It's a familiar story: People reach out to friends and family on Facebook or on a blog to say they have cancer and need help paying for treatments, or for last wishes. Those friends and family members then reach out to others, and donations come pouring in.
But it turns out many of these people aren't sick at all and now stand accused of lying about illnesses to con people out of money.
Ashley Kirilow is one of the latest alleged perpetrators. Kirilow's father told "Good Morning America" that his 23-year-old daughter posted a message on her Facebook page telling people she was dying and asking for donations for a charity called Change for a Cure. He said he confronted her about it, and she admitted to not having cancer at all. According to Canada's Halton Regional Police Service, which is handling the case, Kirilow is now charged with three counts of fraud less than $5,000 and one count of fraud more than $5,000. She will appear in court again Aug. 19. Police said they do not yet know who Kirilow's attorney is.
In an interview with the Toronto Star, she admitted to the hoax and said she did it to get attention and to get back at her family for her unhappy childhood.
Kirilow's Facebook page is still active, and is peppered with hate-filled messages.
Early last year, 37-year-old Dina Leone of Baltimore also reached out to friends on Facebook and told them she had stage four stomach cancer. She asked her old classmates to donate money to help her out with doctor visits, treatments and living out her final wishes.
Baltimore County prosecutors said the whole story was a lie, and charged Leone with theft and conspiracy. Calls to the Baltimore County State's Attorney's office and to Leone's attorney weren't returned, but according to Baltimore's ABC2, Leone pleaded guilty to the charges and is awaiting sentencing. She could spend up to 15 years in prison. She told Baltimore's WJZ-TV she lied because her husband was abusive, a charge Patrick Leone denied through his attorney.
In 2008, Chattanooga, Tenn., city employee Keele Maynor kept an online blog detailing her struggles with breast cancer. Authorities said she lied about having cancer and received donations of money and services from a local hospital and charity organizations. She was charged with nine felony counts of theft and forgery.
Her lawyer, Stuart Brown, said she received a sentence of 3½ years in prison, but the maximum she'll serve is 25 months. He also said she must pay back $30,000 of the money she received, even though he said she probably owed $150,000.
"She's doing well under the circumstances," said Brown. "She understands the sentence and is very repentant." He also said she'd receive counseling while in prison.
Cancer Charity Frauds: Why They Do It
"Fraudsters engage in scams for a variety of reasons, but [they] often choose this path because it works enough of the time to make it a profitable activity," said Monroe Friedman, emeritus professor of psychology at Eastern Michigan University.
"They see the vulnerable side of people and take advantage of people and hurt them," said Dr. Ken Robbins, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Experts also said many people who commit this type of fraud don't have a conscience.
"Since they are seldom burdened by guilt or shame relateing to their illegal maneuvers, they often continue bilking innocents until they're caught," said Friedman.
Keele Maynor's attorney, however, said his client's remorse is genuine.
"She's very interested in paying the people back," said Stuart Brown, her attorney.
Unfortunately, legitimate charities are hurt by the type of fraud allegedly perpetrated by Kirilow, Leone and Maynor. Stories about scams make it harder for them to raise money, because people tend to lump all charitable causes together, said Jill O'Donnell-Tormey, executive director of the Cancer Research Institute.
"People think we are all the same thing, and all these organizations are suspect," said O'Donnell-Tormey.
Some experts believe that many people who perpetrate scams are mentally ill.
"They're not necessarily psychopaths, but it's the kind of behavior that tends to attract psychopaths," said Robbins. "There are also some people who believe they have cancer but really don't. They may be hypochondriacs or suffer from delusions, but that's a lot less common."
"Some may say that greed and selfishness are psychological disturbances," said Michael Lewis, university distinguished professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, N.J.
Robbins is skeptical that fraudsters carry out their schemes due to sheer desperation.
"People who are desperate are easier to detect. As you start to talk to them, they don't look like they're telling the truth."
Because these con artists are so skillfully manipulative, experts said it's easy for people to fall victim to their claims of a serious illness and want to help.
"If they are true psychopaths, they're good at fooling people," said Robbins. "You won't notice any signs that they're nervous."
"Most of the time, people believe you're telling the truth, which is why they can get away with it," said Robert Mitchell, foundation professor of psychology at Eastern Kentucky University.
Since Kirilow, Leone and Maynor all carried out their alleged frauds via Facebook or on blogs, their deception was all the more difficult to detect.
"It's easier to spin the story online, because there are fewer signs that their story is implausible," said Mitchell.
Even though the victims of these crimes don't suffer physical injuries, experts said these crimes are particularly heinous because of their emotional toll.
"It leaves people feeling betrayed and questioning whether they should be so kind," said Robbins. "They not only feel angry at the person but angry at themselves."
"How can we survive if we have to be suspicious of everyone," said Mitchell.