Recently, an unbelievable story made the headlines in France. For three year, a number of internauts 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 isn’t fair: 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. The list of all her health issues 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 break the taboo and start to 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 hospitals she says she is a patient in doesn’t know 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, that’s another story.
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 of 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 wants 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!