Sympathy Scam — The New Frontier of White Collar Crime?

When most people think of theft crimes, they picture a masked burglar or an armed street robber. But under New Jersey law, you can also be charged with a seemingly innocuous crime — theft by deception. This was certainly the case for one New Jersey woman. After Lori Stilley told friends and family that she had bladder cancer, they gathered together to help. They delivered meals, raised money for her treatment and even paid for her wedding. Stilley updated everyone on her condition via Facebook and her personal website. However, when Stilley’s sister suspected the cancer was fake, she called the police. Subsequently, authorities arrested Stilley and charged her with theft by deception.

Under New Jersey law, theft by deception is when a person purposely obtains property from another by use of deception. Legally, deception is defined as:

  • Creating or reinforcing a false impression
  • Failing to correct a false impression which the deceiver created
  • Preventing another from acquiring information which would influence his or her decision on a transaction.

However, deception does not include falsities with no financial significance, or exaggerations unlikely to deceive an ordinary person.

On social media sites, embellishments and lies are commonplace. MTV even created a television series about social media dishonesty, titled Catfish. However, most social media falsities are intended to obtain sympathy or attention, rather than financial gain. Further, in the few egregious cases of sympathy “scamming,” the actor may be in need of mental help rather than criminal consequences. For example, claims of a false illness may be due to severe hypochondria. In such a case, the statements are not deceptive because the person believes he or she is suffering from a life threatening illness.

In New Jersey, theft by deception is a serious charge that could put you behind bars. If you even suspect you’re being investigated, contact an experienced New Jersey white collar crime attorney. If you are questioned by police, invoke your right to counsel and to remain silent. At Shebell & Shebell, LLC our experienced attorneys are prepared to defend your rights.