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Charity Frauds and Cancer Scams

• December 18, 2013 • 12:00 PM

(PHOTO: ZIMMYTWS/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Preying on people’s very best impulses for the very worst reasons.

A notorious con man was sentenced to 28 years in prison on Monday, marking the end of “a long and occasionally colorful trial,” as the Cleveland Plain-Dealer put it. That is, his rapsheet was notorious—his true identity, however, was only recently revealed. Last year, a con man going by the name and title of “Commander Bobby Thompson” was arrested after two years on the lam. “Thompson” had raised approximately $100 million through a bogus charity that he founded, The United States Navy Veterans Association. In jail and later on trial, the man still refused to give his actual name, signing papers as “Mr. X.” He was eventually identified by military fingerprint records as John Donald Cody, 57, a former intelligence officer. So, in a sense, Cody was raising money for a veteran—but only for one: himself.

Along with the 28 years in prison and a hefty fine, Judge Steven Gall ordered that Cody spend every Veterans Day of his prison term in solitary confinement.  Judge Gall had some harsh words for Cody when he delivered the sentence. “[It is] difficult to try to measure the amount of harm your greed has caused,” said Gall, according to ABC News. “All the worthy organizations that count on small donations from good citizens to help further their cause … they are now struggling for money because people are afraid to give.”

Just last week, a 21-year-old Long Island woman admitted in court that she had pretended to have cancer in order to raise money to support her heroin addiction.

These scams can do far more damage than just to the individual donors who got bilked out of their cash. Charity fraud preys on our best impulses for the worst reasons, and threatens to cause mistrust of charitable giving in general. There’s another type of charity fraud that’s even more insidious, too, for its personal, direct appeal for help.

Just last week, a 21-year-old Long Island woman admitted in court that she had pretended to have cancer in order to raise money to support her heroin addiction. Brittany Ozarowski said she raised thousands of dollars by inventing a deadly illness to family members, friends, and neighbors. In addition to a very pathetic-looking website, Ozarowski placed at least two dozen donation jars in local restaurants and stores, according to the Associated Press. Her grandmother even sold her house in order to donate $100,000 for treatment. “Her figure, riddled by her drug addiction, played a convincing role in the hoax: prosecutors say Ozarowski weighed only 80 pounds and took a photo of herself in a wheelchair,” the New York Daily News reported.

Even more depressing are the stories in which the fake cancer patients are innocent kids—kids who are told by parents that they’re sick when they’re not. Earlier this year, a New Jersey mom who had told family and friends that her son had colon cancer to bilk money from them was arrested. Susan Morris Stillwaggon was charged with theft, forgery, endangering the welfare of a child, and using a juvenile to commit a criminal offense. Similar stories like this one have popped up in Nevada, Ohio, and Alabama. There’s a term for a pathological, unconscious version of this type of fabrication, called “Munchausen Syndrome by proxy.” Maybe some of these cases would fall under this category, or maybe the perpetrators are just plain old con-women. (It may be in the DSM-5, but it’s still a crime.)

It’s these types of stories that threaten to make cynics of us all. But don’t stop giving help to those in need, especially if the holiday spirit moves you to donate more than you normally would. Just make sure the organization is legit. For the bigger charities, you can check them out before you pledge, at either the Better Business Bureau or the Federal Trade Commission. For the little ones, like a skinny girl photographed in a wheelchair, taking donations on a website that she’s put up herself, you’ll just have to trust your gut.

Lauren Kirchner
Lauren Kirchner is the Web editor of The Baffler. She has written for the Columbia Journalism Review, Capital New York, Slate, The Awl, The Hairpin, and many others. Follow her on Twitter @lkirchner.

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