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10 Shocking Reasons People Faked Deadly Illnesses

by Gordon Gora
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Most people may have come up with exaggerated stories of being sick in the past to get out of school or work, but others have taken this tactic to the extreme for various ends. Whether it was for money, sympathy, or even to hide personal problems, faking serious illness almost always leads to being caught by authorities and universal shame.

10For Cash


Photo via The Daily Beast

This is the first and most obvious reason a person might fake an illness. Imagine you have a family and become too sick to support them. Wouldn’t it seem reasonable that someone might try to help you out in your time of need? Sadly, there are people out there who are perfectly willing to fake illnesses to dupe generous well-wishers. Mandy Hargraves was one of these people.

A 34-year-old mother of two, Hargraves was estranged from her husband and struggling to make ends meet. She then decided that she was going to have stage-4 stomach cancer. Her husband returned to her, and she put up a GoFundMe page for herself. It was remarkably successful, and a movement formed around her called “Mandy Strong.” Her kids were in on the scheme, as they were the first to model “Mandy Strong” T-shirts that started selling like hot cakes. In Valdosta, Georgia, where Hargraves lived, moms, cheerleaders, and other children could be spotted wearing “Mandy Strong” T-shirts, with one person wearing her T-shirt on a trip to Paris.

Soon, cracks began to show in Hargraves’s facade. Friends of hers released that doctor’s appointments she was supposedly going to were all fictional. Biopsies, scans, and MRIs were all faked, and the authorities began to get wind of what was going on.

On May 9, Hargraves was allegedly carrying pistols to a friend of hers for safekeeping when one went off nearly killing her. Some believe that it was an attempted suicide. She turned herself in for fraud and her GoFundMe was taken down. She now faces a year in prison and possible $1,000 fine.

9To Get Out Of Prison


Photo credit: Pat Dowell/NPR

The case of Steven Jay Russell is so famous that it inspired a movie, I Love You, Philip Morris. The Philip Morris in the title was the object of Russell’s affections. The two met each other in a prison library in 1995. After they were released on parole later that year, Russell conned his way into a high executive position at a medical company, which he stole from to fund a lavish lifestyle for himself and Morris. From there, Russell engineered several daring escapes from prison so he could be with Morris.

In 1998, he came up with his most elaborate plan yet: a 10-month deterioration from AIDS. Being openly gay, he easily got prison officials to believe him. He quit eating and took laxatives so he would waste away. He read about AIDS and faked textbook symptoms. He even wrote fake medical files on a prison library typewriter and sent them to the prison’s own internal system. His fraud went so well that none of the prison doctors ever actually tested him for AIDS.

He then pretended to be his own doctor over the phone with prison officials. They agreed to let him out of prison to participate in a nonexistent medical program; finally, three weeks later, as the fake doctor, Russell called the prison and informed them that he had died. He then went back to be with Morris. He was caught again and is now serving a 144-year prison sentence.

8To Gain Internet Attention


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Faking illness to get views online is so common that psychiatrist Mark Feldman coined the term “Munchausen’s by Internet” in 2000, referencing the mental condition Munchausen’s disorder in which patients feign illness for attention. Bloggers have been doing this since the beginning of the Internet, and due to the anonymous nature of the web, it’s often hard to prove them wrong.

One of the most high profile cases of a blogger faking illness for attention and Internet sympathy was “David Rose,” a 24-year-old man who pretended to be both deaf and quadriplegic as a result of cerebral palsy. His case inspired thousands, and the fraud grew larger and more complex. Kim Kardashian retweeted one of his quotes. He wrote a blog called “Dave on Wheels” and had a Facebook page and a Twitter, all of which had huge numbers of followers and readers. He claimed to be able to write using a Tobii computer that had an infrared light that tracked his eye movements.

His ruse began to fall apart in 2012 when his “sister” claimed he had contracted pneumonia and that she was writing his “last blog post.” One of his readers soon looked up the photo on his blog and discovered that it was actually a photograph of a young man named Hunter Dunn on the Tobii website. Entertainment website theCHIVE discovered the truth by going to Los Angeles where Dave Rose’s funeral was supposedly being held. His “sister” refused to meet them, and they found that many of his tweets had been sent using TweetDeck, which a Tobii ocular reader couldn’t use.

With the hoax uncovered, an anonymous blogger identifying themselves as Nichole Rose confessed to being “Dave Rose,” saying in part, “David was just a character, a part of my psyche, and fame would soon reveal what it has revealed today. So, the character passed. In hindsight it probably would have been better just to shut it all down and have everyone wonder what the hell happened . . . ”

7To Hide A Pornography Addiction


Photo credit: Channel 7

Michael Guglielmucci seemed to be a completely innocuous youth pastor at a church in Melbourne when he was embroiled in a scandal like none other. It would lead to him gaining international sympathy, a hit Christian song, and an inspiring story, but this all came crashing down when his deception was unmasked in 2008.

