By now, we’ve hopefully heard every detail in the Manti T’eo scandal and maybe checked out a couple episodes of MTV’s Catfish, so the idea that someone would invent a fake identity and/or jump into a cyberlationship isn’t all that surprising — or at least it probably shouldn’t be.
But what about the idea of inventing a fake illness?
Taryn Wright is a day-trader from Chicago who in her spare time runs the website Warrior Eli Hoax. The blog was originally founded to expose the saga of JS Dirr and “Warrior Eli," and Wright has since uncovered multiple cases of hoaxers inventing sick relatives to garner attention for themselves. Sleuthing, fake identities, elaborate cover-ups — the case files often read like episodes of Veronica Mars, but with fewer puns. Taryn was kind enough to agree to an interview about her side job as an amateur detective.
How did you get involved with exposing online hoaxes?
Last Mother's Day, someone posted a link on Facebook about this tragic story of a mother, Dana Dirr, who had been killed in a car accident and had delivered her baby just before death. She had eleven kids, and one of them was dying of cancer. It seemed really bizarre, so I started Googling. I found no real links about this story outside of Facebook or personal blogs, and it seemed like something the media would have instantly picked up on. I was talking about it in the comments of another blog and we started looking more closely at the family's Facebook page. That's when we found the pictures that were used as the family's twins were actually the children of a South African blogger.
I put the pictures up on WordPress to send them to the real mom, and then kept updating as new information came in. By the end of the next day, I had figured out that the person behind the hoax — which went on for at least 7 years and had 83 fake Facebook profiles — was a 22-year-old female med student from Ohio.
How did you come across the initial post that kicked it all off?
It was posted as a prayer request. It had gone viral on Facebook with something like 6,000 shares.
How did you decide to confront the woman behind the hoax? Were you concerned at all about how to approach her?
I was really concerned about posting her name, and I wrote a blog entry asking the woman in Ohio to contact me before I revealed her identity. She didn't, so I posted the proof. She emailed me and said the whole thing was a mistake, that she really did have a brother named JS whose wife had died and he really did have 11 kids, but he used fake pictures to protect his security since he was a K9 Mountie officer.
I told her I didn't believe her, so she asked if she could call. Then she confessed the whole thing was a hoax. I was really kind to her and told her that a lot of really bizarre mental health stuff goes down in your 20s.
You've been investigating a lot of hoaxes since then. Did you seek them out or were they brought to your attention?
The first one kind of fell on my lap. Afterward, we found out that a member of our group — I had made a private Facebook group for people who had helped with research — had been arrested for pretending to be a man and assaulting a teenager. Fun, fun, fun. After that, we got some media attention and people started sending me pages to check out.
Why do you think you continued to stay involved in rooting out cases like this?
The Warrior Eli one was fun because it was a mystery. Once I started hearing from people who had interacted with her, though, I realized the extent to which they were hurt by the deception. Some of them had children who had died of cancer. They'd left the bedsides of their own kids to comfort the Dirrs, and it turned out to be fake.
They all felt very victimized and betrayed, and since I don't have a kid dying of cancer, it's been nice to be able to do something to help people who are touched by illnesses.
It's something you do in your spare time outside of work, right?
Right. When the first one went down, I was still stuck in bed with a hip injury, so it was a nice distraction. Now I spend a couple of hours a day uncovering them.
How many hoaxes would you say you've exposed since you first started researching them?
I'd say a total of about 13. A few have been young teenagers and I've just emailed them to make them take the page down.
Do you get their parents involved?
Yes. If I find a particularly long-running one, or one that is viciously exploiting people emotionally, I do contact their parents. That's always a fun phone call. "Hi, I'm Taryn from the internet..."
Have you ever had any parents who flat out refused to believe you or get involved?
One mom was pretty apathetic about it, saying "What do you want me to do about it?" Um, I want you to stop your kid from taking gifts from childhood cancer charities. She was also a big World of Warcraft fan and I don't think she spend many daylight hours not playing the game.
What's the general reaction of a person perpetrating this kind of hoax when you first confront them?
It's been bizarre. I usually send them the blog entry and they immediately delete their page. I ask if we can talk and most give me their phone number. A huge number of them begin to consider me a friend. I'm Facebook friends with three of them, and I text and email with three more.
They don't seem angry with me. It's almost like it’s a relief that someone made them stop.
Do any of them seek out any kind of mental help after they're uncovered?
A few of them have. I've helped a couple find therapists. A lot of them have been pathologically lying from an early age and some have already been through therapy. One of them had a Munchausen by Internet diagnosis.
Ohhh, let's do some talking about Munchausen By Internet. Explain that one, please!
