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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

122

The Hoax Exposer

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.



122 Comments / Post A Comment

parallel-lines

Confession: I'm not really a chain smoking Canadian burger cook. I'm actually a pipe smoking Albanian kombucha brewer.

Tuna Surprise

@parallel-lines
Is this where I admit I'm neither a tuna nor (quite frankly) is there really anything surprising about me?

parallel-lines

@Tuna Surprise It appears that this catfishing was more of a tunafishing (/rimshot).

fondue with cheddar

@Tuna Surprise I am neither a melted cheese dish nor a chicken with spindly legs. However, I am not a complete liar, as I am indeed often found with cheddar.

Vera Knoop

@fondue with cheddar I'm... I'm not really Maria Callas. I'm sorry, everyone.

parallel-lines

@parallel-lines (Good grief, I cannot believe I really made that joke. Someone ship me off to the borscht belt, try the kugel it's to die for!)

fondue with cheddar

@parallel-lines We love you anyway, you crazy pipe-smoking Albanian kombucha brewer whose name is not Barth!

Miss Maszkerádi

@Vera Knoop *sigh*......guys, I'm......I'm not really a countess. I was never able to successfully trace my family heritage back to a legitimate title of nobility. I ADMIT IT I'M JUST A PEASANT FROM THE PROVINCES oh the shame.

gobblegirl

@parallel-lines I am not eggs. I am a grown-ass bird.

Ellie

@parallel-lines I'm not really celebrated porn actress Scarlett Fay.

Nutellaface

@parallel-lines I HAVE NUTELLA ALL UP ON MY FACE 24/7.

parallel-lines

@Ellie Hey! Don't be so hard on yourself, you TRY!

frigwiggin

@parallel-lines

I really am Franz Sacher and you can't prove otherwise.

Ophelia

@parallel-lines I am not really filled with helium. Nor am I quite so multi-colored. Sigh.

fondue with cheddar

@Ophelia I think you are a colorful character! And some of the things you say are...uplifting?

Ophelia

@fondue with cheddar Hey, not bad! That was a little cheesy, though.

*rimshot*

fondue with cheddar

@Ophelia Whatever, you're obviously high.

mrs psmith

@parallel-lines Mr Psmith and I aren't really married :/

Vera Knoop

@parallel-lines I've tried kugels, but somehow I always feel like everyone can tell.

Faintly Macabre

@parallel-lines I'm not faintly macabre, I'm pretty macabre. However, I am a whirly ride!

amitygardens@twitter

@parallel-lines I don't wear a crown...all the time.

reburkel

A really great related article: http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/the-lying-disease/Content?oid=15337239

allendaniel

This is very cool.@a

bananab0at

"it's been women in their late teens or early twenties"
obviously being a woman is hard, and being a woman in that age range is especially frustrating and confusing - but there must be something further to deduce from this. something about how the range of acceptable behavior and emotional expression is so limited that going to these lengths to get attention online is an attractive option.

KatnotCat

@bananab0at I wonder if it's in partly due to the way men and women interact with health issues and disease in general, especially online. Men in general are less involved in their own health, less likely to discuss health issues with other men, and in my experience, don't participate very much in these type of disease activism/prayer/support initiatives on social media. My mom's friends and older female coworkers seem to the most likely to, for example, "LIKE TO SAY A PRAYER FOR THIS BABY WITH LEUKEMIA."

These type of hoaxes allow lonely people to interact with lots of strangers online, but most of those strangers probably tend to be other women, and sympathetic women at that. It's a fairly safe hoax compared to other fake online personalities.

bananab0at

@KatnotCat well, i was mostly thinking in general that catfishing/sockpuppetting online seems to be more of a female thing. not just looking for sympathy specifically, but any sort of emotional feedback.

as far as looking for sympathy online, making up fake illnesses, i just think you end up reaching mainly mothers, b/c they're already highly empathetic and paranoid about this scenario happening in their own lives. but i don't think looking for sympathy online is much different (from the perspective of the catfish) than looking for love or any other emotion - they are looking for any connection, as long it's on their own terms, firmly in their own control.

