Stolen images of a former adult star have been used for over ten years to defraud victims out of thousands of dollars. What's it like to be the unwitting victim of so many romance frauds?
There are spoilers in this article.
Vanessa receives messages from men almost every day who think they are in a relationship with her; some even think she is their wife. They sent her money, which they claim was for daily expenses, medical bills, or assistance for family members, and now they're upset, bewildered, and some of them want their money back.
However, it's all a lie. These men are not familiar to Vanessa. Instead, since the middle of the 2000s, her images and videos, which were appropriated from her previous work in adult entertainment, have been used as the hook in online romance scams. Through fake online profiles that used Vanessa's name or likeness, scammers were able to extort money from their victims, a practice known as catfishing.
The constant barrage of messages detailing lost money and ruined lives has taken a toll.
Vanessa - we're not using her last name to protect her full identity - says, "I started feeling depressed and blaming myself. Maybe if my pictures weren't out there, these men wouldn't be getting scammed.".
Vanessa spent about eight years working as a "camgirl," live-streaming adult content online using a webcam. She made the decision to develop an alter ego named Janessa Brazil because she was initially a little shy. She reasoned, "I won't feel ashamed because it's not really me; it's Janessa.
She chose the last name Brazil because it is one of the most commonly searched terms online and also because it is the country in which she was born. It was an intelligent choice. She now declares, "I detest that name.". "But it gave me a quick boost in popularity. ".
The bait is always hidden behind a catfish. Listen to the podcasts for Love, Janessa from the BBC World Service and the CBC. .
Things were excellent for a while. Vanessa cherished her connections with her followers, some of whom would pay up to $20 (£17) per minute to watch and engage with her. "I want to make them happy. I want to enjoy myself with them. They become enthralled, she adds. .
She claims she made about a million dollars in the US annually at the height of her career. Janessa had a strong online presence, a successful brand, and her own website. Her online profile, however, was deleted in 2016.
For the podcast Love, Janessa, it took us nine months to locate her. When we finally spoke with Vanessa, she told us that one of the reasons she stopped creating online content was to try to stop the con artists. She was located on the east coast of the US, in a modest apartment. I don't want to ever again give them the authority to use anything of mine, she declares.
When a man asserted in the chat during a live show that he was her husband and that she had promised him that she would stop scamming, Vanessa first learned that con artists were impersonating her. She asked him to email her despite thinking it was a joke.
Similar stories from additional victims surfaced, and they asked her to prove her identity in comments on her shows. Additionally, con artists showed up with odd requests for her, like donning a red hat, which they then used as images to deceive their victims.
Her business started to suffer from the persistent remarks, emails, and tense environment. Vanessa says, "It was a nightmare. But I had sympathy for these guys. "What should I do?" you ask.
She spent hours each day at first trying to reply to every email. She claims that her then-husband, who was also her manager, began keeping an eye on the messages. He claimed that neither he nor Vanessa were responsible for the money that the con victims had lost.
She claims, "If I received all the money that these guys sent to all these con artists, I would be a billionaire right now, not sitting here in my little apartment.".
Vanessa believes that many men's desire to care for women stems from their inherent nature, which helps to explain why they would send money to a stranger.
She claims that people are willing to give even if they don't have the money because it makes them feel loved. .
An impersonator posing as Janessa hooked Roberto Marini, an Italian in his early 30s. A striking young woman going by the name of Hannah first congratulated him on his start-up venture—a sustainable farm on the island of Sardinia—in a Facebook message.
After three months of sending each other sweet messages and pictures, she started requesting money. At first, it was for trivial things like a broken phone, but soon she needed more. She explained to him that she had a difficult life and that when she wasn't taking care of sick family members, she had to work in adult entertainment.
She had a "father-like energy" to her, and Roberto wanted to save her. But every time they set up a call, her phone would break or something else would come up, so he was frustrated that they could never seem to speak in person.
Then he found a ton of Hannah-related images and videos online, many of which were more graphic than any Hannah had ever sent him. However, most of them were of adult film star Janessa Brazil.
He questioned whether she withheld her true identity because it might make their relationship more difficult even though they felt a genuine love.
