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Munchausen By Internet

I was alerted to the following article by a moderator who knew a little of my online history on this issue.  It’s a lengthy article so be prepared to spend some time digesting the information therein.

“The Lying Disease :Why Would Someone Want to Fake a Serious Illness on the Internet?”   by Cienna Madrid

Munchausen is a personality disorder or at least a severe character deficit wherein a person fakes illness to gain attention.  Munchausen By Proxy is where an adult, usually the mother, fakes or even injures her own children to gain attention.  What is being proposed in this article is the recognition of “Munchausen By Internet” as a legitimate diagnosis so as to address the cases that arise on the Internet.  Author Cienna Madrid does such an exceptional job detailing the issue that I see no need for me to rehash her excellent work here. Go read it.

I have been online for almost 25 years starting with the CompuServe forums, then Usenet, email lists and finally blogs and forums.   Over those 20-something years I have seen, read, and been directly affected by some of the most bizarre people most of us would never encounter in real life.   The FBI has come to my aid in the case of a online sexual predator, and my attorneys over the years have done some serious butt kicking of people who took their obsessions to tortious extremes.  Like “Valerie” in the article, I outed fraudulent wedding vendors, usually photographers, on a web site I called ‘Vendor Hall of Shame” many years ago.   One photographer took great exception to being outed for client fraud, check kiting, a substantial Better Business Bureau complaint file, and court records of disgruntled clients who could not get their photos.  This photographer lied so  proficiently about her business and health woes that many readers of the forum not only believed her but at least one prominent wedding photographer came to her defense and readers continued to hire her to do their weddings.    Time has a way of wounding all heels and eventually  a handful of group regulars discovered to their horror that they could not get their photographs they had paid thousands of dollars from her either.  This photographer’s former male business partner would later create a web site using her name as the URL and document the numerous frauds she had committed and been convicted of.  At least one blog surfaced documenting further fraud of using fake names to get clients.

Back then I thought I could save people from being harmed online by outing obvious frauds preying on people’s gullibility and that belief garnered harassment that carried over into real life.    One thing I learned from this is that most people really do not want to be saved.  They want to believe the lies and they hold the delusional idea that they will be immune from the abuse others have experienced.  Women in particular want to believe the sob stories and react emotionally instead of objectively to factual data that documents a different reality than the one they want to believe.

With the advances in blog and forum software moderation, it is much easier to detect, eradicate and block those individuals who have crossed the line into being fraudulent and/or obsessive. One of the joys of being an administrator/owner of a site is that I  create the law and enforce it for the betterment of my online community.  My tolerance level for drama is quite low and I have no problems permanently isolating people who have too much invested in causing grief and trouble.  Life is far too short to be spending my thoughts on reforming them or wasting time managing them.  Over the years the dispossessed have written to me to warn of my site’s impending demise because I had the audacity to boot allegedly indispensable people from the Ehell forum.   Yet year after year, the site continues to prosper, probably due to the site being content driven, not personality driven.

On the Etiquette Hell forum, there exists the potential for Munchausen By Internet and after we had seen some possible examples of this occurring, I created a  forum post to address the issue.  The terms “troll” and “drama queen” could be substituted with “Munchausen By Internet”.  The major highlights:

1.  There are trolls on the Internet and Ehell is not immune from them.

2.  There are some seriously obsessed/disturbed people online these days.  Some of them have stated a life’s mission to troll Ehell.   The moderating tools available to admins and mods are quite sophisticated and we use them but sometimes a troll gets in.

3.  This forum is not a therapy support group.  It has been written in the rules and extensively in threads by mods over the years that we are not equipped to handle issues related to medical problems, mental illness, sexual advice,  legal advice and so forth.  We are not here to be a support group for any issues other than etiquette faux pas.  If a poster requires an inordinate amount of mental health, legal advice, etc that elicits strong feelings of sympathy, that *could* be a warning flag.  Your responsibility is to check your emotions, step back and reserve judgment until such time as you have more evidence one way or the other regarding the veracity of the story.

4.  Each member is responsible for their own emotional investment in other people’s lives.  The moderators cannot shield every member from ever being duped by some clever troll.  The moderators will remove trolls once it is determined that member is one.

5.  Truth is stranger than fiction sometimes.  If I were to discuss a situation I’ve been going through this past year, I’m sure some would call shenanigans.  One friend said, “Jeanne, if I didn’t know you in real life and see this unfold, I’d never believe it.”   Be very careful how you call shenanigans.   It is very acceptable to ask people for clarifications on what you perceive to be holes in the story.  Outright claiming they are lying is not acceptable.  Ask questions in such a way that it becomes obvious by their own answers that they’ve hung themselves….that’s what we mean by giving people plenty of rope to hang themselves.  Some members are very good at setting up great questions and the stupid troll slams the ball right out of the ball park with their answers.

6. There are drama queens on the Internet.   But being a drama queen on Ehell means you are using this forum in a manner inconsistent with its mission statement.   Moderators have banned a few members whose drama queeniness seems to be a way of life and they contribute nothing of value to the forum other than an incessant whining about the miserable state of their life.

It’s an interesting topic which I am sure will elicit many comments.   Be cautious in your comments to not name specific people unless there is documented evidence to support your allegations.

{ 76 comments… add one }
  • Princess Buttercup January 16, 2013, 7:46 pm

    Good grief, I feel for Valarie, she seems to have become a magnet for the crazies.
    I’ve not dealt with an Munchausen people but I’ve had some general chronic liars and I just don’t get it. Life throws enough issues by just living it, why go through all the trouble of making it worse.
    Reminds me of the “Catfish” tv show.