Miss Maszkerádi

@bananab0at Whenever one of my Facebook friends has a baby, I usually end up having to block/filter her from my news feed after a while - partly because of the million and a half pictures of her own baby (like, he's cute, but we get it) but also because of the sudden and overwhelming flood of "Share this to donate $1 to little Susie with cancer" "Pass on this sob story of a dying mother and her autistic son and remind everyone that life is full of moments we have to cherish" "99% of people won't repost this spam status about cancer, DO YOU HAVE A SOUL?" etc. Seriously, it's like their bullshit filter suddenly stops working.

bananab0at

@Countess Maritza having not had a kid yet, i really really really hope i don't fall into that emotional volcano. i've spent so long perfecting my detached perspective and my finely tuned bullshit filter; i'd want my kid to benefit from that, not to have it totally reset. and arg it's facebook! rein it in!

on a related note, this is one of the kajillion reasons i stopped going on fb. seeing someone's fb activity has never ever made me respect them more.

Miss Maszkerádi

@bananab0at Argh yes so true! I'm horrified by the prospect of ever having babies because most of what I see around me is smart, interesting, funny independent women suddenly morphing into hyper-sincere, hyper-sensitive, often self-righteous, completely uninterested in the entire wide world except as it relates to their baby, and the bit that I most want to avoid, absolutely terrified of everything and every way anything could possibly go wrong. I've read some mommy bloggers basically brag about the loss of identity and the constant background hum of mortal fear, but sorry, not for me.

bananab0at

@Countess Maritza exactly! it makes me so nervous b/c i think those qualities DO NOT make for good parenting in the long run. hopefully being preemptively aware of that feeling (of your heart living outside your body, constantly imperiled, and only your vigilance can protect it) will help me channel it in a positive way, when i finally get to be a mother. b/c otherwise i have no idea how i'll be able to survive that maelstrom of emotion. i routinely well up during friends reruns!

Miss Maszkerádi

@bananab0at I mean, I believe the mothers who tell me that it's a transcendentally wonderful experience...for them. As soon as they start assuring me I have literally no idea what it feels like to love someone or no clue what life is remotely about, I get annoyed. And when they launch into half-hour monologues about how their baby is the entire goddamn universe for them and there is nothing else even slightly worth living for by comparison, all I can think of is that viral video of the Southern woman yelling "Ain't nobody got time fo dat!" ....I mean, I've rejected potential boyfriends because I want to be free to travel as I please. Babies....no.

KatnotCat

@bananab0at Is catfishing more of a female thing? I didn't have that association before because I've certainly seen plenty of examples of fake online personalities being constructed by males.
Now I really want to know, but trying to search on it just results in a lot of detailed diagrams of fish genitalia.

bananab0at

@Countess Maritza honestly - good for you! in the midst of a serious overpopulation problem, and feminism, and progress for individuality, no one should be shaming anyone for making that choice.

i honestly think, in the same way that married people do this, or people with corporate jobs do this, people just want you to join them in their misery. they have whatever obstacles they have in their life, and they view your life without those obstacles as a lesser choice b/c otherwise it would make them reevaluate their own life choices, and maybe find a deep well of problems there.

i have always felt, since i was very very little, like a future mother. and i'm excited for that phase in my life. but if you don't want to have kids, then no one should be trying to talk you (or, even worse, shame you) into it. it's just another reminder that people are isolated echo chambers and the things they think about/say to each other are purely incidental.

bananab0at

@KatnotCat haha well i'm not sure - just based on what taryn was saying, it didn't read to me like it was limited to that sympathy trolling thing. it seemed that younger women are more apt to have fake online identities. that stat makes sense to me b/c the expectations for women are so narrowly defined, and that leaves a lot of emotional spillover. but i guess if dudes are involved in equal measure, then i just have no idea what is going on as per uzh.

almighty jugs

Anyone here well-versed in Harry Potter fandom/maybe just fandom in general? I can't remember if it was posted here or somewhere else entirely, but I remember reading one of those epic multientry Livejournal shakedowns of a fake-terminally ill lady in either Harry Potter fandom or some other fandom who eventually faked her own death and then POSED AS A NURSE AND COMMENTED IN A LIVEJOURNAL THREAD ANNOUNCING SAID DEATH.

Does anyone know what I'm talking about? I'm procrastinating hardcore right now and I'm dying to read it again.

Judith Slutler

@almighty jugs God, that sounds amazing.