Well, it's not formally recognized by the psychology establishment, but a psychiatrist named Marc Feldman coined the term in the early '00s. It's a form of Munchausen syndrome, but instead of faking sick, or making their children or family members sick for attention, the person with MBI pretends to be sick online.
They go into support groups and spin tragic stories and hog attention. If they're caught, they usually delete their profiles and move on to a new support group.
How many documented cases of that have there been?
An awful lot. Dr. Feldman has seen a few hundred by now.
Is there a typical profile for someone who pulls hoaxes like this? Are there things they all seem to have in common or does it run across the board?
Typically from what I’ve seen, it's been women in their late teens or early twenties, kind of shy and with some family trauma. We did have one 50-year-old male hoaxer, but the typical MBI profile seems like it’s usually a woman with poor social skills.
What do you think motivates them to do something like this?
Personally, I think it's a manifestation of depression. It's a way to interact socially without taking many risks. I think they do it for attention, and in some cases, for respect. People give parents of cancer patients a lot of admiration and credit.
So it's not out of a desire for financial profit?
No. The ones I've written about had zero interest in that. Some have accepted gifts or donations, but I honestly think they thought "Hmm, if I say no to this offer, people will think I'm fake." Emily, my first hoaxer, actually sent out hundreds of plastic awareness bracelets at her own expense to draw attention to her pretend son's illness. I think they do a lot of stuff to make their stories seem real, but attention seems to be the main thing they’re after.
What's the most elaborate thing you've seen done to keep the hoax going — like the plastic bracelets?
So far, Emily takes the cake. She had 83 fake Facebook profiles and created a huge cast of characters, and she'd post from each profile and tag different characters in pictures and statuses. It was very elaborate. She also used Yahoo! Answers and would post answers to questions about childhood cancer treatment and offer medical advice from the perspective of the parent of a cancer patient. Oh, and she drew Father's Day cards from the 11 children, scanned them, and posted them online.
Is there any legal resource for people who have been duped by stories like this? That just seems so frustrating, to cultivate an online friendship with someone and then find out they're not a real person.
Not really, which drives people insane. Even when someone steals images, there's not much that can be done. I've gotten the police involved in a couple of cases when the hoaxer took money or gifts, but nothing has ever come of it.
Are there any typical warning signs that you're dealing with a hoax?
Any kind of really soap-opera story, where each character introduced has a tragic illness or injury, raises red flags for me. If someone says "I can't accept mail, but my cousin can! Here's her address," that's a red flag. Any time you Google someone and there's no "real life" results, like work or school or real estate, it makes me question the story.
Have there been any repeat offenders that you're aware of? Someone you've exposed, who confesses and then starts up again with another fake story?
There was one teenager who tried to restart her fake Facebook page. I gently reminded her the jig was up and she deleted it again. Apparently one of the main problems with MBI is that people just continue to do this after being found out. I always hope the shock of being outed with their real names will make them stop, but sometimes it doesn’t.
Do people bring cases to your attention now? Is there a giant list of pages to check out somewhere in The Taryn Files?
I get a TON of emails and Facebook messages. Most of them are legit pages and people are paranoid, but I'd say I get two new hoaxes a week. It takes a long time to research them and to write them up. I have to be really careful, because I don't want to get sued, but I do have a giant Coming Attractions file.
What's the most satisfying part of doing all this research? Do you feel like Veronica Mars, but sassier?
It's really satisfying on both ends. I like knowing I helped the people who were being lied to, and I like knowing that some of the hoaxers got help and are hopefully going to lead better lives because of it. Plus I like the women I've met who help me research. It's been really positive for the most part.
Your opinion: was Manti Teo totally in on that whole deal?
To me, it seems like he must have known more than he's saying, just because it's odd that he’d let journalists report he met her in person. However, I have a close friend who’s Mormon, and he says that he believes Teo because the culture of their religion tends to breed a more innocent 22-year-old. Honestly, I go either way. At first I thought he was absolutely full of shit. Now I wonder if he was just really manipulated and innocent.
You've been on 20/20 with the creative team behind MTV's Catfish, talking about the psychology behind perpetrating these hoaxes. In your opinion, do the Munchausen By Internet cases have any overlap with the Catfish cases, where it's more a question of lying for cyberdating purposes?
I think they're all cases where people feel hugely betrayed. The difference for me is that our cases involve people who are just in such vulnerable mental states. They're either sick themselves or have sick family members. Many are at the low point of their lives, and they think they've found someone who understands, who’s going through the same thing. They pour their heart out to these people only to find out they're fake. And then they feel guilty and gullible because a total stranger knows their deepest darkest secrets. To me, the cancer stuff and other illness fakers seem more predatory.
Last question: How do you know MOLLY SHALGOS is not a hoax?
If you’re faking your love of Sweet Valley High, I'm quitting the internet.
Molly Shalgos lives and writes in Los Angeles.