A family's battle with cancer and the way they publicly chronicled it all on a blog and Facebook captured the attention and imagination of hundreds and the hearts of a few. The family’s story elicited an outpouring of support, tears and even some balloons — despite the fact that none of it was real.
Kevin San Roman, diagnosed with leukemia, and his younger brother Lucas, only existed online and in the mind of Cindy Choi, the woman who created them. Despite that, the faux brothers accumulated hundreds of Facebook friends and maintained relationships over text messages, emails and even phone calls with several women who believed the brothers were their boyfriends.
Choi's hoax was made believable by her blog, "Kevin and Katy's Cancer Journey," which spelled out the troubles and triumphs of Kevin and his baby cousin Katy, another fictional character fighting cancer. Entries dated back to 2009 and portrayed Kevin’s chemotherapy side effects and details of his white-blood cell and platelet counts. "You have to be very knowledgeable about cancer to put all this on a blog,” Kaitlin Masters, one of Choi's victims whose mother is a real life cancer survivor, told the Miami Herald.
Although Choi never made contact with any of the girls her fake brothers were courting online, she came dangerously close.
“I was outside your house but didn’t have the courage to knock. So I sat on your bench and drank a McFlurry,” said a text message one woman received. When the woman went outside, there was no Kevin or Choi — only a cup from McDonalds.
Kevin claimed to study in Miami, but said he had to return to Spain due to a visa issue. From there, he continued his online relationships. As he was poised to return, Choi suddenly killed Kevin as if it were the tragic twist in a movie. The blog, purportedly maintained by the San Roman family said he had choked on his own blood in an incident related to his cancer. Through his fake sibling Lucas, Choi asked the San Roman brothers’ friends and supporters to release balloons on the anniversary of Kevin’s death.
But Choi wasn't done yet. After Lucas received a condolence message from Masters, Choi began to play her from that account as well.
Masters, now 19, said despite not knowing the San Roman brothers, she accepted Kevin's friend request because they shared many mutual Facebook friends from her high school. She said she was further heartened when a classmate told her she had met them at a local mall. This of course, could not have been true.
Masters grew closer to Lucas, despite never meeting him. He claimed to be temporarily living in Tennessee, where his baby sister Katy received cancer treatment. Every promised trip to Miami was delayed by disaster, including fictional Katy's fictional death right before her birthday.
Masters said she comforted Lucas on the phone through a sleepless night after the death of his cousin. Of course, there was no Lucas on the other endm only Choi. The trip to Miami never happened, and in Choi's next chapter, Lucas was forced to return to Spain.
They maintained a video chat relationship, but Lucas' so-called broken webcam meant Choi only saw Masters.
A shared phone number for Lucas and Kevin raised suspicions that eventually led to the hoax's unraveling.
Masters inadvertently warned Choi that her mother had complained to police and within moments, the fake profiles were scrubbed from Facebook. When the police had Masters ask Lucas, "Who is Cindy Choi?" the con artist confessed. "That's me," the Herald reported.
Choi, 28, and her family actually own three Miami-Dade Chinese restaurants. Some experts believe she suffers from Münchausen by Internet, a disorder that scientists and doctors are beginning to take seriously. People with Münchausen syndrome feign illness in a bid for sympathy and attention. The anonymous nature of the Internet makes acting on these impulses even easier. Münchausen by Internet does not always involve the creation of fake characters like it did in Choi's case, however.
Although Choi’s scam likely caused an immeasurable amount of emotional trauma, she will not face charges because no actual crime was committed.
"Kaitlin still struggles to accept that Lucas was a phantom," the Herald reported.
This story has been amended to correct an error. An earlier version of this story said Kaitlin Masters, not her mother, was a survivor of cancer.
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