What's so fascinating about these stories, anyway? I could read about this kind of thing for hours.

almighty jugs

@Emmanuelle Cunt I KNOW. The LJ/Harry Potter fandom ones are the best IMO. They're also pretty old by this point which I think adds to the intrigue? I have trouble watching Catfish though, it gives me uncomfortable squirmy feelings

professionalmess

@almighty jugs Me too! It's like I feel the painful awkwardness of everyone on the show.

Scandyhoovian

@almighty jugs I can't remember if it was HP fandom or just fandom in general but I remember pseuicides were so commonplace that there was a whole comm for them (which still exists! huzzah!) and can be found here: fake deaths community

almighty jugs

@almighty jugs !!!!!!!!!! http://fake-lj-deaths.livejournal.com/

almighty jugs

@Scandyhoovian DUDE we posted that at almost the same time. I googled "livejournal hoax" and there it was! Great minds, etc.

Vera Knoop

@almighty jugs Well, there was Limeybean, who faked a terminal illness. And then there was MsScribe-- I'm pretty sure there was a fake death/illness in there somewhere. But the wackiest of all was the Andrew Blake/Victoria Bitter saga, which ended up getting someone killed IRL.

sydwi

@almighty jugs MSSCRIBE!!!!! http://www.journalfen.net/community/bad_penny/1074.html

It was Harry Potter and it was so damned batshit insane, I can't even. I was part of that fandom then, and I knew a lot of the affected people. And then someone wrote, basically, a crime nonfiction book about it, and that is the link above.

anachronistique

@almighty jugs The fandom deaths of years past! Anybody remember the Kids Next Door one with stutter-typing and requests for items from the girl's amazon wishlist?

@sydwi noooooo why did you link to bad_penny I HAVE THINGS TO GET DONE TODAY

bananab0at

@almighty jugs ok i've researched this intensely since you posted - was it the ms. scribe hoax? b/c i've read extensively on this subject and it's fascinating.

the only problem with the majority of the 'sleuthing' in these cases (interview subject excluded) is that it's done by people with limited faculties in writing/reading/comprehension.

almighty jugs

@Vera Knoop OMG MSSCRIBE. The hours I lost reading charlottelennox's account...
I have not heard of the other two. That's cool though, my homework can wait another 034952309485092 hours

almighty jugs

@all The MsScribe story is epic and insane - but I'm thinking of another one specifically involving a slash fan in maybe a kink meme/party thread type thing? It was lighter on the intra-fandom drams and heavier on the histrionics. But you are all brave and beautiful for diving down deep into the seedy underbelly of HP fandom. And for that I salute you.

Vera Knoop

@Emmanuelle Cunt I fall down this rabbit hole regularly, and I can't explain why. This is another interesting one, not fandom-related though: http://idlewords.com/2012/09/no_evidence_of_disease.htm

bananab0at

@almighty jugs um, literally no problem whatsoever.

RK Fire

@Vera Knoop Craziness. I read DA, I liked it, found out that Victoria Bitter was thanfiction (and didn't follow HP fandom so closely to care) and this all ended up with a irl murder? And he is still out there, running fake charities? INSANITY.

alicia

@Vera Knoop Wait, whaaaat? Someone *actually* was killed? Do you have any links? I'm trying to google and am just finding super-old fandom_wank posts.

Vera Knoop

@alicia This is the only link I could find on a quick scan. I don't like linking to Turimel, who persists in referring to Blake as "she," even though there's no reason to think his being trans is part of any hoax, but Turimel is also the one who's been documenting things obsessively this whole time, so with the above caveat:
http://turimel.livejournal.com/102660.html

laserbeams

@Vera Knoop Someone got killed?

alicia

@Vera Knoop Gosh, everything about this is completely bizarre. Thanks for the link!

schrodingers_cat

@Vera Knoop I think the weirdest thing about Andy Blake/Victoria Bitter (for me) is that he keeps turning up in new fandoms and trying the same things again. Apparently he is beginning the whole cycle in Supernatural again: http://www.journalfen.net/community/clairvoyantwank/485975.html

Vera Knoop

@schrodingers_cat
Oh, man. Yeah, there's clearly some kind of compulsion. It's sad-- he's obviously smart, creative and charismatic enough to spin these stories and get people believing him. Write the fantasy novel; don't try to LIVE the fantasy novel, you know?

