Friday, February 27, 2009

Something is Rotten in Denmark

Once upon a time, back in the mid-90's, I was a reporter for a little outfit called People Magazine.

And while at People, I worked on a story that left a deep impression on me. It was about a New Jersey woman -- a frumpy, bespectacled 30something with a high school education -- who was randomly dialing the dorm rooms of Ivy League college students, befriending them and then bilking them out of money. She claimed to be a South African supermodel. She claimed to be dying of leukemia. She claimed to know all sorts of celebrities. The story changed so many times it was impossible to keep track. But people fell for it. She'd supposedly even managed to get a Princeton student to marry her. And she was going on trial for fraud.

My colleague Sarah and I worked this story best as we could, but in the end it never ran. The con woman was slippery as an eel. The college boys, it turned out, were just the tip of the iceberg. This woman's aliases had aliases. She pled to a lesser charge, got five years' probation and we moved on. But we did get in the habit, whenever things just got wacky and unexplainable in our lives, of putting up our hands in resignation and saying her name, ala Seinfeld's Newman! You can learn more about her shenanigans here; apparently, the rise of the Internet and social networking was a huge boon to her. Last I heard she was posing as a 9/11 widow. On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog, right?

Many years later, when I was a regular on the wedding planning message boards on the Knot, I thought of my old friend Nancy when the boards were rocked by scandal. AmyLovesRian was the screenname of everyone's favorite, most helpful bride-to-be. She had a picture perfect romance and was planning a destination wedding in the Caribbean. Somewhere during the course of planning, she discovered she was pregnant -- with twins! And then there was that time her fiance surprised her with -- a new house! After the pictures of the beach wedding failed to materialize, Amy's story slowly began to unravel. Someone discovered that all the pictures of her pregnant belly had been borrowed from someone else's pregnancy journal. The picture of Amy and her fiance was supposedly from an advertisement. It was never clear at what point Amy had begun to embellish the truth, or whether she'd ever really been engaged at all. But I distinctly remember the uproar her unmasking caused. How cheated people felt for admiring her and swallowing her story wholesale. One woman was livid that she was constantly finding fault with her own fiance for not being more like the mythical Rian. Amy crawled off the boards with her tail between her legs, never to be heard from again. Or at least not that we knew of. It looks like BabyCenter recently had a similar poser on its boards.

I've always been captivated by this type of fakery. I'm honest to a fault, the kind of reporter who worried constantly about getting every word down verbatim. The idea of being that brazen with the truth completely and utterly fascinates me. And I'm also unhealthily obsessed with sad stories.

Which is why I've spent most of today searching over and over for a plausible explanation for what I've discovered.

Here's the deal.

There's a blog attracting thousands of hits from all over the world. It purports to tell a heartwrenching story about a family tragedy. Strangers have been praying for the blogger and making gracious offers of emotional support. Many tears have been shed. And I'm about 99 percent sure that it's a scam. Or a student's sociology project, or something, but it's definitely not what it purports to be.

There's nothing illegal about what the blogger is doing; no donations have been solicited. Yet. But it literally makes me ill to think of bereaved parents investing even an ounce of emotional energy on a what is almost certainly a fictional story. It's not the first time such a fraud would have been perpetrated. But to whom does one complain about an ethical violation on the Internet? (And while we're at it, are people really still falling for the Nigerian bank thing?)

Anyway, I'm at a loss for what to do. Do I contact the blogger privately with my concerns? She doesn't post an email address, but I'm pretty sure I know how to reach her. Do I post my accusations publicly (anonymously?) on the site so that others will see them and be warned of her deceit? Do I just stay out of it and see where she goes with this? I'm no detective, and there's always the chance I've somehow gotten this all wrong, but while I'd love that to be the case, my gut and a host of evidence say otherwise. I thought something was odd when I realized that every single comment on the blog was from someone who'd seen the blogger's many comments on other blogs and message boards, (she's been drumming up business at an alarming clip) not from anyone who seemed to actually know her and her story in real life. The tragedy, it would appear, is an Internet exclusive.

So I'm putting it out to you, all three of you who've been reading this space. What's the right thing to do?

13 comments:

  1. I'd contact her anonymously and then tell me the name of the blog (you can't keep that information from us Jen!). ;) I always like a good detective story.

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  2. Ahh, the AmyLovesRian days... We were "victims" of something similar. Someone stole the twins' pics from our flickr account and was saying they were her twins, born about 2 years later, on social networking sites like myspace and bebo, which I had never even heard of prior to the event. Someone else somehow found our blog, emailed to let us know, and pretty much freaked us the hell out. She wasn't bilking money or sympathy from anyone, but we still let our minds wander to scary places of them being kidnapped or worse by some cyber-stalker. In the end, we decided it was likely harmless, but we did make a few minor changes to make us somewhat less identifiable and findable.

