Using Craigslist to crowdsource revenge
On Sunday afternoon, I was enjoying some tasty steamed bun sandwiches on the Lower East Side with a friend from journalism school when my phone rang. It was a number I did not recognize, so I apologized and picked up, as I always do in that case (could be a secret source with an incredible story who shies away from leaving voice mails).
There was a man on the phone calling about an ad placed on Craigslist. I explained that I had not placed an ad, and that he must have the wrong number. Shortly thereafter, my phone began to — in the parlance of our times — “blow up.” As soon as I hung up, the phone began ringing again with another unknown number. I picked up and immediately got the beep indicating call waiting. Texts messages started pouring in.
The second caller was also a man calling about an ad on Craigslist. “I didn’t put an ad up, but I’m getting a lot of calls. Could you tell me what this ad is offering exactly?” I asked, already suspecting what kind of ad it was.
“Um, it’s in casual encounters,” he responded. “There’s a photo of you and this number.”
For those who don’t regularly surf Craigslist to make personal connections, “casual encounters” is an area usually frequented by those interested in one-off sexual adventures with strangers. I love Craigslist, but I use it for finding apartments, desks, and nightstands… not one-night stands.
Someone was angry at me, and had found a nice, anonymous way to wreak revenge…
I’m certainly not the first victim of the Fake-Craigslist-Ad revenge. Nor even Fake-Craigslist-Casual-Encounter revenge. The first reported instances I found occurred in May last year, perpetrated by (1) an angry pharmacist on a disgruntled female customer in Norwalk, Conn. and (2) a 40-year-old woman on her 9-year-old neighbor in Long Island. In both cases, the cyber harasser indicated in Casual Encounters that their victims were interested in a “good time.” The pharmacist’s victim got over 20 calls and a visit to her home, and the nine-year-old got over 50 calls.
The CVS pharmacist, Jonathan Medina, was charged with misdemeanor harassment and felony computer crime. He pleaded guilty in January — he was spared prison time and given two years probation. The 40-year-old neighbor hater, Margery Tannenbaum, was charged with aggravated harassment — the Suffolk County Criminal Court case docket indicates that her case is unresolved, with an appearance set for July 2010.
Craigslist is a great tool for helping strangers connect. Unfortunately, on rare occasions, it’s abused. And it’s easy to see why. One can enlist a horde of unwitting strangers to punish someone, and the abusers think they can do so anonymously. As the examples above demonstrate, anonymity on Craigslist is as illusory as it is elsewhere on the Web.
The perpetrators and their victims aren’t the only ones who pay the price. Innocent-ish pleasure seekers can get into trouble too when responding to the devious ads. In April, a Connecticut man showed up in person after seeing a fake ad, posted by, once again, an angry neighbor. The Casual Encounters post titled “Looking for Lust” was supposedly posted by a “married West Hartford soccer mom … looking for group sex.” On top of responding to a fake ad, Richard Zeh went to the wrong house. After showing the occupants the ad, they very politely sent him to the right house:
The people at that house said they did not place the ad and spent Monday morning shooing away about a dozen men ranging in age from late teens to an “80-year-old guy who looked like Santa Claus,” Estes said. When Zeh arrived, he was told to “hit the road,” Estes said. Instead, Zeh walked around behind the house and tried the back door, Estes said.
Zeh was charged with second-degree burglary, fourth-degree sexual assault, first-degree criminal trespass and disorderly conduct.
In another more disturbing case, a medical technologist thought he was fulfilling a Wyoming woman’s “rape fantasy” after responding to her ad on Craigslist. He got her address and the description of what he should do via email. In reality, he was unknowingly corresponding with the woman’s ex-boyfriend who had posted the ad in a twisted act of revenge. Both men were charged with sexual assault, after the technologist, 26, fulfilled the “fantasy” against the woman’s will. They’ve both pleaded guilty and could face life in prison.
So the lesson here, I suppose, is to be careful about going about doing your business on Craigslist. Especially your down-and-dirty business.
Another lesson for me was to be careful about the information I provide in my email signature. I had corresponded the day before the Casual Encounter incident with a person upset about an article I had written about him at Above the Law. He was also upset with another legal blogger who had covered the story before me — that legal blogger discovered that his personal details and contact information are now listed on a nude modeling website. The blogger tells me, “He sent me a note threatening legal action, but then added that he’d take down the model site if I removed the blog item about him.”
The individual got my cell phone number from my email signature. Suffice to say, I’ve removed that, and would urge those who might correspond with those prone to vindictiveness to do the same.
Initially, I was troubled by the calls and graphic texts pouring in. My lunch companion captured one of the first calls on her iPhone — in the video, I look a bit distressed. Those who called though were sympathetic and agreed to flag the post as abusive. It was down within an hour. Craigslist also has a mechanism for reporting abuse, though it would seem more helpful to have a built-in mechanism that calls a phone number before a post goes up to confirm that the person at that number is the one who placed a given Craigslist ad.
After the 30th call, and being told repeatedly that I looked very pretty in my photo, I was in a better humor about it all. I wound up on one call for almost ten minutes. The Casual Craigslister said this happens a lot — I guess he’s a regular — and talked my ear off about Craigslist abuses. My friend also captured this call on video, and I can barely get a word in. He asked if I had heard about Erin Andrews (Yup) or the Boston Craigslist killer (Freaky – Thanks for bringing that up) and advised me to be careful about what I put on the Internet, because it can so easily be used against you.
Since that’s one of the recurring themes here at the Not-So Private Parts, I was greatly amused by this advice. Though, apparently, I needed it.