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Iowa woman arrested after allegedly faking cancer and collecting more than $37,000 in online donations, police say

A 19-year-old woman from Iowa, who is accused of faking a cancer diagnosis and collecting more than $37,000 in donations, was arrested on Jan. 23 for theft by means of deception, the Eldridge Police Department said.

The suspect, Madison Russo, allegedly tricked more than 439 donors into believing that she had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, stage 2 pancreatic cancer and "a football-sized tumor wrapped around her spine," the police's press release said. 

According to the police, Russo shared posts about her "cancer journey" on TikTok, set up a GoFundMe page and even gave an interview to a local newspaper, the North Scott Press. She also allegedly openly discussed her story at St. Ambrose University as a guest speaker, as well as through The National Pancreatic Foundation in Chicago and a podcast for Project Purple, the press release said.

"Of course, every day can't be sunshine and rainbows, but you can't just choose to be mad at the cancer. It just happens to people," Russo told the North Scott Press. "If you stay depressed, and in a dark space, I feel like your body will never get better."

According to the Eldridge police, witnesses with medical backgrounds came forward and pointed out discrepancies in photos from Russo's social media posts to investigators. The witnesses said they wished to remain unnamed, the police said. Additionally, subpoenaed medical records showed that Russo "had never been diagnosed with any kind of cancer or tumor from any medical facilities within the Quad Cities or surrounding cities," the news release added.

The National Pancreas Foundation, which helps advocate for pancreatic cancer patients and fund research for treatments and therapies, said Russo's alleged actions may have prevented patients who actually needed help from getting it.

"There are thousands of patients, families and caregivers battling this terrible disease and Ms. Russo's actions have taken away valuable resources from these patients."" said NPF CEO David Bakelman in a statement to CBS News. 

GoFundMe said that it has a "zero-tolerance policy" for misuse of its platforms and that it is cooperating with law enforcement in the case.

"All donors have been refunded and we have removed this fundraiser," the company told CBS News in a statement. "The beneficiary has also been banned from using the platform for any future fundraisers."

Eldridge Police said that in addition to the GoFundMe page, Russo accepted private donations from businesses, non-profit organizations, school districts and private citizens. Authorities are now asking for help in locating additional people, organizations or businesses who may have donated to Russo.

Russo did not respond to a request for comment.

Police conducted a search warrant at Russo's residence and found items that could be used as evidence in this case. However, officials said they were not allowed to discuss what was found.

After her arrest, Russo posted $10,000 bond and is due in court next month.

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