Hoax Hunter Taryn Harper Wright Claims to Expose People Who Fake Illnesses and Ask for Money

Taryn Harper Wright, a 37-year-old former futures trader from Chicago, prides herself on being called the Internet’s premier fake illness detective.PlayABC News
WATCH Hoax Hunter Claims to Expose People Who Fake Illness, Ask for Money

It's a heartbreaking saga of cancer.

Jason Taylor Martinez apparently stricken with three brain tumors, three stomach tumors and now has stage four bone cancer, so his husband Julian Baker made a passionate plea for help and money on the crowdfunding Internet site GoFundMe.

There's just one problem: Taryn Harper Wright thinks they're lying.

Wright, a 37-year-old former futures trader from Chicago, prides herself on being called the Internet's premier fake illness detective.

"My name is Taryn Harper Wright, and I am a hoax hunter," Wright told ABC News' "Nightline." "I used to read Nancy Drew books. I mean it's sort of something like that, sort of getting to the bottom of a story." Wright said she's cracked 17 cases of suspected illness fraud in the last 3 years, part of the soaring Internet crime rate that the FBI says costs consumers $800 million a year. Wright is a contributor for Fusion, a joint venture between ABC News and Univision.

The first hoax that she busted in 2013 involved a 6-year-old supposed cancer survivor Eli Dirr, known as "Warrior Eli." Eli's thousands of online supporters wore bracelets and ribbons sent in care packages from his family in Saskatchewan, Canada. The bracelets were mailed from the U.S., by Emily Dirr, who was supposedly the sister of Eli's dad.

But Wright was skeptical and tried searching the Web for other places the Dirr photos might have appeared. She found that an image of Eli's siblings in sunglasses, which had been posted on their dad's supposed Facebook page, had also appeared on the site of popular South African mommy blogger Tertia Albertyn.

Ultimately, Wright learned that Emily Dirr had created the fake Dirr family out of whole cloth. Emily Dirr declined ABC News' invitation for an interview through her attorney at the time, but she offered an apology to the Internet community that she had betrayed, which Wright posted on her website. Emily Dirr has not been charged with any crime.

"I didn't realize until after the first case, the first hoax that I uncovered, how much this impacted people," Wright said.

In her latest case about Jason Taylor Martinez and Julian Baker's GoFundMe plea for help, Wright said she believes Martinez doesn't really have cancer, but that it is in part a psychological behavioral condition related to Munchausen syndrome, coupled with their ploy for money.

"Munchausen by Internet is a term I coined back in the year 2000 to refer to cases in which people go online and either lie about or exaggerate illness," psychiatrist Dr. Marc Feldman, a preeminent expert on bogus illness claims, told "Nightline." "They do that because they like the emotional gratification they get from having people pay attention to them ... all too ready to believe their false claims of illness."

One of the reasons Wright said she is convinced Martinez and Baker are lying is because Martinez doesn't seem to know the first thing about the cancer he has allegedly been battling for years.

"He can't name the type of cancer that he has. He knows it begins with a 'C,'" said Wright.

And the couple's claims of a fatal illness seem to be contradicted by Martinez's apparently healthy appearance in photographs on social media, Wright said.

Agreeing with Wright, Feldman said, "There's a photograph of him holding a child, looking robust. He had gained weight, apparently. All of those things are inconsistent with what we know about terminal cancer."

The couple even claimed on GoFundMe that Martinez has "rust in his blood" from staples allegedly left inside his body that he said put him on dialysis.

"This was among the most suspect cases I've ever seen, and I've been looking into these cases for 20 years," Feldman said.

According to Wright, the most egregious post was a photo of Martinez laying in a hospital bed and allegedly close to death from cancer and pneumonia.

"If he had pneumonia, if he had a blood pressure of 174 over 100 -- the doctor apparently told him he was on his deathbed -- he would have an oxygen mask over his face," Wright said. "He would have an IV. He would not have, again, like a mask that they give you at the airport when you have a cough."

And the monitoring machines in the photos seem to not actually be connected to Martinez' body, according to Wright's fellow skeptical bloggers.

"You would see some evidence, usually underneath the patient's gown, of some kind of wires that usually extend up into the neck area. The picture … does not portray a person who would claim these medical issues," Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency room physician at New York's Lennox Hill Hospital, explained to "Nightline." "The mask [Martinez is wearing in the photo] doesn't make sense, based on his claims that he has pneumonia or even a more serious disease like [tuberculosis]."

Baker has also been previously arrested and convicted of negotiating for worthless instruments. But Wright said this case comes down to their GoFundMe page, where they made repeated requests for money with a $45,000 fundraising goal.

"[They've raised] $1,870. You look at the stories of the people who have donated: 'I wish I could do so much more. I'm literally in tears right now looking at your page. May God be with you and your husband. I'll send you more when I can,'" said Wright.

Once Wright posted her findings about Martinez and Baker on her blog, people almost immediately began firing back at the couple in Facebook comments on Wright's page.

The couple insisted they were telling the truth and posted on their GoFundMe saying, "I'm really sick and going thru a lot and people wanna say this kind of stuff it hurts us bad ... Why would anyone wanna lie about anything so painful as this [sic]."

Martinez messaged Wright directly and said, "Why the hell. What the hell, it's not a hoax. Why would someone lie about being sick? I would never. That's not right … I'm not a faker. That's crazy. Why would you even say that to me? Or do that to me?"

But just four days after Wright revealed her findings, GoFundMe terminated Martinez and Baker's campaign and refunded all 60 of their donors. GoFundme told "Nightline" they removed the campaign due to a high velocity of complaints and said in a statement, "We remove any accounts that we deem to be fraudulent, ban the campaign organizer from our site, and work actively with law enforcement to help them prosecute criminal activity."

After Wright's story posted, Martinez and Baker set up a time to meet with "Nightline" to discuss their side of the story, but they cancelled at the last minute. When repeated attempts to interview them failed, "Nightline" then went to Alabama to attempt to meet them. Their landlord told "Nightline" that the couple left suddenly without notice and owed money.

Martinez and Baker later reached out to "Nightline" by email and denied they had done anything wrong and said they would speak when they were ready. As of this story's posting, the couple has yet to meet with "Nightline."

"The kind of reaction of disappearing, in real life, when confronted I think speaks to the fact that they knew on some level that they were engaged in potentially criminal conduct, and they didn't care to be prosecuted," said Dr. Feldman.