Home News 19-year-old TikToker is arrested after faking cancer is exposed

19-year-old TikToker is arrested after faking cancer is exposed

Madison Russo (GoFundMe/TikTok)

Aspen Pflughoeft

The Charlotte Observer


A woman falsely claimed to have pancreatic cancer to collect tens of thousands of dollars from hundreds of donors, according to Iowa authorities. Now, she’s facing a theft charge.

Madison Russo, 19, of Bettendorf falsely claimed to be suffering from “leukemia, stage 2 pancreatic cancer and a tumor, the size of a football, that wrapped around her spine,” the Eldridge Police Department said in a news release.

Russo did not have an attorney listed in court records as of Jan. 27. McClatchy News reached out to her through a social media account and is awaiting a response.

According to police, Russo shared her “cancer journey” on social media, a GoFundMe page, and in an interview with the North Scott Press. Witnesses with “medical experience” noticed “many medical discrepancies” in Russo’s social media posts and approached the Eldridge police.

In the posts, medical professionals saw “terrible life-threatening inaccuracies of her medical equipment placement on her body,” according to court documents obtained by the Muscatine Journal. Some photos appeared to be taken at Russo’s apartment, “not a medical office,” the outlet reported.

Russo also took photos posted by actual cancer patients and shared them as her own, police said in court documents, per KWQC.

In an interview with the North Scott Press, Russo said she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on Feb. 10, 2022, and with leukemia a few months later. She said doctors gave her a “slim 11% survival rate for five years” before they discovered the spinal tumor. Despite her health issues, Russo said in the Oct. 18 interview that she still attended classes at St. Ambrose University, maintained a high GPA and worked at John Deere.

John Deere did not respond to McClatchy News’ request to confirm her employment.

On her now-removed GoFundMe page, Russo raised “$37,228 from 438 donations,” the Muscatine Journal reported.

GoFundMe told McClatchy News that it has “a zero tolerance policy for misuse of our platform and cooperates with law enforcement investigations of those accused of wrongdoing. All donors have been refunded and we have removed this fundraiser. The beneficiary has also been banned from using the platform for any future fundraisers,” per a Jan. 27 statement.

Eldridge police said Russo stole “over $37,000.00 from more than 400 donors.” She is facing a charge of theft by means of deception and was arrested on Jan. 23, an updated news release says.

Russo also spoke about her “cancer journey” at “St. Ambrose University, The National Pancreatic Foundation in Chicago, and a podcast for Project Purple Online,” Iowa police said.

St. Ambrose University did not immediately respond to McClatchy News’ request for comment on Jan. 27.

The National Pancreatic Cancer Foundation said it was “inadvertently named” in connection to Russo, according to a Jan. 27 news release. “This is not accurate. 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 … We are disheartened to hear that someone would fake a cancer diagnosis.”

Project Purple told McClatchy News that “this is an unfortunate situation for everyone involved. 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,” per a Jan. 27 statement. The organization said it was “cooperating with law enforcement.”

Russo posted a $10,000 bond “shortly after being booked” into Scott County Jail, WQAD reported. She will be arranged on March 2, the Muscatine Journal reported.

Any person or business who donated to Russo is asked to contact the Eldridge Police Department at (563) 285-3916 or at police@cityofeldridgeia.org.

©2023 The Charlotte Observer. Visit charlotteobserver.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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