  • CherylC January 16, 2013, 8:11 pm

    I tend to not give much benefit of the doubt when I read BTL comments on advice columns (the closest I get to reading blogs), as some of the regulars seems to have lives that are too interesting by half. I can generally pick up the BSers, be it medical (I’m a doctor and you would not believe some of the stuff I’ve been told) or not because I grew up with a brother who lied often to anyone who would listen about numerous things to get attention. They were generally lies that were easy to disprove, but he got the attention he so wanted. He has entered his seventh decade and as recent as last year told the curator of a small military museum that our maternal grandfather died in the Bataan death march when in fact our grandfather died in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation of congestive heart failure caused by rhuematic heart disease. Because of his bad heart, he was never in the military. He was a missionary. This is the latest example of the “big lie”–he lies the “little lie” several times a week about what he has eaten to cause his blood sugar to be 3X (or more) what it should be and similar things. It is like any attention, even the negative attention he gets when his lies are uncovered, is better than just living a normal life with its normal types of little dramas we all go through and just don’t comment on. My hubby grew up in a similar environment ( father and brother), so we both comment on the stories we can’t believe other people believe. That doesn’t mean I never buy into some of the drama going around, but a healthy dose of skepticism helps, as does a good memory.

  • Tsunoba January 16, 2013, 8:39 pm

    And now I’m remembering city_glitter, this girl on LiveJournal that said her cat was set on fire. Needed grafts and stuff. Considering the current topic, I’m sure it goes without saying that she lied. Thankfully, it was over in a matter of days, instead of months or something. She quit LJ shortly after being caught, so there’s no point in hiding her username.

    Hate is a strong word. It’s fine if you hate THINGS. Things don’t have feelings. But another human being? To actually hate a person, not dislike, but truly hate them, just seems terrible.

    But I hate city_glitter. Even thinking of that happening to my own cat makes me want to cry. I just can’t imagone faking it for money or attention.

    This happened over five years ago. And the part I really dislike is that I didn’t have to google her name. I still remember it after all this time. Which means she succeeded in her bid for attention.

    And the worst part is that I can only assume that what I feel is only a fraction of what Valerie feels. I wasn’t relying on city_glitter for support.

  • Belly January 16, 2013, 9:27 pm

    Wow, what a read.
    A very well written article. Scary, though. I mean, you know there’s the keyboard warriors and trolls, but this just goes beyond the pale.
    Ehell is too good for them.
    And best of luck and health to Valerie!

  • lisbet January 16, 2013, 10:17 pm

    I’ve been a (silent) fan of EHell for years, and appreciate the time and effort put in to maintain such a high standard of the site. And then I followed the link to Cienna Madrid’s “The Lying Disease”. Wow, and double wow. I try maintain a healthy (?) cynicism with all things Internet (if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is), but yes, I try to be compassionate, and would probably have been easily decieved in the same circumstances. Good luck, health and fortune to Valery and her fellow travellers, and thanks Miss Jeanne for keeping everything relevant!

  • peachykeen January 16, 2013, 10:23 pm

    really interesting article sited here. Sorry you had to put up with trolls on this site too. Where is the maturity in this world??

  • Ergala January 16, 2013, 10:58 pm

    I belong to a few groups on the web. I’ve “met” some very interesting people that had me scratching my head and wondering if they took all night making up a story. And then there are people in real life who are absolutely negative in everything they do. I had a few in my circle of friends and their negativity brought me down so much that I decided to cut ties in order to preserve my own sense of happiness. For example, one person could simply not help herself. Ranging from calling for an application to cleaning her house. Something always would go wrong and she would declare that it was impossible. Yet if any of us offered suggestions to help remedy the situation she always had a counter as to why these ideas would not work. People who weren’t privy to seeing the inner workings of her life would often times bend over backwards to help her, even paying some of her bills or buying her luxury items to “cheer her up”. I.E. her pity me act was quite lucrative.

    Then there are the people online who use the internet as a way to show how miserable they truly feel. In real life they come off as happy well adjusted individuals….but the moment they have an anonymous audience they feel safe saying how they really feel. I play an online game and in our guild chat I see this a lot. I know some of the members in real life and they are in no way the way they represent themselves online. It’s almost like they can’t help themselves and simply spill out this alter ego.

    I have a lot of health issues, a few of them are because of my own stupid decisions when I was younger, others are due to really bad genes or a fluke. I don’t typically tell people about them unless I must, or if I feel as though my story might encourage them to get more help or to seek a different avenue since their current one isn’t working. I don’t want pity, I don’t want people feeling sorry for me. What I want is privacy and respect and nobody telling me “well if you do XYZ you’ll feel a lot better”. What I’d rather here is “Oh wow! I live with XYZ too! You know what worked for me? ABC treatment! It might be worth looking into if you are interested!”

    I dread looking at FB sometimes though. So many negative people on there. I block the feeds of people who never ever have a positive post. It’s always FML or some really crappy thing that happened. Never “Wow….well I had this awful thing happen today, but you know what? There was a rainbow on my way home and the way it stretched across the road was absolutely beautiful!” Or they post nothing but half naked pictures of themselves with the caption “Man I look so fat!” and they weigh maybe 120 lbs. Under that are comments from everyone telling them how beautiful they are. It’s called fishing and I find it despicable. If they are fat at 120 lbs what does that make me at well over 120lbs?

  • LEMon January 16, 2013, 11:00 pm

    An excellent article. Heartrending to read.