Inkling

@all
I LOVE THIS, AND YOU, AND THIS. I am so inside the warm crazy rabbit hole/warren atm. I know I'm late to this but just in case anyone else is still here:
I'm reading his apology letter. He talks about, when he was little, feeling as if he had different spirits that came in him, and a lady made him think he was a medium.
I definitely felt the same way when I was young (and nowish)? Like "Oh yeah there are these full people, they're in my head, I know their entire (tragic) lives, they write like this and sound like this, etc". I mean it made me be a writer and not a medium or nut but now I'm dying to know:
Is this some function of gaining identity/exploring one's own character that is common, or just some imaginative play some people happen to grow attached to? Ideas?

D.@twitter

@almighty jugs I don't remember that, but that's not the only scandal to have rocked the fandom. Remember when BNF Cassandra Claire was under suspicion for accepting gifts under false pretenses?

Apocalypstick

@D.@twitter I can't beleive Cassandra Claire is now a Real Author and gets taken seriously. It's so jarring after having known about her fandom side.

anachronistique

@Apocalypstick Every time I see her books in a store I go straight into "FLAMES on the SIDES of my FACE" mode. UGH.

schrodingers_cat

@anachronistique That is my reaction to Cassandra "Clare" exactly. When I heard her books were being made into movies I may have wondered what was wrong with the world.

Scandyhoovian

@anachronistique I will never in my life buy or read anything written by Cassandra Claire just because I was present for and could not believe her gall during her fandom debacles. Never. Ever. Ever.

Also, it baffles me how she has managed to get her fandom debacles to barely even TOUCH her now. WHAT VOODOO MAGIC WAS THIS!?

Vera Knoop

@Inkling
I think that as with so many things, there's a spectrum. And I'm not even sure where the line is between artist and ... whatever you'd call what Andy does, but I'm inclined to draw it at the point where it becomes really important to make other people believe that those experiences are literally, empirically real, rather than just letting them have life on the page/screen/canvas/whatever.

RK Fire

@Scandyhoovian I'm so glad everyone here understands how weird it is to see Cassandra "Clare"'s books at a Barnes and Nobles. I had a double take the last time I was in a bookstore...

amitygardens@twitter

@all It's a rabbit hole that never ends. Thanks guys- I'm never going to get anything done now.

girllwholived

@almighty jugs YES I THINK I KNOW WHAT YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT. I was actually thinking of this as I read the article. There was a person with the username "limeybean" and she pretended to have tuberculosis, I think? I'm not sure if we're thinking of the same person but I was pretty active in the HP community on Livejournal from like 2004-2006 and I remember the drama of limeybean not-really dying.

Julia duMais

@almighty jugs WHAT

Mira

Anyone here on Ravelry? There was a similar case a while back of a woman who pretended to have cancer so she wouldn't have to fill orders for her yarn-dyeing business, culminating in a multi-year, multi-forum takedown. It was amazing.

The unifying theme always seems to be mental illness of some kind, and I think the sympathy Taryn has for the hoaxers is...I don't know, kind of reassuring? Anyway, this was a really interesting interview!

Amber Stewart@twitter

@Mira Whoa, I'm on Ravelry and don't remember this! That is insane!!

Mira

@Amber Stewart@twitter Mysterious Circumstances, Yo (is the name of the group). It's fascinating, in a train-wrecky sort of way!

honey cowl

@Mira Omg I remember that, it was ABSOLUTELY CRAY

Are They Biting Ducks?

@Mira The funny thing is, I actually have some MCY yarn from before all that went down! Then there was the sock pattern lady who "died" but didn't - I want to say it was Momma Monkey? I knit one of her patterns before the fake death, now I call them my zombie socks.

LeafySeaDragon

@Mira i was involbed in something similar in a cloth diapering community on livejournal. i think the total bilked from bad trades/sales was somewhere upwards of $500 in the end. i actually met some of the players involoved in a relaly terrible decision - i can only plea that i found out about this crap after the in person meet.

Diaphanous Gown

@Mira are you aware of the Rav member who faked her own brutal death on another forum and then started trying it on Rav, before mods let her know they knew what she was up to? Recently she actually died. For Real. And hardly anyone believed it.

Vera Knoop

@Diaphanous Gown
I just googled this (because I am a vicarious-drama-weasel) and HOLY WTF!

