Creepy Scam Targeted Young Female HCPs
Feb. 25, 2018
In late 2015, someone claiming to be a general surgery resident named Jill Wis started messaging female clinicians, who worked in and around the operating room, over social media.
Jill told them she had taken a break midway through her second year, after watching her sister, who was also a medical student, die on the operating room table.
To honor her sister’s memory, as Jill restarted her training, she wanted to create a website, “Inspiring Women in Surgery,” that highlighted the achievements and challenges of women in the surgical field.
The women Jill contacted about the site were attractive clinicians in their 20s, 30s and 40s. They were nurses, surgical residents, anesthesiologists, physician assistants, dentists, periodontists, surgical technicians and medical students. Few were women of color and there seemed to be no African-American women.
The problem was that while the website “Inspiring Women in Surgery” was real, it’s now apparent that Jill was not. Whoever created the site misrepresented himself or herself, lying to as many as 200 women, in a bizarre “catfishing” drama. Catfishing, put simply, is when someone pretends to be someone he or she isn’t online. Some catfishes are driven by romantic desires, others by money. For some it may be just a grand practical joke on strangers.
At best, “Jill Wis” wasted countless hours of female healthcare providers’ time. At worst she — or he, as some of the victims now believe — manipulated women to share personal stories about themselves and their colleagues, photos and videos, and home addresses, phone numbers, and names of their children for possibly malevolent purposes.
From the beginning, many of the women Jill contacted sensed something amiss.
For starters, Jill chose to be anonymous. She never posted photos of her face. And her last name, Wis, now seems likely an acronym for Women In Surgery.
Jill made clear on the “Inspiring Women in Surgery” website that “Jill Wis” was a pseudonym. “It is still a very tender time for me with much emotion, heartbreak, and hurt. One day I will tell you my own story, but I would only ask that you respect that.”
The website has been removed, but MedPage Today found cached versions.
She lavished praise on early-career clinicians who hadn’t had yet had time to achieve many significant successes and insisted on calling even other residents “doctor.”
And she seemed hungry for mentors.
As Heather Logghe, MD, a general surgery residency candidate at Thomas Jefferson University and the creator of the #ILookLikeaSurgeon movement , pointed out, this drew even more women to Jill’s cause.
“When a woman in medicine asks for help, we give it,” Logghe said.
Logghe spoke with MedPage Today over the phone and on email, saying she spoke on behalf of other of Jill’s targets, who refused direct interviews out of concern for their safety and for their careers.
Logghe was also contacted by Jill, but did not connect with her frequently. Some IWIS participants spoke to MedPage Today on condition of anonymity.
Jill approached a surgical resident from North Carolina online, and early on began talking about her sister’s death. Jill wanted to feature the resident on her site.
“I thought it was really odd that she volunteered so much personal information … without knowing who I was,” said the resident.
She shared own story of loss — a partner had died — but something about her conversation with Jill made the resident uneasy.
“It never quite felt like a normal exchange,” she said.
Jill pinged the resident on social media for 4 days straight, but the resident declined to be featured on Jill’s site.
Another woman, Jennifer Fluke, PA-C, currently a locum tenens physician assistant in Oregon, said Jill reached out to her about 2 years ago.
Jill likely found her after Fluke posted an Instagram pic where she wore surgical loops, Fluke said.
Fluke agreed to be featured on her site and they chatted frequently online, sometimes for hours.
Sometimes she wondered how a second year resident had the time to build a website and interview dozens of women. But Fluke rationalized that some residents just needed less sleep.
Jill did occasionally say strange things, she told MedPage Today.
“She was super obsessed with sweating in the O.R. and with straddling the patient to do compressions … That I found kind of odd,” Fluke said.
But Fluke overlooked these quirks.
“I liked the idea of changing the ‘good old boys’ mentality in the O.R. and in medicine in general … that’s why I was so happy to be a part of this.”
A Texas-based healthcare provider also began a correspondence with Jill about the same time 2 years ago.
“I’ve been told you have a very interesting story that I need to share,” Jill told her.
The provider didn’t know what she meant at first, but she did share her story and was thrilled to see it published.
“Her feature opened up so many doors for me,” she said. When she discussed a promotion with her bosses, she mentioned the site.
But Jill began messaging her constantly, and she grew annoyed.
“If I wouldn’t respond for 12, 16 hours, she would play the victim. It was ‘Did I do something wrong?'”
Jill also inserted herself into the provider’s life, giving her opinion on everything from what she should wear to an important interview — she asked for “selfies” — to what track of medicine was right for her and who she should date, the provider told MedPage Today.
When Jill made her uncomfortable, the provider would go months without talking to her.
But then she’d have what she called a “lapse in judgment” and reconnect. “I would remember the way [the things she wrote] made me feel … I felt like I owed it to her.”
