Tennessee mother Sarah Gilliam was shocked to learn a blogger stole photographs of her 5-year-old son, Jack, from her website and used them to create an elaborate web hoax. The unidentified blogger from North Carolina pretended to be the mother of a boy who had died of leukemia.
Gilliam, a professional photographer, was alerted to the stolen pictures when she received an email from The Warrior Eli Hoax Group, which investigates fakers on the web.
“I feel so violated,” Gilliam told The Tennessean.
The blogger, calling herself Casey Bowman, set up a Facebook page called “Remembering Reilly” using pictures of Jack, many of which include Gilliam, her grandfather, her mother and her nephew.
One post from March 9 read “Missing Reills so much. We’re had a hard few days.”
Casey Bowman even made a YouTube video featuring a montage of pictures of the dead “Reilly.”
The email that Gilliam received from Warrior Eli Hoax Group on Thursday read:
“I am sorry to have to send this email and I sincerely hope it is not too disruptive or hurtful, but I thought you would want to know. I am the mother of a leukemia patient … I am also involved with a blog project that researches and publicizes hoax stories of people faking cancer and other serious illnesses online and in real life.
“One of my most recent cases involves someone using photos that I believe are of your son Jack claiming he was a leukemia patient named Reilly Bowman.”
“When I first saw Jack's face portrayed as a dead child, my heart completely sank,” Gilliam told MailOnline. “The initial vision of every parent's worst nightmare is hard to stomach. I still haven't read much of the fictitious blog — the details and fabrications accompanying photos of our very happy and healthy family are just too sickening.”
Bowman did not ask for donations, but rather sold T-shirts that said “Team Reilly.” Gilliam and her husband contacted the T-shirt company, but have not yet heard back.
Warrior Eli Hoax Group sniffs out scammers by looking for clues. Perhaps one of the first clues that something was awry about the Facebook page was that the mother began posting to it the same day she claimed Reilly passed away, Oct. 21, 2012.
“Hi Reilly,” said the first post. “It's been a day. Your daddy and I still haven't left the hospital. We've practically spent our lives here and it wouldn't be right to leave here without you.”
Eli Hoax Group investigator, Shelly Jackson, said they became suspiscious of Bowman when they saw the treatment detailed on her blog did not match treatment for leukemia. The group has followed about 40 cases like this one since they started working in May 2012.
“It's a scary scenario, and it's a cautionary tale,” Gilliam said. “I hope what I have gone through will somehow start a conversation that really digs into what we are doing on the internet and what we shouldn't be doing. You feel safe doing it, when it's not safe.”
Because she does not know what kind of money — if any — was involved, Gilliam will likely not be able to sue. A lawyer friend helped her get the social media pages disabled. The problem is it is not generally illegal to steal someone else’s pictures off the internet.
"I think the hardest part to grasp for the victims is it's probably not against the law," Jackson told The Tennessean.