    I tried to imagine being so ill, yet giving my heart, then learning once again I was being deceived.

    All the trolls on Ehell I have seen outed were, as the Dame states, revealed by their own contradictions. Most built the web of lies: the best slowly, the worst too quickly. As the Dame says life can be stranger than fiction so many were given the benefit of the doubt. Yet after they were revealed, the damage was done to the hearts of those who had believe and cared. I see that as the greatest damage of all; that caring compassion can be used against us.

  • Waltzing Matilda January 17, 2013, 12:26 am

    Thank you for that, Miss Jeanne. I love this site and the quality and insight of (most of) the responses continues to both amaze and gratify me. There are so many wise people contributing that surely good manners have to prevail over the uncultured heathens of the world. It’s encouraging that the rules have been spelt out so clearly for us all – it’s very easy to get on and just vent without thinking about whether our story really does have an etiquette issue. Long Live E-hell!

  • Daisy January 17, 2013, 1:00 am

    I’ve enjoyed reading Etiquette Hell for a number of years, and have submitted letters a couple of times myself. I enjoy it very much, and include it in my daily Internet browse. Unfortunately, anyone on the Internet soon realizes that there are tedious, repetititious voices whose predictable opinions trigger an urgent desire to metaphorically slap them silly. In my opinion, trolls and drama queens result when people have too little to do in real life, and too little appreciation for reality in the lives of others. If they could take even half of the time and effort they put into being visible on the Internet and concentrate it on being visible in the lives of the old, the sick, the homeless, the helpless, and the hungry, both the e-world and the real world would be greatly improved.

  • Rose January 17, 2013, 1:23 am

    “Time wounds all heels” has got to be the best thing I’ve heard all day!

  • Melnick January 17, 2013, 6:51 am

    Wow! This really hit home and explains somewhat a situation that I was just made aware of on the weekend, although it raises even more questions. I have just been on the receiving end of someone like this. The difference is, it happened mostly in real life and over texts. It has destroyed a friendship and has left me devastated. I truly cannot believe why someone would set out to befriend someone with the sole intention of deceiving them. There was a girl I felt awkward around. My intuition rang sirens when she was around but I felt bad for being judgemental, and I just wanted to stop feeling awkward. I also knew that she was badmouthing me to my friend. I could tell by his reactions to me when she was around. So I thought that if I befriended her, it would take away that awkwardness and she’d stop badmouthing me if she got to know me. My friend’s wife, my husband and my best friend all warned me that she couldn’t be trusted. They told me she was too competitive with me and had a jealous streak but I have an insane desire to see the best in someone and will explain away just about anyone’s actions as coming from a good place. Even now I feel guilty for thinking so badly of her.

    Along the way, she told me of the difficulties in her life. I felt bad for her and I started to like her. We seemed to have a lot in common. There were things she told me that struck me as off, but I pushed it aside. My friend and I experienced a rapid deterioration in our relationship – little did I realise I was giving this girl all she needed to destroy the bond between us. She started telling me things about him that made me believe he was being deceptive with me and he was unfair in the way he was treating me. I have never quite met someone so skilled at manipulation. I completely fell for it. She mixed in just enough truth to make it all plausible and played on the doubts I had started to have. I did realise that she seemed to find it easier to be “off” in texts, so I started to try to only discuss things that mattered in person where I could read her better.

    She continued to play my friend and I off against each other though I never realised. I told her if he and I had another blowup, then I would be done. We did have another blowup and I left the situation. I ran into my friend’s wife and she revealed to me some of things this girl had said to her husband. It was like being punched in the gut as I heard the blatant lies that were told to me from day one. And the bizarre lies that didn’t need to be told – like injecting herself as a major player in an incident that had happened four years before she was on the scene. I realised that she had tried to goad me into a confrontation but that I had avoided it and she was probably responsible for the incident that had resulted in me leaving the situation. I didn’t realise my friend and I had ended on such bad terms until I ran into his wife and I can only assume that the poison this girl fed me is not a fraction of what she has fed and is continuing to feed him. Her agenda was to get me out of the life of my friend. His wife sees it but she cannot make him see it. This girl is someone he has known for much of his life.

    So much of me wants to expose her. I am so angry that I let someone manipulate me like that and I didn’t trust what I knew to be true. I have all the messages and texts she ever sent me. But it is not my job to be the executioner. I figure his wife knows the truth about her nature without even knowing the lies that were told and if she can’t convince her husband of the truth, what good would my pointing it out do? I will destroy an unstable girl who needs the fantasy she is creating. My life is blessed and the truth is, my spirit is already crushed from this. I feel like I need to just walk away and protect myself and leave an open hand of friendship for if he sees the truth and wants to rebuild that friendship. I just don’t want anymore drama.

    After I read this article, I remembered all sorts of things she told me – like the operation she needed but was suddenly healed from when she no longer needed to be my friend, the affair her sister and her husband had the night she gave birth, the other medical issues she had, the way she always injected herself into stories that I thought had nothing to do with her … I feel so betrayed and so mad! It’s hard to imagine how crushing it is to find that the relationship you invested so much time into was nothing more than a manipulative ruse. You think about the time with other people that you gave up so that you could nuture that relationship – the empathy and anger on their behalf. You don’t want to open yourself to anyone again. And when it is twisted so that you look like the bad guy – I know I’m being bad mouthed and that’s not much I can do. I don’t want to get in the mud and wrestle. I just want the truth to be known, but even in being so hurt, I don’t want to be the one that hurts anyone else. How could someone be so deliberate in their malice? My poor husband and family have had to deal with all the tears. I wish I knew how to just push it out of my mind and forget about it. How to move forward and leave it behind me. Time will make things better but I just don’t want to waste this time grieving.