She considered asking one of the other IWIS women about Jill’s behavior but worried her doubts might circle back to Jill “and then I’d just get torn down by somebody who’d done something really good for me.”
For a different Texas-based clinician, a urologist, Jill’s behavior seemed unremarkable. She was just another young resident looking for a mentor, and the urologist was happy to support her.
“I love what you represent,” Jill told the urologist in August 2016.
The urologist sent Jill photos she’d requested and completed the surveys she sent. She gave her professional advice when Jill asked for it.
Jill said she was, at this point, easing back into her residency training.
Once Jill asked the urologist to send a video of her getting gowned and gloved for surgery. The urologist did. Jill asked that the video be re-taped to include a scene of her washing her hands. The urologist usually used antiseptic not water but she refilmed the scene anyway.
“There was never anything that seemed odd,” she said. Jill’s habit of spelling out the full word “doctor” each time she messaged was a tad unusual, but, it would have been “somewhat disrespectful” to use her first name, the urologist said.
The urologist also took Jill’s anonymity as a sign of her humility.
“I don’t know that I would have spent any time doing stuff for somebody who was self-promoting,” she said.
The Book Deal
Sometime last year, Jill announced on her site that she had gotten a book deal with the New York-based publisher Simon & Schuster, according to Logghe.
On the IWIS website, she described a book deal she made in April 2016.
The title was Restricted Area and its purpose was “to tell the many stories of ALL women who work in surgery — the triumphs, the heartbreak, the passions, and the perseverance,” according to the website.
A surgeon from California was one of the women formally selected to participate.
She received an email from Jill, saying that a colleague had nominated her for the honor.
Taking her cue from TV reality shows, Jill hyped the announcements with grandiose posts on her website.
“I hope you think it’s a prestigious group to be a part of,” she messaged another clinician whom she’d chosen for the book.
To celebrate this virtual sorority she’d created, Jill sent the women operating goggles and custom-made scrub caps with the Inspire WIS logo. Of course, she insisted on sending them to their homes, instead of work, Logghe said, which meant getting their home addresses.
Sometime in August, 2017, Jill made a different kind of announcement. She had cancer.
The California-based surgeon reached out to see if she could help.
“I just said, ‘I’m really sorry you’re going through this.’ I didn’t think there was anything shady going on,” at first.
The healthcare provider in Texas also expressed concern. At one point, she received an Instagram message that went something like, “Hi. I’m Jill’s mom. I was given a list of 6 people that she felt were very important to her and that she wanted updated on her surgery. She’s out of surgery and she’s in recovery … She just wanted me to keep you informed.”
At this point, the healthcare provider was already skeptical. Whose mother is on Instagram?, she wondered.
Publicly, women posted messages of encouragement on the IWIS website. Privately, many started to question the things Jill was saying about her condition.
“First, she had some sort of bowel issue and then all of sudden, she had bowel cancer, and then all of sudden it [metastasized] to her coronary arteries,” Fluke said.
Jill’s illness didn’t make sense, so Fluke consulted her surgeon colleagues.
They agreed something was amiss.
“Coronary artery tumors [are] unheard of and the way she was describing biopsying those particular tumors was ridiculous as well,” she said.
Fluke, who had built up a 2-year correspondence, messaged Jill, “Best of luck.” She wanted to sever their connection but when Jill asked what was happening, instead of confronting her, Fluke replied she didn’t didn’t have time to be on Facebook as much.
The surgeon from California echoed Fluke’s doubts about Jill’s description of her cancer. The way Jill described her condition, “I’m thinking, ‘You should be dead,'” said the surgeon.
Since the hospital where Jill claimed to be having her surgery was the same one where she had trained at, the surgeon asked Jill for the name of the person who had done the operation. But instead of a surgeon, Jill named a medical oncologist.
The California surgeon corrected her and pressed her for the right name, but Jill said she was exhausted and would phone the next day. Jill never called.
Other things didn’t match up.
The surgical resident from North Carolina remembered that Jill had spoken of watching a family friend’s surgery from the gallery.
“We don’t have those anymore,” she said, at least not anywhere she’d trained.
“Furthermore, it would be really odd to watch the surgery of a family member or friend.”
Jill also never used the kind of clinical vocabulary one would expect from a resident, she added.
And the medical vocabulary she did use was off, noted the healthcare provider from Texas, whom Jill chatted with frequently.
She remembered Jill calling a scrub cap a “bouffant cap.”
“Nobody calls it that … No surgeon is going to casually say, ‘And then I donned my bouffant cap.'”
Jill also began commenting on women’s looks, calling one woman’s husband “a lucky bastard,” and suggesting different women dress more feminine at work, Logghe said.
