Trollface, Ottawa, Spring 2011

Recently, an unbelievable story made the headlines in France. For three years, a number of individuals supported Noa, a bubbly seventeen-year-old blogger, in her fight against cancer. One day, Noa passes away from the illness, announces Salomé, her twin sister. Salomé, a ski champion, starts blogging as well and gathers quite a following among people still distraught by Noa’s tragic death. But life is a bitch–three months after Noa died, Salomé discovers she is sick too with cancer. Soon, people rally around her and try to make her life easier. She has friends all across the country, friends who organize prayer chains, who run a marathon in her name, who are only a phone call away whenever she feels down. Her room is full of medical supplies and she describes in great details how her body is failing her.

Things go from bad to worse for poor Salomé. Her health issues list gets longer by the minute and little by little, some of her friends start to doubt. Accusing a sick person of lying isn’t easy but a group of people decide to investigate and cross-check all the available information. The pictures of Noa turn out to be stolen from another blogger. Salomé claims to be a ski champion but the French Ski Federation has never heard of her. The hospital where she’s supposed to be a patient has no record of her.

The truth is brought to light. Noa never existed. Salomé didn’t either. Behind these two imaginary sisters is Odile, a twenty-something student who is perfectly healthy… at least physically. Mentally, well… it’s probably questionable.

Odile/Salomé met a lot of her online friends in real life and, for three years, no one ever suspected she was lying. Even doctors and nurses were fooled. Today, Salomé’s former friends are angry. A lot of her followers were cancer patients themselves and Salomé played with their feelings. She didn’t express regrets either, claiming she “gave people what they expected” and that “the characters she had created had gone out of hand.” Some people pressed charges. Most simply never want to hear about her again.

And this is not the only story of this kind.

In Ontario, recently, twenty-something Ashley Kirilow faked cancer for both attention and money. She went as far as shaving her head and setting up a bogus charity. She recently received a 10-month house arrest sentence.

In a different context, Paula Bonhomme was recently the victim of a cruel fake online love affair. The firefighter she fell in love with (and later died) never existed. His friends and family members didn’t exist either—they were all imaginary characters, part of an epic lie imagined by Janna St. James, who is now being sued for misrepresentation.

What’s the common point between these three recent stories? A manipulative person was behind them and concocted elaborate lies a lot of people believed in—the scale of these scams is quite impressive. When the fraud is exposed, reactions from the public are usually very intense and outrage is the norm. But if these cases are brought to justice, sentences are typically light because no one was hurt physically and deception is hard to measure.

Who would fake an illness or invent multiple characters to deceive someone? Con-artists, as this journalist pointed out, but also attention seekers who want to be under the spotlight and get sympathy or people who want to avoid dealing with their real problems. Like Howard Richman, a former vice president who faked cancer for three years in order to avoid an SEC investigation.

So, should we start doubting everyone online? Well, I must admit when people want something from me I tend to be suspicious as first and often double-check the request. And trust me, I do get a lot through this blog. I give to charities (mostly to Kiva) but only to the ones I know, not to random door-to-door canvassers. And I trust my guts. In the Salomé/Odile case, a lot of her “friends” later reported having doubts about her story but they felt bad expressing them because really, who would fake an illness? Bottom line is, some people are ready to go very far to get what they want. Keeping your eyes open won’t hurt!

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  1. Jeruen April 30, 2011 at 8:52 am

    See, the thing is that most people believe easily. It’s the same principle, from phishing emails to these scammers. I guess for some people, humans are inherently good (I believe the opposite, that humans are inherently evil), that they just immediately sympathize with these stories up to the point that they sympathize with their wallets. I guess it wouldn’t hurt to assume that everything is fiction until proven otherwise.

    1. Zhu April 30, 2011 at 9:46 pm

      In addition to believing humans are inherently good (after all, nothing wrong with that), a lot of scammed people are motivated by greed. Not in these examples though but mostly with email scams.

      1. Jeruen May 1, 2011 at 9:42 am

        Ah, very true! I guess I have so many extended dead relatives in Nigeria and Benin and Togo now, every now and then, these relatives still try to contact me for my help!

  2. Katherina April 30, 2011 at 8:55 am

    That’s terrible! I had heard about some stories of people lying about their identity on their blog, but I hadn’t heard of people faking an illness. That’s just going too far!

    1. Zhu April 30, 2011 at 9:46 pm

      It’s actually super common from what I learned when I researched this article. You wouldn’t believe how many people were busted the last few years!

  3. Shawn April 30, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    It’s amazing what lengths people will go to in order to draw attention to themselves: claim that they’ve been abducted by aliens, pretend that they’re gay by declaring they’re coming out of the closet, televangelists who are atheists… They say that one of the big reasons people commit crimes is simply to draw attnetion to themselves. It’s all about ego. The world could use a dose of humility for sure.

    1. Zhu April 30, 2011 at 9:47 pm

      Yeah, people take their “15 minutes of fame” a bit too literally… When did we become such attention-seekers!

  4. Em May 20, 2011 at 6:59 pm

    I find that quite fascinating to be honest. I don’t approve of the scamming bit and the rtrust issue, but still the creation of a complete fictive person is somewhat… fascinating.

    On a related matter, although nobody gets harmed or loses money, are the spam/chain emails or statuses on FB. They have become so meaningless. You can be guaranteed that everyweek, one of your friend will post as a status “I have my own reasons, but I know most of you won’t repost this status. Please, if you know someone who has been affected by cancer, put this status up as your status for at least an hour”. That really anoys me because most people read these statuses, so it loses its purpose to raise awareness.
    The breast cancer one was quite imaginative and funny though. Women were supposed to put as their statuses where they liked to leave their handbag (“I like it on the kitchen table”, and so on). It was good for the 1st two years as it was new and fresh and got people wonder and maybe raised a bit of awareness (although I’m not sure about that), but it will certainly not work next year.
    If you really want to raise awareness on these social website, then post a link to a good article explaining the cause you defend.

    Wow! Looks like I got a bit off-track here. I obviously had somethig to say!

    1. Zhu May 20, 2011 at 8:16 pm

      I also find scams and scammers fascinating. Some of these scams are so elaborate, these people have imagination!

      I also get annoyed with all the meaningless “awareness” BS. It’s a cheap way to feel good, I mean, what good does a FB status do?

    1. Zhu June 10, 2011 at 9:18 pm

      I have to read that! I’d say scam but…

      1. Em June 13, 2011 at 12:55 pm

        Yup, scam! A married guy in Edinburgh… There are updates in The Guardian today.

  5. Pingback: There’s a Weird New Scammer in Nantes…

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