So now, I’m finally able to let you all know about what happened when we were a victim of fraud and I wanted to talk about the experience from my own point of view and address the effect it has had on me over the past two years.
I'm obviously acutely aware of the impact it will have had on so many others who were also duped, many who were very close family and friends of the accused, but obviously i can only talk here about my own feelings.
I also hope we can all be more aware of the dangers of this type of online scamming and the checks we can make before we consider donating to an online cause in the future.
As many people will know, I started “The Latte Lounge” Facebook group in 2016 and launched this website two years later to provide a community for women over 40 to support and engage with each other.
Running the website, the Facebook group and all our other social channels has been a full time job for me over the last four years, working with an amazing team of contributors, medics and admins. The Facebook group has grown to a sizeable audience of more than 18,000 members spread across 65 countries and the website has over 6,000 visitors a month.
I have worked tirelessly to build up confidence and trust amongst our community and I feel a sense of responsibility to the members within the group. It is essential that they feel they are in a safe and non-judgemental, supportive space at all times.
As a matter of personal policy, I hardly ever advertised GoFundMe campaigns through the Facebook group, as I know that there are thousands of desperate and genuine appeals, so it would be too difficult to decide between them.
The case in question
It was back in March 2018, when I received a message from a friend asking me to put a GoFundMe campaign on The Latte Lounge.
The name on the campaign was “Nicole needs our help – treatment” and there was a link to the campaign. My friend told me “She is a young mum, a friend of a friend’s sister; they need to raise £30k more by tomorrow to get treatment. If everyone gave even £1, it would be such a massive help. I understand if you can’t post, but no harm in asking. Thanks.”
I also spoke to my friend about it and we discussed it. I felt particularly moved by what she told me. It seemed Nicole Elkabbas was a single mum with a young child and was from the Jewish community which I am part of. It all seemed very urgent and life changing and as this came from a friend, I had added confidence that I was helping her as well.
It just felt like the right thing to do, at no point did I expect we would become a victim of fraud.
I posted a link to the website on the group and said to our members that, if they were able and willing to donate at least £1 each it would be most appreciated.
The post received hundreds of positive comments from our members all who wanted to help. That same morning I donated £20 to the campaign via the website and I believe that many members had donated throughout the campaign too, based on the comments made on the initial post and the follow up posts.
From then on I was an intermediary between our members and Nicole, and I was convinced I was helping. During this period I would also message Nicole regularly asking for updates. Nicole would update the group from time to time herself on how she was doing, how expensive the treatment was, and how she was feeling in general.
Over the next two months or so, Nicole posted directly in the group on many occasions, to update on her progress and continued to promote her GoFundMe campaign. At one point, she explained that she needed more money for further rounds of treatment and was exceptionally grateful to us all.
During this time I kept in touch with Nicole via Facebook messenger. She would describe how desperate for money they were, and how her son had been tormented by being told, “his mum has cancer”.
At one point I offered to assist with a press release to a local newspaper, however she told me that she was holding that off, as she did not want her son to read about what she was going through in a tabloid.
She described the background story about how she was misdiagnosed by the NHS and how angry she was that a newspaper had published a small story on the campaign. She said they should have asked her permission, as she did not want everyone’s children to see this in the paper and how she burst into tears whilst on the phone to them.
She described the fact that the drug she needed costed $17,000 per month. She also sent me pictures of her in hospital and even told me that she was so happy that her dog was allowed to sit with her on the bed.
I mentioned that a journalist had approached me for an article involving the Latte Lounge and how we were helping women and I suggested to her that if she spoke to them, this would assist the campaign, but Nicole refused. She also refused to help with a radio interview I conducted where members of the Latte Lounge would call in to explain how the group had assisted them.
Over the summer months everything went a bit quiet with Nicole’s messages to me and I was worried something may have happened to her but didn’t like to ask. A few members had also been in touch to ask how she was getting on.
The phone call
Then two years ago, pretty much to the day, I had a phone call from a police officer who told me that this entire campaign was fraudulent and they were now investigating her claims. It took me a while to process what he was saying, I couldn’t quite take it in and fell silent for a few seconds.