    For terminally ill people to be deceived into giving up that time is absolutely vile. It says an awful lot about a person who is so callous. The only reason you can succeed in deceiving someone is because that person chose to offer you the precious gift of their trust. It is a gift that should have been valued.

  • Sazerac January 17, 2013, 7:02 am

    Recently in a small town near where I grew up, a girl claimed she had been set on fire and had racial slurs smeared on it by white supremacists. Come to find out, she had done that herself, even setting herself on fire! Her actions caused a large upheaval in that town and people are still reeling from it months later. Here’s the story if you care to find out more: http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/10/24/14667134-police-louisiana-woman-set-herself-on-fire-wrote-racial-slurs?lite

    I cannot imagine how someone could set themselves on fire – it boggles the imagination. When I had first heard the story, I thought, as most others did, that it was legitimate – sad to say, but this part of the world where I grew up is rife with racism and racially-motivated hate groups, so it was plausible that this could have occurred, shocking as it was. My hope is that the young woman gets help for whatever issues she is suffering from – but this is an example of taking Munchausen’s to a whole new level.

  • Lo January 17, 2013, 7:27 am

    As someone who’s spent her entire adult life (and many of the teenage years) on forums I have definitely encountered my share of trolls and manipulators.

    I once send a paypal donation to a girl I thought was a friend and having family money troubles only to realize with shame that I’d been had when the rest of our conversations turned to blantant hints at how poor she was. She’d obviously found her mark. It was humiliating.

    And I do understand why people do it. Not condone in any way, but understand because histronic personality disorder flourishes online. It’s also a reason that I’ve tried over the years to reign in the personal info I give out online. And my paranoia about strangers on the internet has never seemed unfounded.

    This article was amazing. The sad truth is that the best way to deal with dramatic people is to avoid them and not to get sucked into a relationship with someone online who is always going on about their personal problems.

  • PM January 17, 2013, 7:55 am

    As a frequent ehell poster, I can tell you that hurt outweighs the anger when you realize that you’ve been tricked by a troll. We get emotionally invested when we read about someone we “know” has a difficult pregnancy, financial trouble, legal issues, etc. We give advice, virtual hugs and try to surround that person with as much positive energy as we can.

    And then, of course, the troll sucks up that energy like a sponge and in their wanton greed for attention, wants more. So they elaborate. We sympathize more. They elaborate. We sympathize more. Then they elaborate just a little too much and present a detail that makes their story just a little less plausible. Being released from the hospital the day after after a serious injury, or filing criminal charges against someone for a crime that would make major news headlines if it were true. Generally its because they want that feedback and so their story develops too quickly. Someone says, “Huh?” and points out how unlikely that is. The troll gets defensive and embellishes more or asks, “Are you calling me a liar?!” The whole house of cards tumbles down, and the people who supported this person are left feeling tricked and stupid and hurt. We can’t believe we were so gullible. And we’re far less likely to trust other members of the forum the next time.

  • scottish_lass January 17, 2013, 8:58 am

    Wonderful article Miss Jeanne, thank you. My goodness, what an eye-opener. I can usually tell when people are lying (I’m a teacher) but I can understand why someone would believe such a complex story. I wish Valerie health and happiness!

  • Margaret January 17, 2013, 9:13 am

    Funny that this is posted on the day that our newspaper’s sports section has an article about Notre Dame’s star quarterback Manti Te’o’s “girlfriend.” The on-line girlfriend whom he never met in person, Lenay Kekula, “died” of leukemia in September during the same time period that his grandmother really died. Te’o played one of his best games on the weekend after in memory of them. She probably “died” because his parents were trying to set up a date to meet her.

    I have a friend who was a victim of the pre-Internet version of this. He had a “girlfriend” who he talked on the phone to, sent letters, carried her picture in his wallet. She was gravely ill. Although he refuses to talk about it, he probably sent her money for her medical expenses, just like several other smitten men did. She was outed in a newspaper article and arrested.

    So, it’s not always an illness, it’s also a scam.

    • admin January 17, 2013, 9:46 am

      I was thinking the same thing upon watching the news report about Manti Te’o.

  • Jays January 17, 2013, 9:39 am

    Fascinating reading. (And so sad. :() Thank you for sharing.

  • Elicat January 17, 2013, 9:47 am

    I wish there were a similar diagnosis for those who insist a news account is false (i.e., the “Sandy Hook” truthers). It’s best just to ignore them. And Daisy is right–if people put as much effort into good works instead of “finding the truth” or “being sick,” the world would be a better place.

    • admin January 17, 2013, 10:21 am

      I think there should be a healthy skepticism of the news media. I have done dozens and dozens of interviews over the years pertaining to Ehell and been active in civic issues in my community which involved me testifying repeatedly in front of county commissioners and being the focus of media reporting. I was misquoted often enough that I began to hand reporters press releases of my prepared speeches so they got it right. I also preferred to do press kits for Ehell. It’s not some evil conspiracy but rather laziness or harried rush to meet a deadline which lead to sloppiness.

  • WildIrishRose January 17, 2013, 9:50 am

    As a cancer survivor myself, this kind of thing infuriates me. Going through cancer treatments is HARD! I admire Valerie for using her blog to help her get through it; I didn’t do that, which is fine, but I did keep a journal for a short while. Unless you’ve had chemo treatments, you have no idea how exhausting it is, so kudos to her for even considering keeping a blog up! To have that anguish cheapened and trivialized by liars is just disgusting.