In 2006, Guglielmucci told his congregation that he had terminal blood cancer. He went to great lengths to keep up his fraud by shaving his head and wearing an oxygen mask. He used his tragic illness as the inspiration to write a gospel song, “Healer,” which became a worldwide hit. In a dramatic moment, he even wore an oxygen mask onstage when he sang the song. The song became so popular that is was featured on the Sydney Hillsong Church album This is our God, which only served to spread Guglielmucci’s phony story. Soon, his friends started a Facebook donation page, which only complicated Guglielmucci’s situation.

Finally, he admitted to the fraud on Australian television two years after his announcement. This wasn’t the end of this bizarre tale, though: The reason for Guglielmucci’s fraud was to hide a severe pornography addiction, which his father claimed started when he was 12. Over the next 16 years, Guglielmucci’s problem only worsened, with him all the while serving in different positions at his church and even getting married. Finally, he concocted his story of being terminally ill because he said he would get “sick” from leading a double life.

His parents apparently didn’t know he was faking as they were shocked when he confessed. After he confessed to the hoax, his wife started going to counseling to salvage what was left of their marriage, and he began to receive psychiatric treatment for his pornography addiction.

6To Terrorize A Lecturer


Sally Retallack first met Elisa Bianco in 2009. Bianco was 16 years old and had enrolled in a course that Retallack was lecturing at St. Austell College. They soon became close, but six years later, Bianco informed Retallack that she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Retallack took pity on her and spent over £2,000 to finance a trip for Bianco. This act of generosity would kick off several months of torment by Bianco.

According to Retallack, Bianco told her she had just three months to live after being diagnosed with a malignant tumor in 2015. Claiming to have been a victim of abuse, Retallack took Bianco into her home and catered to her every need. She dropped Bianco off at the hospital every day so she could receive treatment. Instead of this, Bianco would simply sit in the hospital cafe in her pajamas and apply fake bandages over her head.

The strain of taking care of Bianco began to weigh on Retallack’s marriage. Bianco even began to use mind games to drive Retallack and her husband apart. The two became estranged because of this, but Bianco already had someone in mind for her caregiver.

She introduced Retallack to a man named John who claimed to be a freshly widowed consultant physician. Except John wasn’t a real person at all. He was Bianco pretending to be him online. During phone calls with Retallack, Bianco would assume a husky voice to pass as the fictional love interest. But before Retallack could meet John, Bianco made up a cancer diagnosis for him also and killed him off.

Once Retallack uncovered Bianco’s ruse, she was taken to court, where the judge called the matter the “most extraordinary case [he] had to deal with in a long time.” He sentenced Bianco to 32 months in prison, although an appeals judge cut the sentence to 28 months in 2016.

5To Hide Being A Mafia Boss


Photo credit: Jack Smith

Vincente “The Chin” Gigante was one of the powerful Mafia bosses in New York for decades, but he got away with his criminal career because of a decades-long elaborate ruse in which he pretended to be schizophrenic. He did so well at this that he fooled numerous FBI agents, court-appointed psychiatrists, and even other Mafia figures into thinking that he was too crazy to be the violent man he really was.

Anytime he was charged with a crime, his lawyers would claim he only had an IQ of 69–72, well below average. He lived with his mother in her Greenwich Village apartment and was often seen walking in his pajamas with an aid mumbling to himself. His alleged insanity earned him the nickname “the Oddfather.”

He first successfully used the mental incompetence plea in 1969. For the next several years, no one could find any proof that he was not as crazy as he claimed. The famous Mafia boss John Gotti, however, said that Gigante was “crazy as a fox” because of his ability to elude justice in plain sight.

In 1993 multiple charges related to being head of the Genovese family were brought against Gigante. Despite his lawyers claiming that he had been in psychiatric hospitals 28 times from 1969 to 1995, he was judged competent to stand trial in 1996. The judge presiding over his case sated that his mental illness was nothing but an “elaborate deception” until at least 1991. In 1997, Gigante was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison along with a $1.25 million fine. He died in 2005 at the age of 77.

4To Get A Late-Term Abortion


Photo credit: Fox 10

Chalice Zeitner was a member of an Arizona state health program that was supposed to help her as needed. In 2010, Zeitner discovered she was pregnant but waited too long for her state insurer to help. Facing either difficult finances from paying the full cost for an abortion or taking care of a child, Zeitner decided to go down an altogether unique road: She would fake terminal cancer so she could get her late-term abortion funded by the state’s healthcare system.

The only way her state insurer would pay for the late term abortion was if it would endanger the mother’s life—in this case, she needed the abortion so she could receive her “treatments.” She went on to forge documents to try and convince her OB-GYN that she legitimately needed to terminate her pregnancy, which was then in the second trimester. At first, Zeitner claimed that she’d had both radiation treatments and chemotherapy, but her specialist said the fetus was perfectly healthy. When she said her life was on the line because of stage IV abdominal cancer, The OB-GYN eventually gave her the abortion, which cost around $6,000.

