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Crime News

Woman Allegedly Scammed Donors Out Of $37,000 With Bogus 'Cancer Journey' On Social Media

Madison Russo, 19, has been charged with theft for soliciting donations after fraudulently claiming she suffered from three forms of cancer, according to authorities. 

By Christina Coulter
Police Line Tape

An Iowa woman was arrested for allegedly scamming hundreds of donors out of more than $37,000 that she claimed was going toward medical treatment by sharing her fabricated “cancer journey” on social media.

Madison Russo, 19, told her followers on social media and Good Samaritans on GoFundMe that she suffered from “acute stage lymphoblastic leukemia, stage 2 pancreatic cancer and a tumor the size of a football that wrapped around her spine,” according to a press release from the Eldridge Police Department.

Russo’s ruse began to unravel when medical professionals noticed the “terrible, life-threatening inaccuracies of her medical equipment placement on her body,” pointing out the irregularities of the color and placement of cords and tubes in her “chemo” TikTok videos, according to court documents reviewed by Oxygen.com.

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On Jan. 11, the Eldridge Police Department sat down with medical experts who pointed out the many medical discrepancies in Russo’s TikTok videos and other social media posts.

Then, police said, they were able to get a warrant to obtain medical records from centers where Russo said she was a patient and determined that she had never been treated for cancer or tumors.

The documents also allege that Russo stole photos posted by real cancer patients and shared them as her own.

Russo not only shared her allegedly bogus story on social media, but with her hometown newspaper. On Oct. 18 of last year, the North Scott Press published a story about the teen’s “cancer journey.”

She told the outlet that she had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on Feb. 10, 2022, and with leukemia a few months later. Doctors, she said, gave her a “slim 11 percent survival rate for five years” before discovering a spinal tumor.

Police said Russo also detailed her false cancer story for audiences at St. Ambrose University, where she was a student, maintaining a high GPA and interning with agricultural machinery company John Deere.

“[Despite] a ‘football-sized tumor’ on her lower back that ‘wraps around her spine’ ... [Russo] is still able to prevail with a 4.0 GPA, be out in the sun, maintain a part-time job at John Deere, continue to go golfing and according to her mother’s social media page, is getting a full-ride scholarship at St. Ambrose University,” reads a criminal complaint against Russo reviewed by Oxygen.com.

Russo was also a guest on the Project Purple podcast.

“Like those who donated, we had no reason not to believe Maddie’s story and did not have access to privileged medical information to confirm her story,” Project Purple, a pancreatic cancer support organization, said in a statement, adding that it's cooperating with law enforcement.

Police also said that Russo was a guest speaker for The National Pancreatic Foundation, but the organization told Fox News that it was “inadvertently named” in the Eldridge Police Department press release.

“This is not accurate,” the foundation said. “We can confirm the person in question has had no contact with the National Pancreatic Cancer Foundation and had never spoken at any of our events ... we are disheartened to hear that someone would fake a cancer diagnosis.”

Authorities reported that Russo received $37,303 toward her bogus treatment from 439 donors. While she obtained the lion’s share through GoFundMe, police said that she also “accepted private donations from other businesses, nonprofit organizations, school districts and private citizens.”

GoFundMe told McClatchy News that it has a “zero tolerance policy for misuse of [its] platform,” that “all donors have been refunded” and that Russo has been “banned from using the platform for any future fundraisers.”

Russo was charged with theft by deception on Jan. 23 and could face 10 years in jail if convicted. She was jailed at Scott County Jail before posting a $10,000 bond, and is scheduled to return to court on March 2.