I felt sick, repulsed, in shock, stunned and could not function properly. I felt violated, used, betrayed, ashamed, embarrassed, humiliated, depressed and deflated, I did not stop crying and couldn't sleep for days and weeks after.
I couldn’t believe this was true, I felt small and really, really STUPID.
How could someone take advantage of me and our group members like this for so many months?
All those private messages to me with such detail with updates of treatment and how things were going, with photos of her and her son in hospital.
All the personal help and support and signposting I gave her through those private messages including offering the support of others.
I felt like Nicole must have been laughing in my face at how gullible I was, it was so humiliating.
I am an incredibly sensible and cautious person. Perhaps I am too naive and trusting and assume people are always good and generous and honest. I never normally put these things up, but I did it for a friend who was a friend of Nicole's family because understandably she seemed so concerned for a member of our community.
How could someone possibly do something like this, when there are so many really sick people in the world who genuinely need money and help?
What would I say to all of The Latte Lounge community? Would people ever trust me or the group again? Was i being investigated too, perhaps they thought i was part of some elaborate ruse?
My logical mind was trying to break through saying ‘you are just an innocent victim’ but my emotions were getting in the way and I just wanted to be sick in repulsion.
The after effects
I lay awake at night with palpitations.
I had spent two and a half years, for no personal gain, building up the reputation of this group helping women on a daily basis with all their problems. Running such a large online community, people come to trust you and I felt I had, for no fault of my own, let them down.
I took some personal time off running the platform for a while, to gain some perspective, as I didn't feel able to give it my full attention whilst the case was being investigated.
Once Nicole had been charged and I was able to put up an official statement on the group and remove all her posts, I did for a time feel I had had some closure, but it took a long time to get to that point and for a while I couldn’t see the point of doing what I did anymore.
I felt anxious that Nicole or her family/friends may try to contact me and was concerned that someone, or the media, would drag me further into this mess and point fingers somehow (it was all irrational at the time i know, but these were real fears).
I asked the officer in charge if I could apply for compensation for our members to get their money back and to also give the equivalent of what we had all raised collectively, to a real cancer charity. Luckily most of them have now got their money back through Go Fund Me, except for a couple who gave very, very generously directly into to her personal bank account and for that i still feel very guilty.
I couldn’t wait to be able to delete all her messages to me personally and all the messages on the FB group as soon as I was allowed as, just looking at them, made me feel repulsed.
I know I was not responsible for encouraging others to donate, but even now 2 years on, I am incredibly angry that we were all deliberately misled, into supporting what i was convinced was a genuine cry for help.
Far from saving Nicole's life, through her behaviour, she set out to so badly affect ours.
Two years on
Being able to finally have my statement read out in court this week, has provided some sort of closure for me.
However angry I still am, I actually pity her – she’s a single mum who knowingly did something very dishonest, stupid and desperate because she claimed she was addicted to gambling, but what she has done is let down an innocent child, who I feel really sorry for, and who is the biggest victim of this entire case.
I’m not going to waste any more time thinking about her, because to be honest there are so many amazing helplines and agencies out there for all women to connect with, in these sort of circumstances.
Ironically if she had come to our group saying she was addicted to gambling or was in over her head in debt, we would have been the first to help her by signposting her to the right agencies rather than her using me and the good will of all of our Facebook Group members.
I’m glad this chapter is finally closed, but there is no denying it has affected me and many other people quite profoundly. I still feel violated and my ability to trust anyone has now seriously been compromised. It has opened my eyes to the fact that I need to be a lot more cautious in future.
Being a victim of fraud, no matter how large or small, is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Please note, The Latte Lounge now only supports one nationally registered charity, The Eve Appeal. The UK's Gynaecological Cancer Research Charity raising awareness and funding research into five gynae-cancers: Womb, Ovarian, Cervical, Vulval and Vaginal.
News coverage of the verdict can be found here:
If you have been a victim of fraud, or are struggling in any other way, please visit our helplines section here.