A year later, he delivered a different baby from her via C-section and became suspicious because he saw no signs of cancer or any cancer treatments. He then filed a report, which caught the attention of authorities. The doctor who was said to have treated her cancer said that she had never been one of his patients.

It soon became clear that her fraud extended further. She scammed one charity out of $7,700 worth of tickets for various events, convinced her boyfriend to set up a fraudulent media account for her treatment, and even used the identity of the head of a veterans charity to open a credit card account. Of course these were serious charges, all of which Zeitner denied. In court, her attorney stated several times that she legitimately thought she had cancer even though there was absolutely no proof. The jury didn’t believe her, and she was found guilty on all counts on June 25, 2016. She is currently awaiting sentencing.

3To Market A “Cancer” Diet


Photo credit: Sydney Morning Herald

Belle Gibson seemed to be an inspirational figure in the wellness community. She was diagnosed with a terminal form of brain cancer in 2009 but fought it off with changes in her diet and lifestyle. By 2014, Gibson had created her own cottage industry based around her wellness lifestyle. She had a website, a book, and an app, all of which were highly successful. The only problem with all of this was that she never actually had cancer.

According to Gibson, she withdrew from chemotherapy and healed herself using her own holistic lifestyle. It all seemed too good to be true. She spawned her diet into an Instagram account, which gathered around 200,000 followers, and created an app that immediately became widely acclaimed. She wrote a book called The Whole Pantry. In the weeks before it was supposed to be released in the United States and Great Britain, the media picked up her story and started to note many discrepancies.

She said that she’d had cancer of the spleen, liver, uterus, and blood in 2014 but said she was misdiagnosed of these by a “German magnetic therapist.” When the media asked for her medical records, she refused to release them. When asked in interviews about problems with her story, she appeared muddled and cried easily. She even admitted that she didn’t know how cancer worked. Then the biggest bombshell came in an interview with Women’s Weekly, when she admitted to the hoax but tried to excuse herself by claiming a difficult childhood and that her health problems may have been the result of the Gardasil HPV vaccine. Before her cancer fraud, she’d made other false illness claims, having said on Internet forums that she had multiple heart surgeries and once died in the table.

2To Get Faster Treatment


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In 2014, the entire world was on edge because of the return of a frightening disease: Ebola. Originating in West Africa, it soon threatened to spread to Europe, and there were fears that it might get to the United States. With health officials watching closely, there were only a few, isolated cases of Ebola in America, but when someone claimed to have the virus, all eyes were on them, and some took this to their advantage.

Beryl Rhines was one of the people to claim Ebola to their advantage. A resident of Lawton, Oklahoma, Rhines arrived at Comanche County Memorial Hospital claiming that she and her son had a fever from Ebola, which they caught from a foreign exchange student staying in her home. She and her son were immediately admitted for treatment and isolated so the virus wouldn’t spread. It became clear that neither she more her son had Ebola; records also showed that there wasn’t an African exchange student either. What was true, however, was that she was very intoxicated. She faked seizures and was belligerent during examination. After she was cleared by the hospital, she was arrested.

Another case of someone faking Ebola occurred in Columbus, Ohio, when a woman wanted to get faster treatment by saying she had the virus. Her sister claimed she had been to West Africa; she had not. Health officials in Columbus went to great lengths to isolate the woman but it was all in vain. She did indeed have a high fever but no Ebola.

1 To Get A Dream Wedding


In 2010, Jessica Vega revealed that she had terminal cancer. Her fiance Michael O’Connell and the rest of her family worked around the clock to give her the perfect dream wedding before she died. It seemed like a kind thing to do for a woman whose life was to be cut short.

Vega went as far as to shave her head and lie to her husband-to-be. She became friends with the owner of a bridal shop in Wallkill, New York, who donated a wedding dress to her. Others joined in: Tickets were given to Vega for a honeymoon in Aruba. A veil was also given, along with free jewelry. The venue for her wedding was paid for also.

However, things were about to erupt. O’Connell, who already had a child with Vega, went along with her until four months after their wedding. He realized she was lying when he found a forged letter supposedly written by her doctor about her cancer. He presented his collected evidence to the local paper, and the authorities began to investigate. O’Connell, meanwhile, took their daughter, moved to Virginia, and divorced Vega.

Everyone was flabbergasted that Vega would prey on people, something her ex-husband attributed to mental illness. Vega was charged with multiple crimes but got off with a misdemeanor. She was ordered to pay $13,000 in restitution but was released after 50 days for time served. This wasn’t the end of this bizarre tale, though: In 2012, after Vega was done with her sentence, she and her husband got back together and had a second child. O’Connell was quoted as saying “I tried to hate her.”

Gordon Gora is a struggling author who is desperately trying to make it. He is working on several projects but until he finishes one, he will write for Listverse for his bread and butter. You can write him at [email protected].

fact checked by Jamie Frater