    That said, I must assert that I am also sort of a survivor of the Munchausen by Proxy syndrome. My mother was convinced that my sibs and I had every illness known to man and a few that weren’t. Fortunately, most of us got over that and aren’t constantly residing in a doctor’s office somewhere, waiting for the latest diagnosis. Mental illness isn’t an easy thing to live with, either for the one afflicted or for his or her family. It’s really hard to know which way to lean on this one. My heart goes out to those who suffer from the Munchausen syndrome, as well as their victims, known and unknown.

  • Twik January 17, 2013, 10:04 am

    I suppose those of us who are not chronic liars are often easy to fool, because we can’t see the point of it. I may be on my guard against someone who is trying to sell me swampland, but not someone who is telling me a story that does not benefit them, and will result in great humiliation if discovered to be false. It’s hard to understand what the benefit of this behaviour is. However, I have met a couple of people IRL who clearly found it easier, or more gratifying, to lie their way through life than to tell the truth, even when there was no obvious benefit to their lies – the sort of person who just has to say they had a ham sandwich for lunch, when they had tomato soup.

    I notice many people taking the media to task for not investigating Te’o’s claims. But who would feel comfortable, being told of somone’s tragedy, in saying “Death certificate, or it didn’t happen”? Certainly, if a genuinely bereaved person was treated like that, it would be considered horrible, and rightly so. The Munchausens among us may not do obvious harm, but there is an overall coarsening of the way we treat each other, when we cannot trust each other to be telling the truth about our deepest feelings.

  • Roslyn January 17, 2013, 10:29 am

    There is a person in my husband’s family who has what I call “Munchhausen’s of Poverty” Not to make light of the real tragedy of Munchhausen’s, but she can not, ever, take part in a conversation with anyone without inserting her personal, demeaning, poverty.

    If you discuss the expense of milk, then she will discuss her poverty and how it has made her change how she consumes milk. If you talk about the weather she will talk about how the weather affects her poverty level. The sad part is she lives on more money than my husband makes and we keep tight reins, but I don’t consider us “poor”.

    I think that is is why this disorder is so difficult, because at many levels it is manifested in different ways. A need for sympathy that one receives from medical care people is only the most popular way to look at this disorder, but I’m sure it manifests in other ways as well, small and large.

    After reading the story I think that the one person who really needs to be smacked, and hard, is the Mother of the “Alex” girl. She seems to be fully aware of what was going on, going as far as to participate in the hoax, and if she is of sound mind then she needs a smack of reality.

    It’s just too easy to sit on the internet and make up stories and fantasies about your “life”. After putting out the bait and catching a fish it is just so much easier to catch two fish the next time.

    We are raising our young people with electronic devises instead of social interaction. Humans are social creatures and when you remove the ability to socialize in an entire generation you are changing humans forever. Only the future will tell us what this means, but I doubt it will be a good thing.

  • Lacey January 17, 2013, 10:56 am

    @Twik, yes! I also can’t figure out people who lie for no apparent benefit to themselves, and they’re the ones who can take me in sometimes…because why would they lie, right? I used to have a friend who would tell elaborate stories that turned out not to be true (for attention), and I knew another girl who lied to cause trouble between me and a guy – she didn’t want him or anything, she was just really competitive with me and wanted to cause trouble for me. I guess the key is to go with your gut if something is “off” about a person or they obviously crave contstant attention.

  • Stepmomster January 17, 2013, 11:11 am

    I find it so sad that people really do this; what i have found is that most people with real issues tend to keep it private, because they are already uncomfortable enough without constant scrutiny.

  • Anonymous January 17, 2013, 11:18 am

    Are these people trolling for money, or just sympathy? If it’s just sympathy, well, okay, that’s manipulative, but not really harmful in the long run. If they’re trying to con people into sending them money for their “sick children,” then that’s illegal.

  • AMC January 17, 2013, 11:51 am

    This is so sad but fascinating at the same time. On a related note, I’m a huge fan of the MTV show Catfish, which explores the phenomenon of people creating fake identities online. What’s weird is that none of the people they’ve tracked down have tried to scam others out of money (so far). They just carry on these fake identities and relationships for emotional gratification. The way they mess with people’s emotions though is still wrong and still causes pain to those who believe them.

  • Lily January 17, 2013, 12:12 pm

    Anonymous commenter 27 the experiance my friends and I had was a woman looking for just sympathy and refusing all offers of money, gifts and letters.
    Maybe she thought if she did not accept money she would not be breaking the law and she is probably correct?
    I don`t know.
    Still some very decent loving people got feelings hurt either by mourning for her supposed passing or by figuring her out to be a liar and feeling foolish and decived.

  • Sazerac January 17, 2013, 12:22 pm

    @Anonymous – I’m going to have to disagree with the “sympathy is not really harmful in the long run.” A violation of trust is one of the hardest things to get over, and it colors and tempers all of your interactions with others for a long time to come. It may not be fiscally harmful, but the wounds – and the aftermath – is there.

  • michelle January 17, 2013, 1:05 pm

    Oh my gosh, that poor woman Valerie! That was quite an article!

    This might not be a very popular opinion, and I know everyone has different comfort levels with how they share things that are going on their lives. But for illness like this, it might not be a bad thing to find a local support group for face-to-face communication. You just can’t trust the internet with your feelings a lot of the time, and what this woman went through I’m sure did her no good at all health-wise. My heart goes out to her – but it might be wise in these cases to remember that when all is said and done, the internet just might not be cut out for things like this.

