A few years ago, a woman named Teresa, from Harlan, KY, decided to get online and pose as an autistic man/adult survivor of sexual child abuse who was also dying of leukemia. She used a false name, never revealed her face and when she took her online relationships to the phone, she had a masculine enough sounding voice to back up the male persona. Under the guise of this fraudulent identity, she was able to manipulate the heartstrings of those who believed she was a man by pretending to be in agonizing pain due to the terminal disease she claimed to have. So convincing was her act that it was enough to persuade people to give her money. Her "dying man" routine lasted many years, and many people fell for it.
I was one of those people -- along with several of my friends. We lost money, time and trust and we all felt like fools. We were devastated when we found out the truth. I wrote about it in my article, "Perfect Stranger." With much anger in my heart, I warned people about the dangers of online friendship and romance, of succumbing to false personalities -- I urged people to question the characters they met on the Internet, especially the ones whose stories seemed sketchy or questionable. I also advised them to report anything that they suspected to the FBI, as I did in the case of Teresa.
Writing about what one feels and experiences in life in a personal blog is one thing, but when you're a fairly well-read blogger for The Huffington Post, what you write has the potential of reaching a mind-boggling amount of viewers -- many of whom are television producers looking for ratings-worthy topics, like -- "What it's like to be find out that your dying, male, online friend is really a woman who looks very much like Honey Boo Boo's mom."
Tell me, does that not screech of Springer?
As soon as my first article ran, I started getting invitations to speak about Cyber fraud and online romance scams. First came the talk radio shows, both local and national. Some sister duo from CBS approached me. Then, on some affiliate network, there was some former priest guy from Florida who wanted me on his afternoon talk show. It didn't take long for the major players to start knocking. Inside Edition, CNN... producers of afternoon talk shows like The Jeff Probst Show and The Steve Harvey Show each contacted me multiple times, hungry to get me on the air so that I could tell my story. At one point, they had me believing that I could "save lives" -- just by appearing as a guest.
Excited by the idea that I could help people understand just how vicious and untrustworthy it is "out there" on the Internet, I prepared my facts and braced myself for "lights-camera-action."
I taped for CNN, gave them an intense exposé. I was pure ferocity and vigilance. I spoke about the twisted liars who were out there and how to avoid them, what to look for -- the ridiculous anonymous usernames, the refusal to be seen on Skype or webcam, the questionable "always in pain" people who tend to befriend the depressed, desperate or lonely stragglers... I stood like a beacon of power and resilience. However, before taping, the one thing I warned them about was that, under no circumstances would I allow myself to be portrayed as the pitiful victim, as I suspected some of the other TV shows might have wished for.
After taping, the show was shelved, with a note: "The producers aren't interested in this right now; we'll be in touch." Someone with the prescience of an insider told me this: "They're not airing the show because you're not pathetic enough. They want to see that you're falling apart, not standing tall."
Each time I interviewed with a producer, it was the same. In the beginning they were salivating for the story. They'd tell me how amazing I was, what a great TV personality I had -- and then I'd tell them my rules: No humiliation, no making me into an idiot.
Well, as I've learned, no humiliation + no making me into an idiot = no show.
Just yesterday, yet another producer wrote me, asking me to come on their talk show. This time I didn't have to think of a response. I knew what I wanted to say. This is what I wrote:
I've been approached by almost every talk show there is to tell my "Internet con artist" story, and what I've discovered is this: All you people want me to do is bleed. At first you're all impressed with my "courage" and "ability to rise above," but in truth, those are the very traits that you consider "deal breakers." You don't want me to help others, you want me to cry. You will only air my story if I'm humiliated. What makes for good TV is my downfall, my disgrace, and my tears -- not my strength. And definitely not what I can teach others.
Where were you a year and a half ago when the article was first published? What happened? In searching for new material, you ran out of fresh ideas so you pumped into your search engine keywords like "con" and "online romance?" Bingo, you got my article! Just like everyone else who came to me and then after realizing what I was made of, wondered how the hell they could contain me in short, insipid sound bites?
If you care so much about cyber crime and the creeps who take advantage of others through the Internet then go harass Teresa. There's your show. You want a reality TV show that will guarantee ratings? How 'bout "Teresa the Con Man"? Or maybe, "Family Scammers." There's your freak show.
Unfortunately, I really do know what you want. You want someone who is so blindly enamored by the idea of just being on TV that they'll do anything for the opportunity, which includes demeaning themselves, if need be.
You want a fighter? I'm in.
You want a schmuck, someone to pity? Not me.
Thanks, but no thanks.
Needless to say, I never heard back from the last producer. Guess they didn't want a fighter.
So, what did they want then? What do these talk shows really want?
They want to show someone whose situation arouses enough momentary pity so that those who gawk at them from their television screens can feel better about their own lives. These producers don't want to help people; they want to entertain people. They don't care about the reality of Internet fraud -- they care about how schlumpy the victim looks and acts. It's the guilty pleasure of watching someone's demise that intrigues, not the actual story. And a victim who isn't "victim-y enough" -- well, that goes nowhere fast. Who cares about the criminal? It's the victim that's going to sell product.
And because no TV show has the balls to let me be who I really am -- strong, a fighter, a voice with merit and the experience to back it up -- then let me tell the public right now exactly what to look for in order to avoid online fraud:
You need a real face to look at. If you doubt someone is real, then demand they show themselves to you, in real time, via Skype or webcam. If they won't show, then they're hiding something. Question that.
You need to know a person's real name. Darkraven Dragonthistle is not a real name. Get the point? Question that.
Don't send money to anyone you don't really know, and if you do, don't send cash! Make sure there's a paper trail, or at least an e-trail so that when you realize you've been ripped off, you've got something to show the FBI. Remember, Internet Fraud is a federal crime. Need to report a crime? Here's the link: Internet Crime Complaint Center
Don't trust a voice on the phone. Men can sound like women and vice versa. If you suspect a liar, demand a real-time conversation on Skype or webcam.
Don't fall for excessively indulgent sob stories. If someone's farfetched tale seems unbelievable -- question it. Teresa had people believing she was in constant pain, with kidney failure, diabetes, brain tumors, seizures and a whole lot more -- all fake!
If you fall in love with someone from the Internet, make sure they are prepared to meet you in real life. If they won't -- question that. Don't let your heart enable their lie.
Know this: The Internet is the toilet bowl of all anonymous personalities. It's the coward's fake name dream home. The foul rudeness that hides behind a computer screen is made obvious a hundred million times a day, in comments and in personal communication. This is the only place where a miserable old woman from some backwoods town can pretend to be a dying young man and get away with it!
The only thing that prevents a person from committing a seriously heinous act of Internet fraud is conscience, and between the act of cyber crime and the television networks that seek to base afternoon talk shows on this topic, there seems to be very little of that going around.
Hey TV: You've got a story over here. Stop catching victims and start catching criminals. Jerks.