Podcast: Pretending to be deadly ill can be profitable online

‘We call that Munchausen by Animal Proxy, and for people who lack access to children, don’t want to harm themselves, lack access to elderly and dependent people, they may induce or lie about illness in their pets. And, I can think of one case where, and this sounds like I’m making it up, but it’s true, the woman had 30 of her dogs die before a lab tech in the veterinarian’s practice contacted me and said, ‘What do I do?’ — Dr. Mark Feldman.

Imagine a person who is so starved for attention that she actually kills dozens of pets…just to get sympathy. It really happened, says a guest on this week’s The Perfect Scam podcast. And in fact, this kind of thing is common enough that Dr. Mark Feldman has a name for it: “Munchausen by Animal Proxy.”

I’ve seen a lot of terrible things covering scams for the past couple of decades, but once in a while, a story really creeps me out. And this week’s double-episode about “Munchausen Syndrome” really, really creeped me out. Munchausen is the old-fashioned name for people who fake illness in order to get sympathy or some other kind of consideration. Today, the technical terms are Factitious Disorder — for those seeking emotional payoff — and Malingering, for those hoping who want a “real” payoff, like money, disability payments, opioid medications, or not guilty by reason of insanity verdicts.

Today’s podcast begins with the story of Jeremiah Jon Smith, a Minnesota man who told his friends and family that he had terminal cancer.  Darlene Asher,  our guest, ran a fund-raiser for Smith with her local dart league. Plenty of others donated money to help the young father take care of a newborn baby. They even flew Smith and his fiance to Vegas, and paid for their wedding.  But it was all a lie. Smith wasn’t dying of anything, just dying for attention — and cash. Darlene is an all-heart kind of person, and I think you’ll enjoy hearing the whole story from her.

Then you’ll hear a lot more from Dr. Feldman, author of the book, Dying to be Ill. He’s spent an entire career studying people who fake illnesses.  Some of his stories are truly remarkable: One woman actually injected herself with bacteria just so people would believe she was sick.

Now let’s face it: All of us have feigned a minor cold or whatnot to avoid an undesirable social event or a day at work. But Feldman is talking about people who take that a lot further, like Smith.  In some cases, a small lie grows into an enormous lie, like the Boy Who Cried Wolf. But in plenty of situations, perpetrators scam victims out of money via heartless — and even cruel — hoaxes. Smith told his own child he was dying before his web of lies came crashing down around him.

With this story, as with many others, we must confront the age-old “Does tech make this worse?” question. The urge to blame tech is often wrong, especially when bad things can be reframed as, ‘this same scam happens in real life, too.’ ” But in this case, Feldman makes a compelling argument that the mixture of online medical reference tools and fund-raising sites like GoFundMe makes “Munchausen by Internet”  a unique 21st Century crime.

You can listen to this episode by clicking play below, or click here to start part 1


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About Bob Sullivan 1637 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this excellent story about an understudied and underrecognized form of medical deception. The costs to the healthcare system in individual cases can be well over $1 million, so we desperately need additional articulate reviews like yours.

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