    Just my opinion. No offense to anyone who has found true love online!! (I’m all for true love!)

  • Calli Arcale January 17, 2013, 1:06 pm

    Anonymous — it may not seem harmful, but it is. Financially, in that people send them gifts on false pretenses. They also take up time and energy that could be better spent elsewhere, and in the linked article, one particularly outrageous example is given of a woman who lost the chance to say goodbye to her grandfather because her lying friend was “dying” and “alone” and needed her to visit her instead. And they cause enormous emotional harm. Some of these people, when their deceit is detected, move on to other marks. Others don’t; they retaliate and set out t0 ruin the other person’s reputation or destroy something they love and have put a lot of effort into.

    Never assume that if money isn’t involved, it isn’t harmful in the long run. It can be extremely harmful.

  • Cat January 17, 2013, 1:47 pm

    I was surprised to learn that my birth family has an unusual technique to deal with situations that anger them. It’s simple, really. If you make one of them them mad, that one makes us lies about you and spreads the lies to the others in hopes that they will then refuse to see you.
    The last time it was used on me, I had used a word processor to write the letter she had referenced, and, when I learned of the lie being circulated, simply sent a copy all those to whom the lie had been told.. The liar then backed down.

  • The Elf January 17, 2013, 1:56 pm

    If it wasn’t overly dramatic and likely false, it wouldn’t be the Internet we all know and love.

  • Hemi January 17, 2013, 2:16 pm

    Wow. This makes me sad and angry. Sad for the victims, who have so much to deal with and it’s a shame that what little energy (and often ,time) they have left is spent worrying about people who are faking terminal illnesses. Angry at the perpetrators who do this. I realize that some of them ( maybe all of them) are dealing with the desire for attention and sympathy but really, it is too much.

    Catfish the TV show is a real eye-opener for anyone who hasn’t seen it. I watched the original documentary when it came out and I was surprised at the length the woman (Angela) went to to have an online romance with Nev. I highly recommend his show (and the documentary) for anyone who is in or thinking about having online relationships.

  • LovleAnjel January 17, 2013, 2:25 pm

    This reminds me of something that happened in a closed Facebook group I belong to (you have to ask to join, and you get vetted by the admins before being added). One person was posting about how little money they had, how her partner was abusive, ect. After a few weeks she left an emotional post about how she and her children were going to be evicted because her partner couldn’t pay the rent, and several group members sent her money. No updates for awhile, and it eventually comes out that she was an addict and needed the money for drugs, not rent (because her partner could easily afford all their bills). Then she leaves an emotional post apologizing and telling us all how she’s going to rehab – even posting from the airport on the way there. She continues to post in rehab. People really start to question her at this point, because rehab does not allow phones or computers. She claims they allow her to have a phone. Someone shows the link to the website where it says there are no exceptions. She then leaves an emotional post about how she got caught using the phone against the rules and she might get kicked out. People finally stopped believing her, and within a week she was removed from the group. Most of us defriended and blocked her after that. I hear from people who did not that she’s been leaving emotional status updates about how she misses all us. If she wasn’t blocked, I bet she would be trying to contact people right now.

  • Lisa January 17, 2013, 2:27 pm

    I did a little more research after reading the article, and… WOW. I never realized how prevalent this is! I generally do assume that people take certain liberties with the truth online and occasionally I hear a news report about someone faking cancer, but I had no idea the lengths that people will go to in order to make the lie seem real.


    The Hoax Project is doing good work, but that site was terribly depressing. I just had no idea how many people are doing this.

  • Ashley January 17, 2013, 2:50 pm

    I hate Munchausen by Internet, trolls, whatever else you want to call it/them. I’m on the internet quite frequently, as my job allows it in my downtime, provided my actual work is done. As a result, I’m on tumblr and Yahoo Answers multiple times a day, among other sites as well. On tumblr and YA! I often notice patterns and things that less frequent users or less attentive users seem to miss. One story that springs to mind from tumblr is that of a woman who claimed she received a broken nose in the process of trying to help a woman who was being harassed and abused at a bus stop. There were many inconsistencies in her story, which was posted below a picture of herself with a black eye. Since I couldn’t confirm that it was true, I didn’t reblog it. A few weeks later I happened across a post which completely and utterly disproved the girl’s story. But by that time, the original post with the fake story and faked picture had been blogged so many times that the post disproving it even made a dent. The worst part about all of it is that the story HAD actually happened, just in an entirely different state, to an entirely different woman. A news story was dug up as proof, along with many photographs, etc. So the actual hero got nothing, but some girl on the internet who is handy with makeup got heaps of praise.

    Yahoo Answers meanwhile…ugh. Some of the stuff I have seen on there…People making dozens of accounts to make up stories about how their husband/fiance is abusive, but they don’t want to leave. And the stories and profile pictures are all identical except in one question the man involved is a tattoo artist, another he’s a firefighter, another he’s a racecar driver. All to get attention from whoever answered. There are many more, but the worst was a guy who had at least 100 profiles where he pretended to be any number of characters, all to indulge some sick fetish for spanking little girls. The content of these questions was just vile, and another YA! user and I worked very hard to try and get rid of him and alert Yahoo to the problem, but while we were doing that, countless other users were answering his questions, and just indulging him. It was terrible.

    I try so so hard to make sure I find the truth before posting anything on forums and things. It sickens and saddens me that people out there fake things because it makes it that much harder for people who really are in need of help/sympathy to get it.

