in late 2008 or early 2009. She shaved her head, plucked her eyelashes and eyebrows, and starved herself so she could resemble a chemotherapy patient.

Her scam began with sympathy gifting from people who felt sorry for her and wanted to offer their support. Kirilow later collected thousands of dollars from hundreds of well-meaning individuals by running a bogus charity on a Facebook page that she named “Change for a Cure”. Donations were made directly to her in cash and nobody asked for a receipt. Teams of volunteers organized benefit concerts in her honour, designed t-shirts to sell and raise funds, and made online tribute videos. Local businesses and small-scale music promoters were encouraged to join the cause, and Ashley Kirilow went so far as persuading a legitimate Toronto-based cancer-awareness organization to fly her to Disney world.

Eventually the truth began to unfold and she surrendered to police on August 6, 1010, the same day that The Star, a Toronto-based newspaper, exposed her scam in a front-page investigation. She pleaded guilty to one count of fraud over $5,000, and faces six more counts of fraud under $5,000.

Days after Ashley Kirilow admitted in court that she faked cancer, police in Ontario accused yet another young woman of the same scam. 21-year-old Jessica Ann Leeder of Timmins, Ontario pretended to have lung and stomach cancer, and over the period of a few months defrauded local residents and businesses of money and donations to fund non-existent cancer treatments. She pleaded guilty to fraud charges on November 9, and is due to be sentenced on December 21st.

And if that isn’t enough to shake the faith of people who generously and compassionately support what they believe are authentic cancer victims, along comes 39-year-old Christopher Gordon of Toronto who has been charged with fraud for collecting US$2,900 through a fundraiser to fight terminal brain cancer, which he’s never had. Apparently, he admitted to faking cancer after he spent the money. He’s been charged with one count of fraud under US$4,900 and is scheduled to appear in court November 30th.

These incidences are not unique, just close to home. There have been numerous other cases around the globe of scams that tug on people’s heartstrings while emptying their wallets. Like Michael Guglielmucci, an Australian preacher who pretended for two years to have leukemia. He received donations and even produced a music single called “Healer” that he sung to a crowd of fans as he breathed through an oxygen tube. And Heather Faria, a former school teacher in the state of Massachusetts that bankrolled a vacation to the Caribbean from the donations she received from people who thought they were helping a woman suffering from stomach cancer. The total amount she conned well-meaning individuals out of was over $35,000.

These types of actions are disgraceful. They not only steal people’s money, they steal society’s empathy, chipping away little by little at people’s desire to help others in need. Anyone who is cheated this way will hesitate the next time they are asked to donate to a real cause, no matter how compassionate they may be. Fool me once, shame on you...

But what has also startled me is the public’s subdued reaction to each subsequent crime here in Ontario. There was an explosion of rage when Ashley Kirilow’s scam was exposed. Social networks and the posting boards of news sites were filled with enraged individuals that demanded she brought to justice. It was an intense and fiery anger that would discourage anyone else from attempting such a shameful act.

Ann Leeder’s crime did produce an angry reaction, but nowhere near as Kirilow’s. And Christopher Gordon’s cancer fraud? I didn’t hear a thing. I stumbled upon it while doing research for this week’s post. Are we becoming increasingly apathetic? Are we becoming desensitized to these crimes? Are we accepting cancer scammers as just another element in the criminal world?

I certainly hope not.

I hope that the public continues to get riled up and disgusted by such despicable crimes. I hope that the public continues to demand that these scammers be brought to justice and that they be punished severely in hopes that it will dissuade anyone else from committing similar crimes.

And I hope that the public continues to remain sensitive to the brave men, women and children who are truly battling cancer. They are the true victims of these types of scams.

5 comments:

  1. Hello there Martha : )
    You are so right about the situation of fraud and desensitization .. like many other emotions they can be frozen from too many frauds and over play.
    I hope the sincere ones get the help they need and the punishment for these other people is more intense to make an example of them .. maybe make other fakes think twice ?
    Joy
    PS .. so now we have snow ?? LOL

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  2. These incidents are truly despicable, especially to those of us who have directly experienced the hardship and heartbreak of a loved one with a serious illness. But I think people do become more hardened because they so often hear about this sort of thing happening. I still do feel outrage, but it is a tired and weary sort of outrage. And it does make me feel far more wary about donating money when I hear of a tragedy, but I do still give. I just try to make sure it's legitimate. And I often give to people that I know personally that have needs---the kind of people who are overlooked because they suffer quietly and don't want to ask for charity.

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  3. I'm with her about the "weary sort of outrage." Is there no length to which some people will not go to get their slimy hands on money? I guess it's always best to donate to causes or groups you are personally familiar with. Sigh.....

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  4. I think people that do that are not just heartless, cynical predators, but are likely psychologically troubled. Can you imagine how deep their desire for sympathy and acceptance must be to consider such a thing? Don't get me wrong, it's terrifically wrong, but I feel sorry for them as well. The people that gave probably won't be any more jaded. A donation is made because it seems right, after that it's up to the universe... I hope that as well as restoring the funds to the donors, and jail time for the 'cancer survivors', there's some counseling as well. Kind of sad all around.

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  5. Hiya Joy! It's unfortunate that people will sink this low. Having lost someone very close to me to cancer, and knowing how much pain and grief it can cause, this pushes my buttons.

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    Beth, like you, I try to donate to places that are legitimate. It's sad that we become so cynical as we get older, but these types of actions don't help.

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    Cynthia, greed makes people do all sorts of nasty things. There are scams going on all the time, and innocent, good hearted people are being taken advantage of every day. It's sad.

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    Tatiana, you are a much better person than I am! I don't feel much sympathy, to be honest with you. And I don't believe that all of them are troubled enough to stoop this low. Some people are just downright cold and devious. And although I do believe that some cases involve psychologically troubled individuals, I also believe that many don't. In any case, I prefer to focus on people who really need my sympathy, compassion and support. And these aren't those people. There are many ways to get attention if you're desperate for it, but this isn't a good choice. Yes, it is very sad. But also infuriating.

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