Baby Megan, who died of brain cancer in June, with her older brother. Her mom was blindsided by a Facebook fundraising scam in Megan’s name. (Photo: Facebook)
When the Florida mom of a terminally ill newborn set up a Facebook page about her daughter’s struggle with brain cancer, she was seeking support — and she got it, through more than 20,000 likes and a steady stream of empathetic comments.
But she also got scammed, at her most vulnerable moment, when a seemingly kindhearted stranger ran a funeral-cost fundraiser that turned out to be a fake.
“It was extremely hard to have to deal with that at the same time I was dealing with making Megan’s final arrangements,” Rosemary Newell, mother of the recently deceased 7-month-old, tells Yahoo Parenting. “But I needed to get it out there. I don’t want this to happen to another family.”
Newell, a stay-at-home mom, lives in Jacksonville with her husband, Raymond, who unloads ships at the local port, and their two sons, ages 5 and 7. When their daughter was born in November, she was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, the most common and aggressive type of brain cancer. The tumor on baby Megan’s brain eventually grew so large that it deformed her head, and the infant died on June 10. Seeking comfort from those who might understand, Rosemary began to network with an online community known as Angel Moms, comprised of parents who have lost infants, and set up the Facebook page Megan’s Journey. There, she documented her daughter’s surgeries and daily trials, shared photos and videos, and wrote about her feelings of grief and helplessness.
The Newell family. (Photo: Facebook)
She shared the news that Megan had weeks to live, which prompted a message from a woman named Dawn Phaneuf, of Tennessee, who offered to start an online fundraiser to help defray Megan’s funeral costs. Phaneuf would crochet beautiful baby outfits, she explained, sell them online, and donate 75 percent of the proceeds to the Newells. Rosemary was grateful and said yes. “We had a lot of people offer to do fundraisers, and we happily accepted this help,” she says. Then she put a link to Phaneuf’s page on her own Facebook page, and Phaneuf began taking orders and payments on PayPal.
When Megan died on June 10, Rosemary informed Phaneuf, who said she had a few more orders to finish but would send the money soon. Then came some back-and-forth messaging, with a series of excuses, including one in which Phaneuf told Rosemary that her husband fell through a roof and had been seriously injured. “I’m thinking, what if she’s telling the truth?” Rosemary says, explaining that she’d begun to feel suspicious but that she was distracted and overwhelmed with grief. Still, she reached out to the many supporters who had placed orders with Phaneuf, to see if any had received their crocheted outfits. Everyone said they had not.
At Megan’s funeral in June. (Photo: Facebook)
“That’s when it came out,” she says, adding that she advised everyone to file a complaint with PayPal and is hopeful that they’ll get their money back. (Phaneuf, for her part, denied there was a scam when approached by a reporter from First Coast News; on Facebook, she claimed to have been hacked.) “Apparently it’s not an uncommon thing for families going through crises in general to be preyed upon,” Rosemary says.
Others who had been similarly scammed began to share their stories on the Megan’s Journey page, including a fake fundraiser involving jewelry sales to help a boy with cancer. According to First Coast News, a police report from the Clarksville Police Department shows at least 16 claims from people who were victims of Phaneuf’s scam.
In January, reports surfaced about a bogus GoFundMe campaign to raise money for a little girl’s cancer treatments — it used the stolen photo of a real girl who had died of brain cancer. A more elaborate scam involved an Ohio mom’s fundraising page hoax — which raised thousands for her nonexistent cancer — and a GoFraudMe page on Facebook has commenters sharing examples of scams similar to Megan’s, in which people offer to raise money for a family’s medical costs and then never hand over the profits.
“It’s getting a family at their weakest moment,” Rosemary says. “When someone offers you help, the first thing you think of is not, ‘Is someone scamming us?’” But when that turns out to the case, she adds, “It makes you feel like total crap. Because in a way I felt responsible, because I put this out there and basically led them all to her. So for a while I bore the weight of that.”
For now, she’s trying to move on from the scam and focus on healing herself, her family, and others through the pediatric cancer awareness and fundraising organization she founded, Be Meggie Strong. She encourages her sons to talk about their sister whenever they want, which they do, but it’s been trying. “Justin [the 5-year-old] was very close to her, and he’ll just have breakdowns out of nowhere,” she says. Her husband has work to focus on, she notes, adding that the family has a good support system, with friends and family who check in on them often.
“As long as I keep myself busy, I’m OK,” Rosemary says. “But then at night when everyone’s in bed, it’s that quietness, and you start to think and think and think, and rehash. And it’s hard.”