Saturday, 2 June 2012

Sick joke

Anna's six year old daughter Charly fought bravely against cancer for two years before she finally died. All her online followers were grief-stricken. Then they discovered the truth. Neither Anna or Charly existed, and the whole thing was an elaborate hoax*.

It seems such hoaxers are common, and they tell their stories with such convincing details that other people are completely taken in, to the extent of sending money and gifts and giving regular emotional support.

What on earth possesses people to carry out such deliberate frauds on the unsuspecting public and feel no guilt or shame at what they are doing? Are they simply desperate for attention? Do they enjoy portraying themselves as embattled victims? Do they just like the idea of fooling gullible people? Whatever the motive, they are cynically exploiting our trust in the genuineness of onliners, whom we assume to be telling the truth unless we discover otherwise.

The syndrome has been named "Munchausen by internet" after those individuals who pester health services with imaginary but cleverly-faked illnesses that call for extensive treatments and hospital admissions.

One woman called Cara, on the American west coast, conned her internet visitors that she had cancer, HIV, anorexia and heart problems. She posted pictures wearing an oxygen mask and feeding tube, and a video in which she struggled to speak. She was eventually rumbled, and vanished.

Many women fake pregnancy and childbirth, stealing ultrasound pictures and baby photos, and even using ultra-realistic dolls.

But even if the motive is attention-seeking, it's a very convoluted and laborious way of doing it. Why not just get onto a bus and start ranting and raving? Why not just go out in fancy dress? Why go to such ridiculous lengths, and why the need for such bare-faced deceit?

* Information from the Macmillan online cancer forum, which "Anna" joined. 
..................................................................................
PS: I've had a complaint that I haven't sufficiently acknowledged the BBC article by Jolyon Jenkins which is the source of much of the information above. I freely admit to having reused information from his article, I'm very happy to explicitly acknowledge him as the source, and I'm sorry if he got the impression the post was entirely my own work.

I also freely admit that I lift material from all sorts of media sources, as do bloggers generally, but I hope I don't give the impression that it's based on personal research. Where I use outside material, I always link to the original source, though I accept this may not be seen as explicit enough.

41 comments:

Scarlet Blue said...

I've had a teeny tiny taste of being duped compared to the story here, but it feels wretched when it happens.
It's baffling, I have no answers.
Sx

Grannymar said...

I have come across someone in blogland who pulled in a large circle of people with the stories of her 'illness' at one stage letting her blog close and faking her demise. The problem was.... curiosity got the better of her and she was found out. Naturally those who were duped dropped her like a hotcake. She is still about on the twitersphere, but I never see anyone interacting with her.

Wisewebwoman said...

A depraved form of attention getting Nick. Lonely psychopaths getting any bit of interest they can. Mentally ill.
Caveat emptor applies on the internet too.
XO
WWW

e said...

This is so sad, both for the unsuspecting and those who dupe them...How does one check out a blogger? That is an interesting question and one that could be a follow-up to this post, Nick. You raise very valid points here. Happily, I am very real and have met or received communications from bloggers who are also genuine.

Nick said...

Scarlet - I remember your post about how you had been fooled by someone for quite a while, and how upset you were when you found out.

Grannymar - Faking your own death is pretty extreme. So how did she get exposed?

www - People making up stories about themselves to get attention is probably more common than we realise. Caveat emptor indeed, but how exactly do you check out people's online credentials?

Nick said...

e - As you say, how do you check out a blogger? Especially if they have an online pseudonym and reveal very few personal details.

You can rest assured I'm genuine enough, as Grannymar, Kylie and John Self can tell you. And I'm pretty sure you lot are all genuine....

JohnD said...

I've experienced something similar to this sort of 'hoaxing' done on MSN discussion forums some years back - a whole group of people in an office setting pretended to be a single identity, hence you got a whole bunch of individual personalities bleeding into one - it went on for several years until the office group's company were taken over by another company who were 'internet adverse' to their ordinary office employees and shut down access. One of them 'fessed up' as a 'good bye' post!

CheerfulMonk said...

I would never give money to someone over the internet. I check out my charities with sites like Charity Navigator. As for being taken in by plausible stories, I suppose part of it is being creative. I get attached to people in movies, books, TV programs, etc. and they enrich my life. I also notice discrepancies in stories told my friends on the blogs. In those cases I think it's self deception more than trying to deceive someone else. It's all very interesting, but again, I don't give money for stories over the internet.