Roberto joined one of Janessa Brazil's live online shows in confusion. He entered the chat, "Is it really you?". He didn't get the answers he wanted and left quickly because he was only paying by the minute.
Along with many other people he believed might be the real Janessa, Roberto also emailed her in an effort to learn the truth. When Vanessa went back to her inbox after our interview with her, among the countless emails she had received, she discovered a message from him.
"Hi. I must speak with the genuine Janessa Brazil," he had penned in 2016. I am the real Janessa Brazil, she had responded an hour later. ".
In an effort to learn whether they had previously spoken, he asked her a few more questions. The only communication they had was through this email exchange.
However, that wasn't the end. Scammers continued to trap Roberto. He claims to have spent all of his savings, borrowed from friends and family, and taken out loans to send them a total of $250,000 (£207,500) over the course of four years.
Roberto was alerting others in his online posts that fake accounts were tricking people by using Janessa's stolen images, which is how we discovered him. But despite everything that had occurred to him, he had a part of him that continued to feel a strong connection to the real Janessa.
Dr. Aunshul Rege, a criminal justice specialist from Philadelphia who specializes in online romance scams, says that is a sign of a successful scam.
According to her, criminal networks frequently send messages while working in groups to groom victims and share images and information. She has even discovered an illustration of the manuals they employ, which include practical how-to manuals that also provide reasons to put off making a phone call that might reveal them.
The scams have a consistent pattern: they start with a "love bomb," make breakup threats, and then ask for money to supposedly enable the couple to get back together. Although the strategies are extremely predictable and chillingly familiar to anyone who has experienced them, they are effective.
"Humans are predisposed to helping one another. That's just how we're made, according to Dr. Rege.
Vanessa claims to detest these inhumane practices. "They demonstrate love before removing it. When they're in a desperate situation, the guys will do anything to get it back, she claims.
Dr. Rege believes it's likely that Roberto's scam was carried out by a coordinated group. According to her, there are enormous networks operating all over the world, with significant numbers coming from Turkey, China, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, Nigeria, and Ghana.
One of the locations to which Roberto was asked to send money was Ghana, the residence of the Sakawa Boys, a group of online con artists. In Accra, we located some of them. We were told by "Ofa," a soft-spoken young man, that creating false identities online takes time and requires a lot of administration, if only to keep track of the lies. He acknowledged that the work made him "feel bad," but he had earned more than $50,000 (£41,500).
When presented with images of Janessa, Ofa claimed he had never used them personally but could see why they would be a favorite among con artists. Additionally, he claimed that in order for a con to succeed, he would need a variety of images depicting the women in real-world settings, such as cooking or working out.
Vanessa believes that one reason her photographs have been used so frequently is because she shared so many natural, everyday occurrences. They had a lot to work with because "I put myself out there completely," she claims.
However, she clearly distinguishes between her authentic self and her professional persona. Vanessa experiences anxiety attacks. She claims that Janessa doesn't.
Eventually, the never-ending influx of con artists transformed into "a monster" that traumatized Vanessa.
Her marriage and mental health started to suffer as a result of having to perform daily on camera. Exhausted, Vanessa admitted to us that she had begun drinking before her performances. She claims that seeing videos from that era makes her unhappy because she can clearly see her own misery.
She claims that by 2016, she was unable to continue and made the decision to stop. She claims that after packing up her car, she drove away to start a new life after leaving her husband and home. She is currently writing a memoir and completing her therapy training to reclaim control of her own narrative.
Vanessa has never reported scammers who have used her image to their local authorities. She doubts that they would consider her complaints to be valid. She predicts that they will laugh at her face and say, "You're a porn star," to her.
She has grown more hardy in the intervening years. Even though she is aware that con artists may never stop posing as her, she can appreciate how some victims fall for the ruse.
We can be so stupid, she says, "especially when it comes to love.". "I understand; I've been there. It happens to all of us because we think, "Damn! I'm smarter than this!". ".
reporting by Laura Regehr, Simona Rata, Katrina Onstad, and Hannah Ajala.
Jenny Law created the image.
Love, Janessa should be heard. here.