  • Cami January 17, 2013, 3:04 pm

    Every message board I’ve ever frequented has not only had trolls, but has someone playing the Munchausen By Internet game. Most recently, one such individual was outed after two or so years of regular posting and thereby establishing herself as “real” — since who would spend years developing a fake persona? Or so people said when the more cynical among us questioned her stories of unrelenting woe. She was outed when she posted late one night threatening suicide. Those readers still up contacted a moderator who used the ISP to track her down and call the police. Imagine the shock of the spouse to answer the door late at night to have the police ask if his wife was within and still alive as she’d been threatening to commit suicide on the internet! (The husband eventually came on the board and told us the truth.)

    I have to say that one of the more infuriating characters one meets on the message boards who insist someone must be lying either for the sheer fun of being a troll and riling a person up or because the story is different from their own experience. It is especially annoying when one is asking for help with a serious problem and the thread gets derailed by accusations of lying and protestations of innnocence, with the various members taking sides.

    One part of me feels sad for these pathetic creatures who take joy in infuriating others or who feel the need to create elaborate fake life stories to elicit sympathetic emotions in others. The latter remind me of that scene in the movie, A Christmas Story in which Ralphie says, ‘Has any kid ever not imagined going blind?’ with the ensuing scene of the parents abject sorrow at how washing his mouth out with soap caused blindness. It’s as though that childish desire to get revenge and elicit sorrow for supposed maltreatment manifests from our parents itself in a general desire for such from total strangers representing those real people who somehow did them wrong.

  • Jay January 17, 2013, 3:15 pm

    “The Sixth Sense” does a really good job with this.

    (Also, I haven’t seen Catfish the TV show, but the documentary was just nuts.. not Munchhausen, but still…)

  • Jenna January 17, 2013, 5:24 pm

    Thank you for posting this article. It was sad, shocking and informative to read. Valerie has an incredible amount of strength.

  • PrettySticks January 17, 2013, 6:09 pm

    I am simply fascinated with the concept of internet hoaxes, just because it has to take SO much time to keep up with it. Angela in the Catfish movie, and some people on the Catfish tv show, invent whole communities of people so their fake persona has “friends.” And then they have to keep up with all the fake profiles! It’s amazing to me (um, not in a good way).

    Have any of you ever heard of Kaycee Nicole? Maybe she wasn’t the first catfisher, but she was certainly one of the first famous ones. This was back in 2000/2001, she was a teenage girl with cancer, but she had an upbeat personality, and was so strong in the face of tragedy! She eventually started a blog and gained all sorts of friends/fans/supporters. This (recent) article sums the whole thing up nicely: http://nowiknow.com/munchausen-by-internet/ The fascinating part to me is that after she “died” some people on Metafilter (where a lot of her fans communicated with each other) started questioning her existence. Obviously, some people protested and said questioning the existence of the awesomest girl on the planet was just evil, but once some of the skeptics put their investigator hats on, then jointly ferreted out all this evidence that Kaycee Nicole was fake. All their discoveries are basically documented in this one Metafilter thread, which you can still read here: http://www.metafilter.com/7819/Is-it-possible-that-Kaycee-did-not-exist I actually didn’t hear about this until much later, like 2007 or so, but it was so interesting to be able to go back and read everything that happened.

    This was also the basis for one of my favorite episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. 🙂

    They were talking about about Manti Te’o on the Today Show this morning, and the anchors seemed skeptical that anyone would fall for something like that. Which was so odd to me because, where have they been? Happens all the time!

  • Kate January 17, 2013, 6:49 pm

    I have a grandmother who behaves in this manner, and I’m thankful she’s never gotten involved with the internet for fear that she would be conning people out of sympathy and money. Hers takes the form of one-upping everybody’s stories – particularly concerning illness – while dismissing anybody else’s stories when they actually are experiencing hardship. For example, when I was diagnosed with depression and OCD, my grandmother went around telling anyone who would listen that mental illness is ‘imaginary’ and that I was ‘doing it for attention’. A year later she tells me that her doctor thinks she is ‘the most depressed patient he’s ever seen’ and she needs anti-depressants ASAP (she never did end up on them as far as I know). Same thing happened with my mother and high blood pressure, my father and osteoarthritis, my sister and a breast cancer scare.

  • ArtK January 17, 2013, 7:08 pm

    I’ve watched this play out far too many times on eHell and elsewhere. I think that I worry more about the people who invest their emotions in these trolls, than I do about the trolls themselves. I don’t know if it’s a “need to be needed” that makes people vulnerable to MbI trolls, but it hurts to watch them get sucked into the drama.

    Don’t get me wrong. The trolls are very sick people, but they wouldn’t thrive if they didn’t have a fresh audience of sympathetic listeners.

  • Basketcase January 17, 2013, 7:11 pm

    We had one on a forum I was involved in, who would have these incredible sob stories. And every time she was caught out and booted off, she would disappear for a few weeks, then come back under another name and with a very similar story. It became a bit of a running joke, to see who could catch her out first each time she came back.

  • Lisa January 17, 2013, 8:05 pm

    I’ve recently run into one as well. In addition to devastating medical problems, she’s currently ALSO being romanced by a very, very handsome and famous movieactor. She has actually forwarded a flirty email that was supposed to be from ‘him’, plus a picture of a gift he got for her while she was in the hospital, recovering from an emergency kidney-tranplant.
    This is the same girl who accidently ran into Obama about 3 years ago and charmed him so much that when she met him again, 2 months ago, he totally remembered her.