D.@twitter

@Mira Fyi, there's a Hairpin group on Ravelry, too. I don't think anyone in it has died yet, though.

honey cowl

@D.@twitter What! I am joining!

Emby

One of these days, we're going to find out that 85% of all the weird news we hear about is actually fabricated news created by the producers of Law & Order: SVU just so they can have some headlines to rip off.

SarahP

@Emby After reading a bunch of Taryn's posts, I actually caught myself thinking "What if TARYN doesn't really exist?!" My brain's got itself all worked up...

Taryn Harper Wright@facebook

@Emby Some days I even wonder that after reading my blog ;)

OhMyGoshYouGuys

This was a great read. I can't believe Munchausen by Internet exists. Oh wait, yes I can!

Dancercise

@OhMyGoshYouGuys
If you want to read more about it, this is utterly fascinating.

OhMyGoshYouGuys

@Dancercise Ooooooohhhh, thanks! Bookmarking this to read when I get home.

HeyThatsMyBike

@Dancercise That WAS utterly fascinating. I want to give poor Valerie a hug. I'm also so freaking naive about that stuff that I'm certain I'd fall prey to the same schemes - especially if I was lonely and sick. Like I would never assume somebody that wasn't looking to take all my money would go to all the effort to befriend me and trade cancer stories and provide moral support to me if she didn't actually have cancer, too.
Taryn's blog is fascinating, too. I'm just amazed by how far people go with this stuff.

craygirl

Awesome post! Taryn, I'm a huge fan of what you do at WarriorEliHoax - not just exposing fakers, but also taking the time to verify people who are truly sick via the news/medical records/etc. Really cool to read more about your process!

Taryn Harper Wright@facebook

@craygirl Thanks! It's a weird hobby but it beats stamp collecting ;)

martinipie

This is so fascinating! I recently had a long conversation with my best friend in which her cousin in Greece found out the "long distance boyfriend" she met online--who had a FB profile and would call her all the time, several times a day for hours at a time for almost a year, and whose mother she supposedly talked on the phone to all the time, and who kept having to mysteriously cancel the times they wanted to meet up--was in fact a young, depressed, not very socialized woman who was doing the boyfriend voice and the mom voice! She had set up different phone numbers and facebook accounts and I guess could do a convincingly masculine-enough voice? But it was on this level of total fascination and weird horror, and the poor cousin was legitimately heartbroken alongside feeling betrayed and scared. So much weird shit goes down in the world!

laserbeams

The first person I ever talked to online was a compulsive liar. I've never talked about it, and I don't think anything was ever written about her on any hoax sites, but - at one point, she faked her own death, and it was seriously fucked up.

I was a sheltered, naive, lonely 15 year old. The first time I logged on to a chat site, I was an idiot and said something stupid and got yelled at. This person stuck up for me, and I basically decided she was amazing and kept going back to the chatroom to talk to her (and other people, obvs). She talked about her job, her expensive clothes, her young daughter, and all this stuff; I was totally bowled over that this woman would want to be friends with me and just accepted everything she said.

Only it was wildly inconsistent, and sometimes she'd talk about going to school and stuff. And somehow I never ever questioned her? I mentally filed away "Okay, that's weird, that contradicts what she said last week" but mostly I just assumed I'd got confused or something. She'd told different people that her real name was a few different things, too, and looking back now I just think I was clearly a moron to keep being "friends" with her. But at the time, I didn't have many friends, so I just went along with whatever.

We talked in the chatroom, on a messageboard, and over ICQ. She was one of the most popular people in that little community, and seemed to be friends with everyone, but she always had stories to tell. Apparently there were all these tragedies in her life, like her parents dying in an accident, and her kid being ill, and her being a single parent, and I was always sympathetic.

One day I got an email from, supposedly, her cousin, saying that she'd killed herself. "He" said she'd tried to kill herself multiple times before, but had finally succeeded, so he'd hacked her email to let her online friends know. I spent hours on the phone to our mutual online friends in other countries, crying over her. Despite all the weird lies I'd noticed, I really thought she was my friend, and I really loved her, and I was devastated that she was dead.

But then someone called the church where her funeral was supposedly happening. Someone called the police in her hometown. No-one knew anything about it. We started to get suspicious, and then she called me, saying she'd been away but came back to find everyone in the chatroom talking about her death, and that she'd been hacked and knew nothing about it. I was so relieved that I think... I actually believed her?