Last month, about 2 years after the IWIS site was born, Logghe and a few colleagues began comparing notes on Jill.
They found inconsistencies in Jill’s story: the details around her sister’s death didn’t match up — some women were told the problem was a C-section, others a mastectomy — nor did the professions of Jill’s’ parents.
And the book deal with Simon & Schuster was also made up, they discovered after phoning the publisher.
Simon & Schuster confirmed this for MedPage Today.
“We have checked and we are unable to find any records for Restricted Area or any such book as described,” a representative wrote in an email.
But the biggest lie that they discovered when talking to each other is that no one in their circle had ever spoken to Jill on the phone.
But several women had spoken to Jill’s friend “Matt.”
Jill would ask individual clinicians to reach out to Matt because he needed advice about a medical condition.
Fluke was one of the clinicians who spoke with Matt. Jill asked her to reach out to him because she said Matt had Marfan syndrome and needed surgery. Fluke had assisted on one such surgery.
They emailed a few times and talked on the phone several times after that.
“Ultimately, those conversations would turn to dating preferences … and what kinds of guys I like,” Fluke said.
She stopped answering his calls and after a while he stopped calling.
The Texas-based healthcare provider told a similar story: Jill had a male friend who would be “perfect” for her.
She said she didn’t want to call him, but a few days later the same male friend suddenly needed her help with a medical issue. Jill gave her the friend’s number, but the healthcare provider never used it.
By mid-January, Logghe and her colleagues found a last name for Matt, Jill’s friend, and checked his LinkedIn profile. They suspect that Matt noticed this, since certain premium accounts let individuals know who has viewed their profiles.
Their constant scrutiny of the IWIS website may also have caused spikes in traffic that an attentive webmaster would have noticed.
Then women began messaging Jill directly asking that their profiles be deleted.
A few days later, on Jan. 18, 2018, the Inspiring Women in Surgery website disappeared along with any sign of Jill. Matt’s social media accounts also vanished.
An Unresolved Ending
The mystery of Jill is not a closed case. While Logghe and her colleagues are fairly certain that both Jill and Matt were the same person, Logghe admitted she can’t be sure.
Other women MedPage Today interviewed, including the one whom Jill had tried to set up on a date, don’t think Jill was a man in real life — “because of the way she speaks, the things she gets emotional about,” and the way they gossiped. “Guys can’t fake that,” she said.
The Texas urologist looked for other explanations.
“Could there be an actual Jill who’s a resident and got hacked … and it spiraled and got out of control … and this person, who is a little bit unstable … is caught up in a couple of lies and is a good person? … Could there be disgruntled women surgeons who [Jill] chose not to highlight and now they’re pissed at her? … Any of those would be a possibility,” she said.
Logghe said there’s no way to know if Jill is really one person or two, male or female.
But “there [are] so many different versions of ‘Jill,’ it is impossible for them all to be true.”
Logghe published a blog post from an unnamed colleague detailing the entire saga of Jill and the IWIS website on Logghe’s own site, Allies For Health, just after Jill disappeared.
“I share the article below, written by an individual* in the #ILookLikeASurgeon community, detailing how a single individual used the movement to harass and manipulate women surgeons for ulterior motives we may never fully understand,” Logghe wrote.
She subsequently deleted the post because the author was worried about her reputation and her safety.
None of the women MedPage Today spoke with or that Logghe spoke with, to her knowledge, had been physically threatened or financially hurt because of their interactions with Jill.
Even labeling what happened as online harassment is difficult.
“Someone has to be uncomfortable and realize something is happening to them in order for it to be considered harassment,” said Elizabeth Carll, PhD, immediate past president of the Trauma Psychology Division of the American Psychological Association and a New York City-based psychologist.
Carll has worked with women who have been cyberbullied and cyberstalked.
Regardless of the label, being lied to took an emotional toll on the women Jill targeted, said Logghe, and it triggered a spectrum of responses “anger, betrayal and mistrust.”
Jill pressured women to share home mailing addresses and cell phone numbers as well as photographs of their children, Logghe said.
Now, they are “intensely fearful” and worry about their personal safety and their family’s.
Women also changed their social media behavior because of Jill. Some started to log into Facebook less frequently. Some stopped using photos on their social media accounts. For Logghe, a social media advocate, this reluctance to interact online has professional consequences.
“No one would go to a professional conference with a mask over their face. But if women can’t present our pictures attached to our profile … that inhibits our ability to conduct ourselves professionally on social media,” Logghe said.
Other women are more reluctant to be mentors, she added.
The healthcare provider from Texas kept the profile Jill had written framed on her wall. She included it in her resume.
Even though she suspected Jill was fake, she was crushed when she found out she was right.
