Iowa Woman Raised $37,000 on GoFundMe Claiming She Had 3 Forms of Cancer. Police Say It Was All a Lie

Madison Russo

In October 2022, 19-year-old Iowa college student Madison Russo opened up about the devastating cancer diagnosis she said she’d received eight months earlier.

“I feel like I’ve been rocked to my soul, and right now, everything is kind of uncertain,” the Bettendorf resident told the North Scott Press about purportedly being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at such a young age. “I just want to know my game plan, and right now, I don’t know what that is.”

As it turns out, it was all a lie, according to the Eldridge Police Department.

Russo allegedly used that lie to bilk nearly $38,000 from 439 unsuspecting donors on a GoFundMe account she created by falsely claiming she had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, Stage II Pancreatic Cancer, and a football-sized tumor that was wrapped around her spine, the Eldridge Police Department said in a statement obtained by PEOPLE.

Madison Russo

She made videos on Tik Tok about her plight, and was photographed with a dog wearing a purple “Team Maddie” bandana around its neck.

On Jan. 23, Russo was arrested and charged with theft by means of deception, a class C felony.

She was arrested while she was in class at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, according to the statement.

Madison Russo

She was taken to Scott County Jail where she was held on a $10,000 cash bond, which she later posted.

Locals and donors alike are shocked, especially since Russo had shared her story so convincingly on social media, on a podcast, as a guest speaker at St. Ambrose University and at the National Pancreatic Foundation in Chicago and in a lengthy interview with the North Scott Press, a newspaper covering Scott County, Iowa.

“Now I am sickened, not for my $200, but that now I have to hesitate about helping others,” one anonymous donor told WQAD.

Telling the North Scott Press she was given an 11 percent survival rate for five years, she said she underwent the first of 15 rounds of oral chemotherapy and 90 rounds of radiation.

“Eleven percent,” she told the paper. “At 19 years old, I don’t know if I will live to see the day I graduate from college, get married, or become a mom. In the meantime, I will fight.”

Russo told the paper that while undergoing her arduous treatments, she was still able to secure a “dream internship” with John Deere and end the semester with a 3.85 grade point average.

She even told the paper she had gone to the Mayo Clinic for a consultation to “get another opinion.”

While Russo talked publicly about her cancer diagnosis and posted about it on social media, “witnesses who have medical experience” thought something was amiss, according to the police statement.

On Jan. 11, those anonymous witnesses met with an investigating officer at the Eldridge Police Department and “pointed out many medical discrepancies found on her pictures posted on her social media sites,” Chief of Police Joseph Sisler said in the statement.

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“It was discovered through investigation, that separate and apart from the medical discrepancies, and from the GoFundMe page, Madison accepted private donations from other businesses, non-profit organizations, school districts and private citizens,” he continued.

“The names of the victims will not be released at this time as we are still trying to collect the information from all victims,” add Sisler.

During the investigation, subpoenas for medical records were obtained that “showed that Madison had never been diagnosed with any kind of cancer or tumor from any medical facilities within the Quad Cities or surrounding cities,” he said in the statement.

Police executed a search warrant at Russo’s apartment in Bettendorf “where officers did find items of evidentiary value,” he said in the statement. “Because this is an ongoing investigation, we cannot discuss what was found.”

According to court documents obtained by KWQC, investigators seized medical supplies, bank records, an IV pole, a feeding pump, a wig, money, pills for nausea that were prescribed under a relative’s name and a 2023 Kia Sportage.

Thomas Bouland, who organized the GoFundMe, took it down, WQAD reports.

He bailed Russo out of jail, according to court documents, WQAD reports.

It is unclear how Bouland and Russo know each other.

In a statement obtained by PEOPLE, GoFundMe said it “has a zero tolerance policy for misuse of our platform and cooperates with law enforcement investigations of those accused of wrongdoing.

“All donors have been refunded and we have removed this fundraiser.

“The beneficiary has also been banned from using the platform for any future fundraisers. GoFundMe’s Giving Guarantee offers a full refund in the rare case when something isn’t right; this is the first and only donor protection guarantee in the fundraising industry.”

It is unclear whether Russo has obtained an attorney who can comment on her behalf.

Russo is scheduled to return to court on March 2 for her arraignment.

Not all donors are without sympathy for Russo.

“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,” Louis Frillman, who donated $500 to the GoFundMe, told WQAD.

When he received his refund, he told the outlet, “I thought she had passed away.”

Eldridge police are also asking those who donated to Russo’s fundraiser to contact the department at 563-285-3916 or by emailing them at