WATCH ABOVE: Video for Cindy Smith’s allegedly fraudulent online fundraising campaign
TORONTO — The video on Cindy Smith’s online fundraiser paints a picture of a woman suffering from a debilitating neurological disease that had robbed her of her sight and speech, forcing her to seek financial help from the public to keep up with rising medical costs in order to stay alive.
But little did the 553 supporters who raised more than $125,000 online for Smith know, police were unable to find any evidence she had been diagnosed with or received treatment for the rare disorder she claimed to be struggling with.
For the past three years, the Burlington, Ont. woman said she was suffering from Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy, a rare neurological disorder that causes gradual weakness and impaired sensory function in the arms and legs, according to the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
A GoFundMe online fundraiser that was started in Smith’s name in November 2014 that raised $126,594 and was seeking $1.6 million, described her condition as “dire” and said she was “dependent on the funds raised to save her life.”
“We are reliant on generous people like you as every dollar donated gets her closer to living another week,” the fundraising campaign page said. “Which gives her body time to get stronger to win this fight.”
It also claimed that she was diagnosed with CIDP more than three years ago and that she “lost her sight completely, went into organ failure, suffered a massive stroke and as of recently, the nerves in her brain have been affected and leaving her speech impaired.”
A Facebook group created by Smith’s supporters also detailed the extent to which they raised funds through various local fundraising campaigns and events.
But after numerous investigations into hospital records across the Greater Toronto Area, police say there “was no information to a stroke or complete organ failure.”
On Thursday, Halton Regional Police charged 39-year-old Cynthia Lynn Smith in connection with the fraudulent online fundraising campaign and charity in support of her “fabricated illness.”
“Well I arrested her today, as obviously you’re aware, and she walked herself to the car and she was speaking to me and walking without assistance,” said. Det. Const. Tom Purchase. “She was talking and clearly she can see.”
Smith has been charged with defrauding the public over $5,000 and appeared in Milton Provincial Court on Thursday. She remains in custody pending a bail hearing.
Smith “acted out many of the symptoms to her family and friends who assisted her in initiating a charity in her name to raise funds for experimental medicines in the U.S.,” a statement released by police on Thursday said.
Police say they were alerted to the alleged fraudulent activity in March, after receiving information from a local newspaper reporter who was attempting to write a story on Smith at the behest of her supporters.
The reporter allegedly had some concerns surrounding the validity of funding for Smith’s campaign and informed police who initiated an investigation.
“Follow-up questions weren’t answered and then it came to us,” Purchase said, adding that he believes even Smith’s staunchest supporters were victims in the alleged fraud. “At this point there’s been multiple people involved; some are fictitious and some aren’t.”
Officers then conducted several judicial authorizations into Smith’s medical records at various hospitals and say they determined Smith “had never been diagnosed or treated for the illness she claimed to be suffering from.”
“We’re trying to facilitate forensic-type psychiatric assessment, which is above and beyond what she’s currently getting,” said Purchase.
“As much as she did commit the offence, she does have her own separate issues and we’d like to see her actually get help as well as answer to what she’s done.”
Purchase said that the donations had gone into different financial accounts and paid for certain private medical services that were rendered, but said a lot of the merchandise associated with the campaign had been seized and stored in a 10-by-15 foot storage locker “stacked to the ceiling with donated items.”
“I’m not saying that there wasn’t trips to the hospital, there’s been lots of those, but the only time anything that we’ve seen where it mentioned CIDP was only something that was articulated by Cynthia,” he said. “And that was I think once and it had nothing to do with three years ago. So there really is no evidence of anything remotely close to that.”
Police have shut down the financial accounts associated with the GoFundMe page, and the page has since been removed.
If convicted, Smith could be sentenced to five years but Purchase said it’s not typical that someone would be sentenced to that much time in a fraud over $5,000 case.
Purchase added that he could not find any medical evidence to support Smith’s claims and said that backlash from the community is likely to follow.
Purchase said he recommends people donate to larger organizations, such as the GBS-CIDP Foundation International, and that they do their research to determine fundraisers are valid when considering charitable donations. But, even this organization posted on Facebook in support of her.
“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “There’s lots of people who are in need of assistance and it just turns people away.”