“The most hurtful thing about this is that she said the kindest things … Am I supposed to be thankful? Am I supposed to be scared?”
Fluke learned she’d been scammed from a friend who had also been featured on IWIS, and her first reaction was anger.
“I had a certain amount of pride that I was selected to be part of this group of very talented and respected women … I was mad that that was taken away and I was embarrassed. ”
Mainly, Fluke was angry that she and so many other women had been duped and that she kept her suspicions to herself.
“I didn’t want to be the first one to pull the thread, to unravel it all … and now I wish I had,” Fluke said.
“It’s the same thing, like you’re walking down a dark street, you should trust your gut and look over your shoulder” — but no one did.
Yet, all along, the women were “looking over their shoulder” in a sense. They told MedPage Today about checking IP addresses, doing reverse searches of images to verify their authenticity. One contacted FedEx to try to locate the address where the packages she received were being sent from.
But for two years, most of the women kept their doubt to themselves or shared them only with close friends.
If there was no financial gain, it’s unclear what the person or persons behind the Jill persona gained from this project.
What happened may have been catfishing.
“It’s this idea that you’ve obscured your identity and taken on the identity of someone else, usually an identity that you think will be … more attractive than your own identity,” explained Julie Albright, PhD, of the University of Southern California.
Often the catfish or online impersonator is projecting a persona to attract a potential romantic partner or to dupe someone into giving up their money, she explained.
In this case, it’s hard to ascribe a motive without knowing the complete story, Albright said.
“It sounds like this gentleman has a kind of sexual fetish for nurses, medical related professionals and has sort of gathered up a collection of them to create his own fantasy website. And in a sense by foisting up on them this catfish identity, he kind of has a certain level of control over these women … He has a certain kind of power … ‘Send me your photo … Let me get your personal information,'” she said.
“My best guess is that there was some kind of financial plan involved. It makes no sense that this person would be getting this type of information, unless there’s an end game,” said Terry Evans, CEO of Cybersleuth Investigations in Buffalo, N.Y., a company that works with victims of internet scams.
Sometimes what these online impersonators do is make small requests during a “grooming period” that can last several years, he continued.
“I’m guessing that some of [the women] were probably manipulated into sending other kinds of materials,” Evans added.
To Carll, the catfish’s motives are more ambiguous.
“You really won’t know if this person was just doing this because they were lonely, or perhaps they were actually writing a book and just became overly personal. Or, they could have been gathering identity information for some kind of identity theft, and using the book as a way of doing that,” Carll said.
There are many explanations for what might have happened, and “not all of them have to be malevolent,” she added.
Few Options for Recourse
As for the consequences for such behavior, the truth is bound to hurt.
“The bottom line is there’s nothing you can do about it,” said Parry Aftab, JD, an internet privacy security lawyer, after hearing the story from MedPage Today.
“In your gut, you think that this is impersonation … manipulation … in your gut, you think this should be actionable.”
But unless there’s a financial loss or blackmail or fraud that directly relates to a financial loss, the women have no legal options, she explained.
“It’s terrible. It’s horrible. It shouldn’t happen, but it’s not illegal.”
Medical professionals are frequently the targets of cyber harassment. Aftab is in the process of creating a “cyberwellness” course for that reason.
“If you’re in the medical profession you tend to care more about people. And to make sure they were suckered in, this person’s sibling had died, and they gave up medicine as a resident because it hurt her so much … So all of that was immediate to them. They all want to [see] her get back to practicing and fulfilling her dreams of being a practicing physician … And if that wasn’t enough to hook in the rest, she got cancer. So, these are the people who would respond to cries for help.”
Beyond their compassion for patients, pride is also a factor.
“When you’re a medical professional, you’re used to being one of the smartest people in the room … To be able to reach out to somebody and say ‘Hey, do you really know who this is?’ after you’ve been engaging online with them is an embarrassing admission,” Aftab said.
‘Trust Your Gut’
All of the experts agreed the lesson to draw from this experience is to be more cautious.
“If someone doesn’t want to give you a name or any identity, that should really be a major red flag … If someone starts giving you personal advice that would be another red flag,” said Carll.
“The best advice I can give is if you’re suspicious, don’t check IP addresses, don’t search for the pictures online, just disengage,” Aftab said.
Logghe added that talking to colleagues “when something doesn’t feel right” is critical. Few women were totally surprised to discover that Jill wasn’t who she pretended to be, because most had suspicions, but it took time for the women to reach out and share their concerns with each other.
“I think [the story is] a good reminder about having safe practices, trusting your gut,” said the resident from North Carolina — the one who declined the offer to be profiled.
As for safety, Aftab said that catfish “tend not to be dangerous, confrontational or violent.”
“Whenever we push it we find somebody who lives in his basement wearing Pokemon pajamas,” she said.