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September 08, 2020

Harleysville woman accused of faking cancer diagnosis in GoFundMe scheme

Vanessa O'Rourke, 32, used money to travel to Australia, where she remains, prosecutors say

Investigations Fraud
O'Rourke Gavel Cancer Bill Oxford/

Vanessa O'Rourke, 32, allegedly faked having brain cancer in order to raise money on GoFundMe and move to Australia, according to federal prosecutors. O'Rourke claimed she was a medical student at Temple University when the alleged scheme took place in 2015 and 2016.

Federal prosecutors have filed charges against a former Montgomery County woman who allegedly received more than $11,000 in crowdfunding donations after falsely claiming she had cancer.

Vanessa O'Rourke, 32, of Harleysville, was charged with wire fraud in the alleged scheme, which took place between October 2015 and July 2016, according to an indictment unsealed Tuesday by the U.S. Attorney's Office.

According to investigators, O'Rourke launched the campaign on GoFundMe, where she represented herself as having been diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. O'Rourke allegedly said she needed to raise money to travel to Australia to receive experimental cancer treatments.

At the time, O'Rourke was reported to be a medical student at Temple University, where she claimed she was training to become a brain surgeon, according to a Patch article. A benefit was held on her behalf at the Whitman Tavern in Blue Bell in June 2016.

More than 140 people contributed a total of $11,740 to O'Rourke's GoFundMe campaign, including family and friends, prosecutors said. 

O'Rourke allegedly used the funds to travel to Australia, where she spent the money on personal expenses and a variety of leisure activities. She never received cancer treatment, according to investigators.

"The allegations in this case are nauseating," U.S. Attorney William McSwain said. "O’Rourke is charged with preying upon the kindness and generosity of good people who wished to help those in need. As alleged, there was no need here – only lies, greed and callous manipulation."

O'Rourke was last known to be residing in Queensland, Australia. 

According to the Daily Mail, O'Rourke traveled to Australia on a visitor visa in 2016 and remained there illegally. She reportedly claimed to be a doctor in verbal and written communications and landed a job at a private medical company in Queensland. 

As the holes in O'Rourke's story multiplied, she was reportedly investigated by Queensland authorities, who received a tip from investigators in the United States. She allegedly had fled the U.S. because she was wanted for unrelated theft offenses. 

An Administrative Appeals Tribunal in Australia ruled last July that O'Rourke could remain in the country, where she pleaded guilty to fraud and forgery charges. She was placed in immigrant detention in August 2019. 

U.S. officials did not indicate whether Australian authorities are working with them to return O'Rourke to the country. The case was investigated by the FBI, the Towamencin Township Police Department and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

"Misleading people about a significant medical diagnosis in order to take advantage of their kind hearts and open wallets is reprehensible," said Michael J. Driscoll, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Philadelphia Division. "When someone commits such financial fraud, the FBI and our law enforcement partners will work to hold them accountable."