I stayed friends with her for years. Even after I realised that I knew nothing about this woman, that nothing she'd told me could be trusted, and we weren't "friends" at all. It was just... totally weird.

I feel like it must've been easier to get away with that sort of stuff back then, when you couldn't really find out much information about someone's real life by Googling them. It's amazing that people still try it today.

laserbeams

@laserbeams I should add that when I was 18 I flew halfway around the world by myself to stay with a boy I'd met online and decided I was in love with, and I didn't get killed or anything, so, um, yeah. I don't think I should've been allowed the internet when I was a teenager.

Really enjoyed Catfish, though. It rang so, so true to my own experiences, though luckily I didn't actually go to meet anyone in person who'd been lying about who they were.

happy go lucky scamp

@laserbeams I had a 'friend' who did that in real life. Always had these amazing stories about people and place and things he did. Although it always seemed like he was getting away with everything, and had money to fund these adventures (for someone who was essentially a high school drop out who didn't even sleep on sheets). I was still able to rationalise it because I knew that I was naive. We went to the same church.
He told me all sorts of things which I will never know if they're true or not. (having children, jail time, fights, drugs)
Eventually he told me that a guy who was his housemate and that I'd hung out with a few times and kinda liked, was killed.
Even gave me presents 'from him', and told me all about the funeral only I was working.

It all came to a head 6 months later when I was at a pub that we used to go to sometimes, and I saw the guy who "was killed" and burst into hysterical tears.
6 months of thinking someone was dead and then running into them at the pub?

I think back and wonder just what the fuck I was thinking.

laserbeams

@happy go lucky scamp Wow. I wonder why he thought he could get away with that?

frigwiggin

It's kind of funny to me, actually, that all the internet friends I've met in real life have actually been who they've said they are.

Sometimes I think about creating another person to be on the internet, and the harmless escapism of it, but mostly I just keep being my same boring self. (I can also sort of understand the draw of illness-faking; it's also escapism, albeit not really harmless, but you get to control this dramatic element, and people reach out to you and make you feel cared for, and that can be addicting. Of course, it also requires a sort of sociopathic lack of caring about the feelings of the people you draw into the charade. I just watched Man on the Moon over the weekend, so faking things has been on my mind!)

anachronistique

@frigwiggin Right? There are a couple of people who were tangentially in groups I've been in who were later revealed as lying, but other than that? All honest. I've been lucky.

I just sort of figured I would never be able to keep details straight, since I have a shoddy memory, so why lie?

meetapossum

@frigwiggin Yeah, same here. I think maybe there's not enough press about good online friendships that become real friendships.

LeafySeaDragon

@frigwiggin i kept thinking that i'd meet someone real on the internet, and they are seem "real" at first. but every internet introduced person i've met in rl has gone terribley wrong within a few months. this whole thing of your online self being yourself is rarer than you'd think you lucky ducky.

leonstj

@frigwiggin - irl i am a breeze. a literal breeze, a sea breeze. i was formed in a gradually embiggened temperature gradient, and i sweep gentally 'cross the convergence zone, chilling your sunburn, sexily tossing your hair, lofting your frisbees, and knocking your empty cups into the sand.

i have seen thousands fall in love. build castles. listen to npr podcasts as they tan, dreaming of the cute one at the party who seemed like they were really into fresh air, and now they are listening to terry gross on the beach, even though they would rather be listening to ace of base than public radio.

i have tasted condensation & coppertone. i have swept across the boardwalk, i enjoy your hot dogs & adore your lobster rolls.

each night, as the land cools faster than the blue, i die. my brother the land breeze tends to your romances. each morning, as the old men & women stroll the sand and the young lovers feeling the rising tide against their ankles awake, i return.

also, sorry about knocking over your cup - please don't leave it more than half empty, and it will be fine. or maybe dig a little cup holder into the sand? i am graceful & delicate, but i can't control myself around an empty beverage.

Dachelle@twitter

@frigwiggin Me too! My two best friends are both people I initially met online via fandoms. I'm going to be a bridesmaid for one of them in the fall, and I'm going over to the U.K. in May to hang out with the other one and go to Italy with her (we kind of trade off going to see each other each year - last year she came to the U.S. to see me). While I'm in the U.K. I'm also seeing some other friends from Internet fandom. Honestly I have more friends from online than offline, at least in terms of how I originally met them!

