Welcome to the shady world of people faking cancer online
A couple of years ago, I was moved by a teenager’s devastatingly sad tale she’d posted online: Both she and her best friend had cancer, and the best friend was losing her battle. I posted words of encouragement and shared her messages with my friends to support this poor girl, but a few months later, I began questioning. Everything that possibly could go wrong on the planet seemed to be going wrong for her. Each day was another tragedy or near tragedy. When I investigated her story, I discovered it was entirely made up and her photos stolen. I tracked down the girl’s mother to alert her to what her daughter was posting online, and got a nasty letter in response that surprised me. She said her daughter wasn’t harming anyone and that I should leave her alone.
I thought it was a one-off oddity until I got involved with the Jessie Rees Foundation, a pediatric cancer charity, and found out it’s not uncommon for people to fake cancer—usually for donations, sometimes just for attention.
New Yorker Brittany Ozarowski, then 21, faked bone and brain cancer to get donations to pay for heroin, even conning her own grandmother out of about $100,000. At times, she sat in front of supermarkets with her father or another woman handing out flyers asking for donations. She also approached businesses directly, walking in with a cane and a sob story about her inability to pay for her treatment. Ozarowski took a plea deal in 2013 that would involve rehab and community service and no prison time.
Arizonan Jamie Lynn Toler, then 27, collected donations from friends, family and coworkers, claiming she had breast cancer and needed a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. Instead, she used the donations—almost $8,000—for breast implants. She was sentenced to one year in jail and three months of probation, and ordered to pay restitution.
Leron Magilner of Delaware, then 34, claimed he was dying of pancreatic cancer so people would pay for his rent and “bucket list” vacations. He claimed to have only six months to live, shaved his head and eyebrows, and even disguised his voice on the phone to pose as a doctor confirming his illness to a suspicious coworker. Local businesses donated auction items for a benefit in his honor, and in all, he collected about $35,000. He pled guilty to all charges and was sentenced to nine to 23 months in prison.
While the majority of fundraisers are genuine, the Internet has made it easier for those with bad intentions to find victims to scam. The latest case of cancer fraud is unfolding in Tennessee, perpetrated by 35-year-old Kristen Bible Hines.
Hines posted a desperate plea for money on GoFundMe, claiming to be a single mother with stage IV endometrial uterine cancer who had left a violent marriage and would die without help to pay for her medications, which cost $1,500 per week. A homeless veteran who drove a cab shared her message on Facebook, and said he was donating money from his cab tips every day.
This caused Texas writer Michelle Devon to make a donation, too. Then, after hearing from Kristen Hines that GoFundMe would take a percentage of the money and that she needed it quickly, Devon and her best friend donated again directly to Hines’ PayPal account.
Devon, who has a rare and chronic medical condition of her own, also offered to contact drug manufacturers on Hines’ behalf to try to get free or reduced-cost medications. “She gave me every excuse as to why my suggestions wouldn’t work, and then never responded to my request for a list of medications,” Devon says.
Despite this, when Devon got an unexpected check months later, she decided to donate part of it to Hines, but the GoFundMe page had disappeared. She tried reaching out on Facebook, but found out that Hines had unfriended her, which didn’t make sense. Why block someone who’s given you almost $300?
When Devon wrote to the cab driver to say she was suspicious, he wrote back, “I’m afraid we’ve all been duped.”
He pointed her to a group of women who had been tracking Kristen Hines’ story and had formed an online group called the “Bible Thumpers” to investigate. Many were friends of Kristen’s online boyfriend, Dan, who spearheaded fundraising efforts even though he’d never met Kristen in person.
“We named Kristen ‘Cancerfish’ because we felt that Dan was being catfished…but with cancer,” says comedian Kristine Levine. They’d seen Hines post numerous provocative selfies and thought she was desperate for attention, and that her descriptions of her frequent CT scans and hormone treatment didn’t ring true.
A Google search led them to an enlightening court document: Kristen Hines was not the abused single mom she had claimed to be. In fact, she had lost custody of her children and had a confirmed drug habit, snorting prescription drugs.
But the group didn’t have hard evidence to prove that Hines was lying about having cancer, and she refused to provide any documentation. Whenever her online fundraisers appeared (there were several), the group helped to get them shut down, but she had already collected more than $5,000 through GoFundMe prior to that point.
In the most egregious act of all, Hines enlisted the help of a local bar to hold a benefit for her, and in anticipation of the event, she shaved her head and claimed that all of her hair had suddenly fallen out at once. When someone expressed surprise that her eyebrows were still in place, she shaved them, too, writing, “Oooops, where did my eyebrows go! Seems they fell out, ha ha!”
But Devon says it didn’t look anything like a cancer patient’s hair loss. “There weren’t any bald patches or shiny spots on her scalp. It was thick, dark, full stubble covering her entire head.”
After a group member alerted the bar owner to the situation, he asked Hines to provide proof of her illness. So she provided it: receipts for medical procedures (signed by doctors and nurses) and a letter from a doctor indicating that she had already paid close to $50,000 and would need to pay an estimated $12,000 for the remainder of her treatment. Hines’ father even emailed those same documents to one of the skeptics.
The problem? When group member Lora Gastineau called the centers to verify the letters, she found out that Hines had never been a patient at either center and the receipts and letter were all forged. Vanderbilt Cancer Treatment Center pressed charges, and it was revealed that Hines had a significant history of fraud, theft, identity theft, and forging prescriptions, with more than 20 charges still pending.
So far, the Bible Thumpers have discovered more than $40,000 in donations made directly to Hines online and by check. One widow, Michelle Manor, whose husband died of brain cancer, donated $1,225 over the course of several months, and Hines continued badgering her to send more money until PayPal froze the account.
Kristen Hines is currently out on $25,000 bond, and the FBI is investigating her case.
Michelle Devon hopes stories like these won’t dissuade people from donating to people who really are in need. “It’s okay to give, but it’s also okay to question when things don’t feel right,” she says.