They shaved their heads, constructed a convincing sob story and started websites to build sympathy while the money poured in. Faking cancer may just be a perfect con, profiting from compassion with a lie so monstrous that only the most cynical would suspect.
This brazen type of fraud has drawn public attention, with four Canadian cases in the space of a month leading to charges or guilty pleas, but it's been happening for years - in other countries as well - with even heinous cases of parents pretending their kids were sick for cash.
Cancer doesn't require a hard sell. People are already giving - cancer fundraisers both large and small take place year-round. In October, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation's Run for the Cure alone raised $33-million - so there's a pool of money to siphon a fraudster's way.
The score can be big: In Langford, B.C., 37-year-old Tina Michele Sammons, who was charged with four counts of fraud in November, is alleged to have netted $300,000 from unsuspecting donors.
People are more likely to donate when they feel their money is having an immediate effect. In experiments, study participants will give more when they are shown a person affected by the problem - a young girl, for example, orphaned by a flood - than when presented with general statements about food shortages.
Fraud requires motivated perpetrators, a supply of suitable targets and no one overseeing the truthfulness of the claims or carefully following the money trail - all ingredients that exist for this kind of crime. The Internet and sites such as Facebook have also facilitated scams by making it easier for con artists to tell their stories to a large number of people, often with loose connections to them personally. They can update people on the progress of their disease without being required to lie in person.
There are two kinds of con artists, says Richard Riley, a forensic accountant and fraud expert at West Virginia University: the professional predatory criminals who carry out a scam with no regard for the victims, and the "garden variety" accidental fraudster, who may, in these recent cases, he suggests, stumble on the idea of faking cancer after a health scare.
Ashley Kirilow of Burlington, Ont., for example, who was convicted of fraud last month, had a benign lump in her breast removed. "She had a threat of cancer," Mr. Riley speculated, "saw other causes getting a lot of attention and raising money, and so she hatches this scheme and takes advantage of it."
The second group typically quell any moral misgivings by rationalizing the deed - convincing themselves, for, instance, that Aunt Martha can afford to pass a little cash their way. (Or, in this instance, that no one is losing their life savings by making a small donation.)
Fraud, like all crime, has a variety of motives, often beyond economic hardship or greed - although in one recent case police have suggested that a gambling addiction may have been a factor. People who commit fraud, Mr. Riley says, tend to believe they are smarter than everyone else, and often enjoy the attention. Some psychiatrists have suggested that people charged with faking cancer may suffer from malingering - a mental condition in which a disease is feigned for attention or personal benefits. Almost always, they target family or friends - the people who trust them and may not ask too many questions.
"You start someplace close to home," Mr. Riley says. "That's the typical victim."
Evolution predisposes people to be trusting and generous - trusting others is necessary for society to work - and Canada scores higher in this area than most other countries, research has found. We are easily fooled by good liars.
"Most people's default is to be trusting," says Paul Ekman, a behavioural psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco and expert in nonverbal communication, a real-life Cal Lightman of TV's Lie to Me. "Most lies succeed, not because someone is that great of a liar but because people want to believe them."
In that context, cancer is the ideal subject for deception: After all, most people have been touched by cancer. While donors may query charities about accountability, imagine asking an individual: "Can you prove you're getting chemo?"
"Most of us can't even envision making up that kind of story," says Stephen Porter, director of the Centre for the Advancement of Psychological Science and Law at the University of British Columbia. "It takes some pretty potent info to question that kind of claim. The deceiver is banking on that."
Although we tend to believe we are good at spotting liars, Dr. Porter's research suggests that we see through them only about half the time. And when we're not expecting deception, the success rate is even lower.
Our brains typically assess the trustworthiness of individuals in one-10th of a second. Appearances matter. People with full lips, a small nose and a baby face are most readily trusted, and it helps to be good-looking. Most of the stereotypes about lying aren't true. Good liars don't act nervously, or avoid eye contact: They do just the opposite.
But if we knew the signs, we might be fooled less often. Dr. Porter teaches police officers how to spot liars by training them to watch for signs in the muscles of the face when someone is feigning distress. For instance, forehead muscles between the eyes pull together and upwards when someone is experiencing true grief or trauma - an action nearly impossible to pull off intentionally.
In the cancer fraud cases, discoveries were made by by more traditional means - for instance, family members noticed holes in the story, or a concerned friend called the hospital and discovered no record of treatment.
But at the same time, people who were fooled by cancer scams shouldn't feel stupid - they were victims of their better natures. Says Dr. Ekman: "You should not beat yourself up for being taken in."