    It just provides me and a friend who also spotted the ‘ehhmmmm, excuse me???’moments in her posts with a good laugh. However, I’m also quite disgusted. I basically figured out her bullshit before I got attached, but what if I hadn’t? She does try to pull on heartstrings with her tales of imminent death and such… Seems to be just for attention as well.

    Also, I’m so sorry for Valerie. That’s just TERRIBLE of those girls, absolutely disgusting. I hope she’ll never have to go through something like that again, and is surrounded by love and genuine people from now on.

  • missminute January 17, 2013, 8:11 pm

    Wow don’t people have anything better to do? I have never noticed trolls on e-Hell and have always enjoyed the comments immensely, especially those pertaining to the two times I have had my letter submitted. I imagine trolls could prosper in forums however. It’s amazing how “into” online communities some people get. I had one such run-in with a young art student (I event manage art exhibitions as a something of a second job) who was convinced a new Gif sharing forum was the future of art, and argued extensively that I was wasting my time managing the kinds of shows I do – mostly installations – when this was the future. Needless to say she had her own show and 40 people showed up. To put that in perspective, the shows I host usually involved around 500 guests. It’s easy to feel part of drama and feel important in a bubble, but bubbles burst.

  • RedDevil January 17, 2013, 8:21 pm

    I’d like to comment on the ‘compulsive liar’ aspect that several people have commented on. It’s not Manchausen, but it’s similar in that the person lies for indiscernible reasons other than attention.

    Unfortunately, my brother is one of those. Our family refers to his antics as ‘the boy who cried wolf’. Now, when something DOES go wrong in his life, we don’t believe him until there’s irrefutable evidence. It’s a sad situation, where you question every word that comes out of his mouth, and I have to wonder how that makes him feel – his own family doesn’t believe a word he says.

    Then there’s his friends, some of whom he’s lost because they figured out his deceiving ways, others who believe the lies and think he’s a great guy, with a great life. There have been many instances where I could have ousted him publicly, but I questioned myself about what that action would gain – he’d lose friends, and hate me. He wouldn’t change his ways because of my actions.

    Problem is, how do you rectify that situation? The trust is lost, and it would take years for him to earn it back, so perhaps it’s just easier for him to keep on lying?

  • Marozia January 17, 2013, 9:38 pm

    Thank you Jeanne, for pointing these rules out. We’ve all done the drama stuff, but only some of us learn our lessons.

  • inNM January 18, 2013, 1:48 am

    I recently found out that my mother’s cousin was doing the Munchausen thing… at my grandmother’s funeral earlier this month. I mean, let’s not forget where the sympathy actually goes: not to the grieving children; no, to this grown man who is whining about something that would have happened about 6 years ago.
    One of my first cousins comes up to me after the funeral and says, “You know F is telling everyone that he’s the reason you ended up going to college in NM?” Uh, what? “Yeah, he’s telling everyone that you came up alone, and stayed by him for either 2 weeks or 2 months, and he took you to college every day, and when you left, you never looked back, and you’re so ungrateful.”
    Again, I repeat: Uh, what? That didn’t happen. Not even one part of that story was true.
    “Oh, I know it didn’t.” My cousin says. “Remember, you and your mom and dad stayed at our house for part of that trip. I was there.”
    My own family drama aside (of which there is many), this was not the time nor the place to bemoan my so-called “ungratefulness”, that if it had actually happened, would have happened 6 years ago! My polite spine gave way to deference to my mother, who asked me to leave the situation alone and avoid making a scene in respect for my grandmother’s memory. Fine, but in the meanwhile, I deleted his email and blocked him and his daughter on Facebook, should I give them more ammunition to manipulate against me at another family event.

  • Bint January 18, 2013, 4:47 am

    I’ve read ‘Alex’s’ original blog, now locked with a full outing on it about her lies. Anonymous, that woman lied and lied for four years to her *girlfriend*, who went through emotional hell being in love with someone she thought was terminally ill. She visited her, she cared for her, she cut short trips to be with her. How can that possibly not be harmful? It’s evil.

    The worst part is that at the bottom of the outing, another woman posts to say she has since spoken to ‘Alex’ who is very sorry and is still friends with her etc etc. Basically, someone who knows what this woman has done but who will still fall for it. Or who doesn’t think lying about having HIV and terminal cancer is actually that bad.

    I also agree with ArtK. The ‘need to be needed’ people are the ones I feel sorry for. Some of these people spent literally hours chatting with the fakers, to the detriment of their own families, trying to help.

    I’m not sure Beth had MBI though. She just sounded like a very nasty little girl. Alex is the scary one.

  • Brockwest January 18, 2013, 8:30 am

    I learned in my very first entry into on-line experience many many years ago, that if someone comes into a generic discussion group with a deeply personal story, that there is a good chance the story is untrue. If the topic of need for money to pay for something was involved, the chances of untruth skyrocketed.
    The downside of this, was when a deep personal tragedy happened in my own life, and I turned to my regular discussion group for solace, I was immediately accused of lying. I understand, as so many had been burned by fake stories. One person made it their mission to make me a social outcast as they believed I was making the story up. A trusted member of the group was coming into town, so I invited them to my home. They were horrified when they saw my story was true, and that my wife was indeed dying a rather ugly death. This was reported back to the group and my accuser got banned.

    I feel the author of the story referenced above did many unsafe practices. It’s not a good idea to breach the safety of the internet wall and give out your address or phone number. (I know I did in my case, but more because of the intense on-line attacks I was receiving, and the group was important to me.) On-line should be the place to give verbal comfort, not phone/home/financial with the EXCEPTION of contributing to an established charity that you have personally checked with their local police department or business bureau.

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