A 19-year-old Iowa woman has been charged with bilking hundreds of donors out of more than $37,000 by lying on TikTok and GoFundme about battling pancreatic cancer and having a tumor “the size of a football,” police said.
Madison “Maddie” Russo was arrested on Jan. 23 on a first-degree theft charge, a felony punishable in Iowa by up to 10 years in prison, according to the Eldridge Police Department.
Police said Russo faked having Stage 2 pancreatic cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, “and a tumor the size of a football that wrapped around her spine.”
The accused con artist documented her bogus cancer battle on TikTok and on a GoFundMe page, through which she had raised $37,303 from more than 439 unsuspecting donors, officials said.
Additionally, police said, Russo gave talks about her made-up health struggles at St. Ambrose University, where she was a student, and at the National Pancreatic Foundation — a claim the Chicago-based nonprofit has denied as “inaccurate.”
“We can confirm the person in question has had no contact with the National Pancreatic Cancer Foundation and has never spoken at any of our events,” a spokesperson for the charity said, according to Fox News.
Russo also once appeared on the Project Purple podcast, where a spokesperson described the situation as “unfortunate” — and justified the woman’s appearance on the show by saying that at the time, there was “no reason not to believe Maddie’s story.”
Russo’s story began to unravel on Jan. 11, when anonymous witnesses claiming to be medical professionals reached out to authorities, saying they noticed “many medical discrepancies” in the teen’s social media posts about her purported cancer battle.
Court documents cited by station KWQC alleged that the witnesses were said to have observed “terrible life-threatening inaccuracies of her medical equipment placement on her body.”
At the same time, several TikTok users who watched Russo’s videos in which she documented her cancer treatments noted that some of her medical equipment and its placement did not look right.
Investigators said Russo also allegedly stole photos shared online by real cancer patients and presented them as her own.
When police executed a search warrant at Russo’s Bettendorf apartment, they seized a brown paper bag containing medical supplies, an IV pole with a feeding pump filled with cotton swabs, a wig and pills for nausea in a relative’s name, according to the court documents.
Investigators also subpoenaed Russo’s medical records and found that the teen has never been diagnosed with any form of cancer or tumor at any of the medical facilities in the area where she has been a patient.
In an October 2022 interview with the North Scott Press, Russo claimed she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on Feb. 10 and with leukemia a few months later.
“I remember hanging up the phone, and I was a mess,” she told the Iowa news outlet last fall. “I was literally bawling, but somehow I ended up getting the courage to wipe away my tears and went back into class, which now, when I think about it, was pretty crazy.”
Russo said doctors gave her an 11% survival rate for five years, before discovering the massive, supposedly inoperable tumor on her spine.
Russo claimed in the interview that between February and October of last year, she underwent 15 rounds of chemotherapy and 90 rounds of radiation.
“Life has been crazy,” she said. “It’s like a Catch-22. I can’t win for losing. I feel like I’ve been rocked to my soul, and right now, everything is kind of uncertain. I just want to know my game plan, and right now, I don’t know what that is.”
Despite her medical struggles, Russo said, she continued attending classes at St. Ambrose University, maintained a 4.0 GPA and held down a part-time job at John Deere while golfing in her free time.
The description of Russo’s GoFundMe page, which was still accepting donations Monday but has since been taken down, stated that “Maddie is currently undergoing vigorous chemotherapy and radiation treatments that make her very sick.”
“As one can imagine, this diagnosis has been very hard on Maddie’s family. Just like with any cancer diagnosis, the cost of medical bills, gas, meals, and expense can be a burden, and that is something this family should not have to worry about,” the fundraiser stated.
“If you are able to, donations would be greatly appreciated to help cover medical expenses and to allow Maddie to focus on one thing only, which is to show that she is stronger than cancer and will beat this. Please donate/share if you can.”
GoFundMe addressed the alleged scam in a statement to McClatchy News, saying the site has “a zero tolerance policy of misuse of our platform and cooperate with law enforcement investigations of those accused of wrongdoing.”
Russo claimed doctors gave her 11% survival rate over five years.
Facebook / Maddie Russo
Russo said between February and October 2022, she had undergone 15 rounds of chemo and 90 rounds of radiation therapy.
Facebook / Maddie Russo
Despite her supposed struggles, Russo maintained a 4.0 GPA at her university, held down a job and continued playing sports.
Facebook / Maddie Russo
Everyone who has donated to Russo’s fundraiser has been reimbursed, and the 19-year-old has been banned from GoFundMe.
One of the donors to Russo’s campaign told station KWQC that she was “shocked” when she learned of the teen’s arrest.
Russo was released from jail on $10,000 bond just four hours after her arrest. She is due back in court on March 2.