- Munchausen by Internet is an extension of Munchausen syndrome and Munchausen by proxy.
- Also known as factitious disorders, Munchausen syndromes involve faking illness for attention and sympathy.
- A major tip-off for Munchausen by Internet is frequent and improbable drama.
Last year, a California woman was sentenced to five years in prison for an online scheme that netted her over $105,000 in donations. Amanda Christine Riley, age 37, cultivated followers on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and her blog, “Lymphoma Can Suck It” as she documented her alleged multi-year struggle with cancer. But it was all a lie. The donations she solicited to cover medical expenses went to pay her living expenses, the Justice Department said.
Riley even shaved her head to simulate the side effects of chemotherapy and produced fake medical records to convince her credulous fans. In addition to her internet followers, she swindled friends, family members, and people at her church. Riley reportedly attacked anyone who suggested her cancer claims were false. On at least one occasion, she threatened to sue someone who questioned her condition. The scheme, which began in 2012, unraveled in 2019 when the Internal Revenue Service and San Jose police began investigating. At sentencing the judge ordered Riley to make full restitution and to serve three years of post-release probation.
The Great Pretenders
Munchausen syndrome (also known as factitious disorder) is a chronic condition that involves repeated fabrication and exaggeration of disease symptoms to gain attention and sympathy. Munchausen by proxy (or factitious disorder imposed on another) occurs when caregivers deliberately make a dependent person sick to force medical attention and intervention. Mothers inducing illness in their children are the types of Munchausen by proxy cases usually reported by the media. A famous example is the case of Gypsy Rose Blanchard and her mother, Dee Dee Blanchard.
The term “Munchausen by Internet,” while not a recognized clinical diagnosis, has come into use because of cases like that of Amanda Christine Riley. It is no longer a rarity for someone to be outed as a healthy person feigning illness online to attract a following and exploit them for profit. These are actually Munchausen syndrome cases, but typically such people can only fool those they know personally. Thanks to social media, the con can be perpetrated against a vast audience.
Writing for the Southern Medical Journal, Marc D. Feldman, M.D. introduced the term “Munchausen by Internet” in 2000. The date of that article illustrates just how long factitious fraudsters have been going online to lure others into their sick fantasies. Below are some additional examples.
- Nicole Elkabbas, a 44-year-old woman in England, conned well-wishers out of £45,000 by pretending to have ovarian cancer.1
- Madison Russo, age 19, has been arrested in Iowa and charged with deceiving 439 people into believing she had “acute lymphoblastic leukemia, stage 2 pancreatic cancer and "a football-sized tumor wrapped around her spine." She allegedly raked in $37,000.2
- Lindsey Abbuhl, a 35-year-old mother in Ohio, claimed her 11-year-old daughter, Rylee, was battling “central nervous system failure,” and raised $4,500 before the scheme was exposed. This would be a case of Munchausen by Internet by proxy.3
- Monique Alexis Coria, a 28-year-old Arizona mother, allegedly raised $11,000 by falsely claiming that her baby has brain cancer.4
- Belle Gibson, a 25-year-old Australian who falsely claimed to have beaten brain cancer, developed a following of 300,000 and raised about $410,000.5
A common thread through many of these cases is an abundance of improbable drama—lots of cliffhangers like a soap opera, heartbreaking setbacks, miraculous recoveries, and so on. Descriptions of symptoms that mimic the wording used by the blogs and social media accounts of others suffering the same disease can also be a tip-off. Inconsistent details in the story being told should certainly raise red flags. The longer their deception goes on, and the more elaborate it becomes, the more likely they are to trip over small details.
The cynical manipulation of the public’s trust by these callous opportunists diverts financial aid from critically ill patients who really need it and discourages people from donating at all. The only benefit is that these scammers are easily exposed and will find it difficult to build trust or receive generosity again.
“The two most important words in the world are honesty and sincerity. If you can fake these, you've got it made.”—Groucho Marx
© Dale Hartley. Connect with me on social media.