    To your situation, I say share the website so you can get others opinions. And so I can be nosy!

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  3. Hi, let me first say I've enjoyed reading your blog... (and facebook status updates, but that's because I sadly spend WAY too much time there lately.)

    Anyway, I don't think there is anything you can do short of monitoring it to see if illegal activity takes place. I don't think a note from you will stop some who is sick enough to fabricate stories for sympathy or attention.

    Instead this should really remind us that online, nothing is as it seems and everything is public. People forget that. It's too easy to stare at the screen and imagine someone as being something more or something different. Maybe the general public shouldn't be so quick to get sucked into a tragedy that hasn't been verified. It's like a movie or a Lifetime miniseries - it's OK to cry and care until, say, the wallets come out or someone is in danger of being harmed.

    I too am a reporter and this fakery is infuriating, but sadly there isn't an Internet ethics police. So until it becomes more than just a story, I don't think there is anything you can do.

    Interesting debate, though. And yes my first instinct was to want to see the site too...

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  4. There are no ethical violations on the internet and therein lies the rub. Even if this woman turns out to be a fraud, she becomes an internet celeb anyway, just like yesterday's viral video or the latest world's worst man.

    Call your brother and give him the link. I'll apply my own ten-second smell test.

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  5. I understand Matt's point, but of course there ARE ethical violations on the internet, and if this blogger is fabricating a story, she's committing one. Simply because no one person or entity owns responsibility for the internet's content doesn't mean that individuals abdicate ethical responsibility for their own postings.

    Theoretically, I'd agree with you that you should post something to the site calling out the blogger. (In fact, I am sure that many who have seen that blog have thought similar thoughts, and declined to post under the theory of "it's not my role", or "someone else will do it.") It's a classic "if not me, then who" ethical question, right?

    But practically, if you start a firestorm of comment between those who defend the blogger's veracity (because they "want" to believe) and those who agree with you, you've just elevated the blogger to celeb status, as Matt notes.

    So I don't know. But I lean toward the theoretical (and what I would consider more ethical) response. Perhaps you send this in to the NYTimes Ethicist for his comment? I'd bet this gets published.

    By the way, this is why I avoid most blogs and still read newspapers (even liberal ones) -- they have editors, and therefore, they have accountability.

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  6. Jen, I'm super-sensitive to this issue for obvious reasons. Is this person actually posing as a bereaved parent? If so, I'd appreciate it very much if you would say something, on her blog or on this blog or both. I'm always astonished by this, but you're right, it certainly does happen. I'm a member of a password-protected site for bereaved parents, and one of the reasons the site is fairly closely monitored is that people will present themselves as parents of a dead child to gain the support and sympathy of others. It absolutely astounds me. Who would want to go to such a bleak, dark, awful place willingly (except, of course, for them the unimaginable sorrow is just that--a figment of their imagination). I just have to think about karma, and if indeed someone is out there killing off their fictitious child to gain the attention of the internet, that kind of karma can't be good.

    PS--We listened to an interesting episode of "This American Life" on NPR a while back that covered a group of people who hunt down those Nigerian bank scammers and wreak havoc on their lives. These guys have their own online community and everything, and the sole purpose is to trap the Nigerian scammers in their own game. It was fairly bizarre how obsessed these otherwise ordinary accountants and computer programmers and so on were with the hunt and the game.

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  7. Jen:

    I'd hate to be wrong on this too. But here's something odd:

    On the site you sent me, the individual says her daughter died the day after her sixth birthday, on 1/20/09. And in another post, she shows multiple pictures she purports to have taken at the child's previous fifth birthday party. That would be 1/20/08, right? But the embedded camera IPTC metadata for each of those pictures shows a create date of 12/9/06. That would be the wrong day and the wrong year, no? Am I missing something?

    (drag the photo onto your desktop, then drag it into Photoshop. Look under file info in the File menu.)

    Curiously, the two images she's using as profile pics have had their metadata purged. But she may have forgot to do that on the one gallery of other photos. So something ain't lining up right off the bat.

    But that still isn't enough proof.

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  8. Ah...I remember the Amylovesrian days. Can you send me the link?
    Julie

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  9. Thanks guys. Still debating. One concern I have is that if I do post something publicly, she'll just delete it. But I'll at least have tried. I'm a little loath to email her because if she's wacko, I kind of don't want her to have my info. I guess I could make up a yahoo address or something. Which is why I'm also not going to post the link here, btw. Because she has sitemeter on the blog.

    Do you think I should try to contact Blogger somehow?

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  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  11. I think your post is a bit unfair to those Nigerian princes and lottery winners who have a legitimate need for total strangers' bank account information.

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  12. make sure you copy the blog or whatever first as they delete everything as soon as you start to show suspicions

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  13. that is their whole blog...not just your comment

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