Vera Knoop

@frigwiggin Yup yup yup. I'm married to someone who was once an internet-friend/internet-flirtation, and we're coming up on 10 years together (in person) very soon. And many of my other enduring friendships began online. But there's a lot of luck involved in that.

queenofbithynia

Maybe this is a symptom of its own internet-era mental disorder, but I really honestly strongly prefer a good committed internet hoaxer to a righteous internet detective. I can listen to reason but my instinctive sympathy stays where it is.

I take it as a given that it's wrong to scam real money out of people, and also wrong to invent imaginary girlfriends for real people who don't know what's what.

But, and however, I do not think that these sad and hilarious people are doing awful things when they mount these massive campaigns solely to get attention and esteem with zero monetary value attached. Sometimes I even doubt that they are doing bad things. The truth is that the people who offer attention and esteem to internet strangers are also getting something out of the deal. They are getting the happy sensation of being compassionate and good people (which they are) without the immense time and emotional drain that attends being a similarly supportive friend in real life; they are getting the far more powerful sensation of being an intimate observer of a private, dramatic, fraught story that is unfolding before their eyes, and nobody should ever underestimate how powerful and pleasurable that experience is, it is the basis of 99 percent of all internet psychodramas, real and fake.

tl;dr I have no morals, only aesthetic values?

But I do think lying is wrong. but teenagers (and adults) with grandiose fantasies and no impulse control are closer to my heart than truth-seekers.

(but, kids, don't fake your own deaths, it's embarrassing later.)

Emby

@queenofbithynia That's an interesting perspective. My take on it is this, and it's why I largely disagree with your own take: I think the separation between the kinds of people who are totally comfortable coaxing others into their very convincing fantasies, and the types of people who, say, promote anti-vaccination paranoia, is one of degrees. I'd even be willing to bet there's a fair bit of overlap between some of these communities. The commonality is that someone cares more about people buying into his or her version of the truth than they do for the actual truth or for the effects on other people's lives. I can't abide that. I just can't.

MilesofMountains

@queenofbithynia My problem is that they don't seem to target healthy people who probably have some empathy and compassion to spare, but that they seem to often join support groups full of exhausted, sick people, then leech what little energy those people can give. In the interview, Taryn talks about parents of kids with cancer leaving their kids' bedsides to give comfort to a faker, and in some of the other links people are posting, one woman went to visit her friend who was "dying alone" rather than be with her dying grandfather, another cancer patient took a risk health-wise to give a "dying" faker one last vacation.

Ophelia

@MilesofMountains Right. This is not randomly-directed "My uncle is a Nigerian prince, please give me your bank account" hoaxing - it sounds like a lot of the people the hoax is directed at are too exhausted (either physically or emotionally) to have their bullshit filters working properly, and it's drawing down on resources they simply do not have to spare.

I'd feel more like @queenofbithynia if it was limited to, say, Twilight fan sites or something, and not cancer support groups.

datalass

@queenofbithynia So interesting. I'm exactly the opposite in that I'm instinctively drawn to the truth-seekers. I don't necessarily believe in punishment or retribution; I just think it's important to know what is and what is not. I want to know if, for example, David Sedaris's memoirs are part fiction or if Beyonce lip synced at the inauguration. I don't think that people should boycott Sedaris or not take pleasure in Beyonce's performance if those things are true--I just want to know.

Mingus_Thurber

@queenofbithynia Trouble is that some 'Net hoaxers don't stop at warm, fuzzy feelings and good wishes. I know of two that have gone on to stalk and/or harass some of the people that previously supported them, once they were outed. One of Taryn's outs also forged online relationships with people solely for the purpose of gleaning details for her own hoax. Another hoaxer has threatened a former supporter not just online but also by mail and phone.

People who go to the trouble of yanking out all their eyebrows and lashes and buying medical equipment online aren't harmless attention-seekers. They're seriously unbalanced and sometimes can be dangerous. The people they hoax often put as much time and energy into those relationships as they do IRL ones; some fly hither and yon to see people. Others spend hours on the phone talking people down from one crisis or another.