We're all a bunch of nuts just muddling along.

nursemyra said...

I worked with a young man who had Munchhausen's once. It took my colleagues and I quite a while to realise it. He just seemed to be extremely unlucky, he told us about a terrible childhood with abusive foster parents, his battle with cancer, his boyfriend's battle with cancer, there were stories of muggings, rapes, kidney failure, diverticulitis, numerous hospital admissions. None of it was true, his parents were alive and well, he'd never had a serious illness and was well known at the local hospitals and emergency departments. Very sad really. He just didn't seem to be able to stop telling lies and faking symptoms.

JohnD said...

I recall a psychiatric patient we once had who's mental condition had gone long undiagnosed and the numerous scars he had from various surgical operations by differing surgeons in different parts of the country. His body looked liked a scarred version of the 'Tattooed man'. A resident medical officer became suspicious when he again presented with mysterious abdominal pains and instead of calling in a surgeon he went for psychiatric consult! Good thing, 'cos there was nothing physically wrong with this guy.

Baino said...

A friend of a blogger Imused to visit fakedher own death! Got caught of course and was berated for it

kylie said...

it all seems like a lot of hard work, doesnt it?

i'm sure the deceit is part of the deal, these people are not everyday attention seekers, they are very much sicker than that

Nick said...

John D - A group of people pretending to be one? That's pretty wild. It must have been tricky maintaining a consistent personality.

Monk - I wouldn't give money to individuals over the internet, only big charities I'm very familiar with. I suspect some bloggers "embellish" their stories a bit, but that's harmless enough.

Nick said...

Myra - That's an appalling story. It looks like once he started making stuff up, he just couldn't stop, it became addictive. Lucky you finally found out. You must have wasted an awful lot of sympathy and concern on him.

John D - So had this guy produced all the scars himself by self-mutilating? I wonder why he was so fixated on scars?

Nick said...

Baino - So why did she fake her own death? To collect the insurance or just for some weird kick?

Kylie - I'm sure that's part of it, they get some strange enjoyment out of fooling other people and taking them for a ride. Like people who enjoy having secrets.

Rummuser said...

The answer may well be in the number of ads on the blog. Ads income goes up with number of visits, or at least should.

Nick said...

Ramana - That's a very interesting explanation, but I suspect deep-rooted psychological problems are more likely to be at the bottom of it.

Minxy said...

Oh - that is just terrible! When I read distressing stories on the Internet, I get very upset and have even been brought to tears. To find out later that it was all made-up, would make me so angry!

Macy said...

I was part of the same hoax as Scarlet - in fact I even met the hoaxer in person.
Now I'm much more suspicious of some commentators.

Nick said...

Minxy - I hope you never make such an upsetting discovery. We all assume, maybe a little rashly, that people are who they claim to be and are telling us the truth.

Nick said...

Macy - I've been suspicious of one or two visiting bloggers, but they've stopped visiting before my suspicions were resolved one way or the other.

Bijoux said...

About 5 years ago, I was part of an online forum where someone faked an entire family's death! I had seen red flags here and there, but didn't put two and two together until well into it. Oddly, the person behind it never asked for money or anything - just prayers! It was very bizarre and she was banned from the forum, but I left shortly after because I could just never trust newcomers again. It made me suspicious of everyone.

I haven't seen it in blogging and hope to hell I never do!

JohnD said...

Nick:
1. No! The group just took turns in responding to discussion points directed at 'their' identity and you got a whole lot of mixed up responses. Some arguments broke out between the 'identity and other forum members so some of the other 'identity' members would step in and make the peace.

2. The guy was faking illness symptoms and surgeons were operating on him and finding nothing - hence the scars, mostly on his abdomen, a notoriously difficult area to get a definite diagnosis and when you have surgeons who are quick with their knife .........

Nick said...

Bijoux - An entire family's death? That's really bizarre. I'm not surprised you couldn't trust any newcomers after that.

John D - Sounds like the "identity" got into a bit of a mess - a multiple personality in fact!

Of course, all the exploratory operations, I didn't think of that.

Anonymous said...

