Iowa Woman Admits to Faking Cancer Diagnosis to Bilk Donors of $37K, Facing 10 Years in Prison

Madison Russo
Madison Russo Instagram

A woman from Bettendorf, Iowa, who was accused of scamming $37,000 from donors via a GoFundMe fundraiser by faking cancer has pleaded guilty to first-degree theft.

Online court records say Madison Russo, now 20, had a plea hearing on Wednesday. She had initially pleaded not guilty in February. Russo will now face a judge for sentencing – a maximum of 10 years in prison.

Russo's Scam Unravelled After Netizens Noticed Medical Discrepancies in Photos She Posted

Russo, who was 19 at the time, claimed to have acute lymphoblastic leukemia, stage 2 pancreatic cancer, and a football-sized tumor wrapped around her spine.

Russo's case made national headlines following her arrest in February. Eldridge police began their investigation in January after anonymous witnesses with medical experience told detectives about some medical discrepancies found in photos that she had posted on various social media sites, including Facebook and LinkedIn.

Russo also shared her story publicly through social media and a GoFundMe page, which was featured in the North Scott Press newspaper on Oct. 18. Russo also discussed her cancer journey as a guest speaker at St. Ambrose University, The National Pancreatic Foundation and on the Project Purple podcast.

Russo Used Photos Sources from Other Cancer Patients

Madison Russo
Madison Russo's GoFundMe page Twitter

According to an arrest affidavit, certain photographs used by were sourced from the social media profiles of genuine cancer patients and were deceitfully presented as Russo's own. Investigators issued a subpoena for Russo's medical records and discovered that she had never received a cancer diagnosis in the Quad Cities or neighboring areas.

GoFundMe ended up refunding the money that had been donated to her.

"My thinking is, say a prayer for this young kid, because she's going to have a lot of terrible consequences as a result of this," donor Louis Frillman told News 8 back in January, explaining that empathy was the key ingredient in his $500 donation.

Frillmen was one of over 400 donors across the country who contributed to the campaign, and as GoFundMe began rolling out refunds, he and many others were surprised. "I thought she had passed away," Frillman said.

Another donor, who asked to not be on camera, told News 8 that the scam is impacting their ability to trust others in need of help. "Now I am sickened, not for my $200, but that now I have to hesitate about helping others," they said.