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?