Whilst it's good that you're making your readers aware of this issue, don't you think you should give the BBC, and Jolyon Jenkins especially, credit for completely lifting their work and passing it off as your own?

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18282277

Scarlet Blue said...

Tsk, silly Anonymous didn't click on Nick's link to the same BBC article.
Sx

Anonymous said...

Embedding a hyperlink isn't providing credit.

Scarlet Blue said...

Well... when I clicked on the hyperlink I thought: Oh, Nick got the information for his post from here.

What d'ya want? Blood?
Sx

Anonymous said...

Blood probably wouldn't be as effective as a citation. I'm quite sure Joylon Jenkins didn't go to the effort of researching and writing this piece so someone else could just lift it and post it on their own blog without credit. Also, whilst the link goes to the BBC, the asterisk indicates that it links to info from the Macmillan online cancer forum, as the link in the original article did.

Scarlet Blue said...

...over to Nick in studio 4...
:-)
Sx

Nick said...

Anonymous - I freely admit to having replayed information from the excellent article by Jolyon Jenkins, I'm very happy to explicitly acknowledge him as the source, and I'm sorry to have caused offence by giving any impression the post was entirely my own work.

I also freely admit that I lift material from all sorts of media sources, as do bloggers generally, but I hope I don't give the impression that it's based on personal research. Where I use outside material, I always link to the original source, though I accept this may not be seen as explicit enough.

Nick said...

Scarlet - As an ex-journalist myself, I fully appreciate the copyright/ plagiarism/ sourcing issue and I have no wish to upset anyone in this regard. I'm happy to make amends.

Scarlet Blue said...

.....sorry, I am in a feisty mood due to all this FGES malarky....
I always find you suitably explicit, Nick.
Sx

Nick said...

Scarlet - I don't mind you being feisty. In fact I love it when you're feisty. I love it when you're explicit too.

John Gray said...

I was approached by someone who wanted me to publicize her financial dilemma on my blog....a thing that I didn't quite feel quite right to me.
she could have been genuine... but something told me that she was scamming me ( well trying to)

there's a great deal of weird people out there folks

Liz said...

What is the matter with these people?

(Just noticed you have lots of comments form Anonymous. That always makes me suspicious.)

It's the genuine people like me about to be thrown out of her home because her husband's been diagnosed with chronic Crunkhamper disease and is unable to work and pay the mortgage. Or even buy food for my six starving children - four of whom were adopted to be saved from abusive families. But I never complain.

Nick said...

John G - Publicise her financial dilemma? That sounds very fishy to me. I think you were wise to steer well clear.

Liz - Good grief, that's terrible. Crunkhamper Disease is a pretty rough ride. And six starving children, that's a hell of a burden. I'm sending you £1000 straightaway. I hope that will help you out.

Jay at The Depp Effect said...

I've come across some extremely dubious people on the internet. Even more sad than that, some of the people I met up with were even more dubious than they seemed online! Genuine people, don't get me wrong, and not psychopathic, but very, very hard to deal with and inclined to sabotage friendships - hence the need to find them online, I suppose. *Sigh*

As to Anonymous - why not give your real name? Why hide?

Everyone is entitled to search and rehash. If pieces of the article were lifted verbatim then there'd be cause for complaint, but taking facts from here and there and writing a new piece (with links to the original works) is surely acceptable? I always acknowledge sources and copyright owners (should I get permission to use a picture) but if we're not allowed to write about anything unless we've interviewed the person/people ourselves and done the detective work personally, well, I guess not very much would get written!

Nick said...

Jay - That's a shame about the dubious types you met up with. I've met several of my blogmates and they've been just fine.

Exactly. If we couldn't rehash anything, not much would get written about. Even journalists rehash each other's articles constantly.

blackwatertown said...

Sad and bad.

But on to the attribution issue. I didn't see this until after your clarification, but the link in the text seems fair enough.

I might have said something like - see this story by Jolyon Jenkins - with all that text highlighted to be clicked on. I think that would be better and fairer. But I don't get the impression you were trying to be anything other than transparent.

The other approach that allows you not to worry about attribution at all is to make it all up. Like someone I know. A friend. Not me.

Nick said...

Paul - I'm thinking about how I can make my sources clearer in future. I don't want anyone to feel I've unfairly ripped them off.

There seems to be an alarming number of people making things up. Fortunately I haven't encountered any of them yet.