The majority of hoaxers aren't anything but "sad and hilarious," as you said. There's a minority, though, of people who are flat-out fucking scary.

LooseBaggyMonster

@queenofbithynia Also, Taryn seems to take no delight in humiliating people, but rather is a compassionate investigator (recommending therapists, staying in contact, etc.)

conniving little shit

my mind immediately screams LIMEYBEAN whenever i see something about faking anything online... and now i will actually read this.

aycaramba

This is so interesting! I like to play amateur-amateur hoax finder in that I always look up ridiculous viral FB posts on snopes with the intention of proving to the poster that it's fake, but then I usually don't because I realize that I'd look like an asshole. I always question the motivation for making that stuff up though-- especially when it doesn't involve any attention for yourself. For example, last night a friend posted this 'inspirational' story about how a poor farmer saved the life of Winston Churchill's dad and then Churchill paid for the farmer's son to go to college and he ended up inventing penicillin, which in turn saved Churchill's life when he caught pneumonia. A very quick search turned up that it was not at all true, and I just can't understand what drives someone to take the time to write up a completely false story like that. (Or like those old "Weird Facts" chain emails that would claim that ducks' quacks don't echo and such)

does it need saying

@cmeggles Yes! I do this same look it up, then nothing. No follow through on FB at all.
I do however have a mother and grandmother that send me e-mails asking me to check this out for them. At least they are leary enough to ask?

Faintly Macabre

@cmeggles One of my friends shared the reverse-PIN on Facebook last week and I was really tempted to comment with a link to the Snopes post. I didn't, though now I worry that she (or every single one of her Facebook friends) will get mugged at an ATM and get shot because of my timidity.

LeafySeaDragon

for a couple of years i was pretty heavily involved in livejournal mom groups, and OH MY GOD, i got taken in so many times. people are lonely and the internet is this safe place to put all your weird. in short, i believe nothing.

and oddly enough, the one time i shared dramatic family tragedy via the internet it was dismissed as bullshit. it wasn't mine, but a family members. i wasn't very offended because to be quite honest, it was Dramatic and Over The Top. which was what made it shareworthy. anyways.

i've been thinking about it lately because i have met a someone in real life who has had nearly the exact same thing happen to thier family (verifiable) and it's pretty crazy.

crazy shit happens.

ba-na-nas

Hoaxes! Does anyone remember the "Lesbian in Damascus" blogger? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amina_Abdallah_Arraf_al_Omari

I thought the name sounded familiar, and it turns out that it's because this person had approached me online in 2007. The funny thing is that it's the only time a woman has ever complimented my body early in communicating online. I didn't mind, but thought it a little weird at the time. Turns out my gut was right all along.

Vera Knoop

@ba-na-nas And weren't they flirting/having a relationship online with someone else who turned out to be a dude pretending to be a lesbian? SO weird.

redheaded&crazy

I actually am rupert grint, ain't no point in trying to ferret out any other truth than that

rootmarm

I love stuff like this way more than I should. A while back a beauty blogger I used to read sometimes got exposed as someone from a knitting community who faked her own death (!!!) and it was fascinating.

anachronistique

@rootmarm Ohhhhhh I remember that! SO WEIRD.

Minx

On the one hand, I'm glad to know that these people really do exist because otherwise I'd probably be a lot more gullible online and I'd become one of those horrible people who shares every sob story of a hoax that floats across my newsfeed. But on the other hand, knowing that these people exist makes me question the reality of almost everything I read online (or anywhere really), and I don't like that feeling at all. How are you supposed to know what's real? It can get pretty confusing.

Lyssachelle

Is it weird that I really would like to help out with this? Not the confronting part of it, but the research and fact-finding part? I feel like it would be a much more satisfying way to spend my time online than playing Candy Crush...

Anninyn

Thanks. I jsut spent ALL DAY reading about hoaxes. I find this stuff fascinating and disturbing.

I've been involved, peripherally, on a couple incidents of this sort of thing, and it is amazing how often the same things show up:
- twins, or lots of children
- rape, sexual assault
In addition to whatever illness causes it. It is such a specific thing.

Filthyknitter

Taryn's work, this whole article and this comment thread are FASCINATING and I am eternally grateful for the Hairpin and it's legions of readers who think like me, and don't mind losing three days of their life googling fake knitting bloggers and the like. *beams*

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