Hey kids, this interview isn’t for you. You should skip this one.
Ellen was struggling for money, working as a Subway “sandwich artist” (yes, that’s a real thing). So she decided to find a new job, and settled on one that allowed her to make over $30,000 for just a couple hours of work each week. One with emotional and moral consequences she didn’t fully anticipate.
Special thanks to Mark Ristich, Sharon Mashihi, Rachel James, Matthew Kielty, and Lingling Yang.
Image credit: Cal Tabuena-Frolli
Producer Mooj Zadie’s podcast is called Tape, and features behind-the-scenes conversations with radio makers.Transcript
At the time I was working at Subway, but it was this really tedious work as a sandwich artist. I was working five days a week, really hard all day. I was on my feet for eight hours, just breaking my back. I wasn’t able to make my own times, and the best part about this job is that I can make my own hours, I can work from bed, I can make as much money as I want.
I was really stupid about the whole thing initially, because people wanted to meet me right away. They would say, “Hey, you’re 15. That’s cool, let’s get coffee.” So I decided to come up with a story. I decided to go on Craigslist. I posted an ad in the male for male section of Craigslist, titled “Young and Cute.” Craigslist wouldn’t allow me to write my age without getting my entry flagged within a minute. I actually used an alias. It was like naming a baby, I wanted to get it right. It was Jack.
“Hi, my name’s Jack. I’m a young guy who is still in the closet and would love to make some gay friends because I’ve never had any. I’ll be moving to New York soon, so write me an e-mail, don’t be shy.”
That was the story.
Yes, I was going to make some friends ahead of time, which allowed me to talk to these people without the expectation of having to meet them, face to face. I made a fake e-mail account too, along with that, and then I included a picture of my friend, my roommate.
I’m really young-looking and skinny – what gay men refer to as a twink. Pedophiles love twinks.
After ten minutes of posting the ad, I had about 50 messages. I don’t really check my e-mails anymore, because I have so many of them. But I quickly realized I wouldn’t be able to acquire the kind of information that I needed.[But you seem really interesting and I like you more than anyone else I’ve spoken to…]
So I had to convince them to add me on Facebook.[…so here’s my Facebook if you wanna continue chatting.]
I could find out their occupation, family, friends, stuff that people put on Facebook without thinking twice about it. Personal information. As soon as they would message me on Facebook, I would reply “Hey, I didn’t mean to deceive you, but I’m not really 18, I’m 15. If that’s okay with you, let’s keep talking,” just to rule out the ones that genuinely believed the kid was 18.[That’s okay, I don’t mind. Age is just a number.]
And then they would add me on Facebook and we would go from there.
The first pedophile that I ever spoke to just began talking about how he was horny, how he was looking at Jack’s pictures, thinking about how much he wanted to…
I had never had any experience talking dirty to men, because I was a 21-year-old woman who had only been with women, and has only still been with women, let me rephrase that. So I took screenshots of the messages that he sent, I took screenshots of all his friends. He had a lot of family members listed, so I took screenshots of their profiles and I included them in a threat letter that I had written. If you want I can read one of the many threat letters.
“Hello Mr. So-and-So,
You have recently been speaking to a 15-year-old boy named Jack. I have saved documentation of all your conversations…”
I pretty much made it obvious that Jack didn’t exist, that I had this explicit content. The ultimatum was if you don’t give me this $500 Amazon gift card, come tomorrow morning I will send all of this information out to your family and friends, and the police. You have until tomorrow morning to send me the gift card.
I’ve had four aliases: Jack, Lisa, Kaleb and Ashley. I’ve made about 30 to 40 grand from a hundred people. Maybe more.
* * *
My name is Ellen, and I’m a professional blackmailer. I had just moved to [BEEP] to live here with a few of my friends, but I had only saved up about 500 dollars, so within a month or two that money was gone, because I’m not really responsible with my money at all. So I began stealing things: DVDs, box sets, printer ink, anything in the electronics department that I could get my hands on. But that was too risky. Every time that I would steal I would have to walk through some metal detectors, and my heart would just sink to the bottom of my stomach. You can only get away with it for so long. I began looking for jobs, of course, but it was really tedious to work as a sandwich artist.
I decided to Google ‘how to make quick money’ and ended up on this message board called ‘Bad Ideas’. I probably went through about five pages. How to break into houses, how to break into cars — not anything that I could do, because I wasn’t a master lock picker, I wasn’t comfortable mugging people. So I was thinking, “Oh, I might just have to move back home, I don’t have rent money… What am I doing?” And I was starting to give up. But then, on the fifth page I came across this entry titled ‘pedobaiting’, a term that I had never heard of before. I clicked on it and I began reading all about it.
Pedobaiting is when you post as a teenager to lure in pedophiles, to either make money or humiliate them. Most people, they know about To Catch a Predator, but they don’t know about to con a predator. I thought, “Well, I can do this from my bedroom.” All that I needed was a laptop and internet connection, and my imagination.
It’s easy to have a fake Facebook account, but it’s not easy to make a fake Facebook account look real. I took about a week. Jack lives in Miami, Florida…from Seattle, Washington, knows English and Spanish, he’s single and interested in women. He’s interested in women on his profile because he’s still in the closet. I showed what books he was into: The Sirens of Titan, Franny and Zooey, Catcher in the Rye — books that I read while I was still in high-school. He likes Pink Floyd, Explosions in the Sky, Beach House, The Smiths, Jose Gonzales, Animal Collective. I made up 15 other fake profiles, so that Jack could have friends to make comments…[Oh, you look cute! I miss you! Where have you been? It’s been so long…]
And that’s it.
I used to write fanfiction when I was younger… I’ve always been a pretty creative person. I never thought I’d be able to act out these characters, but I quickly realized that I was a master manipulator when I wanted to be.
The first pedophile that I baited, I thought he was gold, I thought “This is it, my first catch!” But it was weird, he didn’t fall for it. He told me to just fuck off and then blocked me. I was pretty disappointed actually that it failed, and I thought this was such a stupid idea. All this hard work that I put in the last week was for nothing. I feel like the problem was that I let the guy know that Jack didn’t exist. He didn’t have a fear of actually getting in trouble, because he knew that he had never actually spoken to a 15-year-old, which I learned quickly was something that I needed to correct.
So the first pedophile that I attempted to blackmail didn’t fall for my story, but then the second guy…
So this guy was in the closet. In his late forties, maybe even early fifties, I can’t recall. I had actually googled him already, and I knew that he was rich because he had been — I’m not gonna say CEO, but pretty high up on the ladder for this company that’s really popular. Let’s just say that. He was the kind of guy that I was hoping to get because he has a lot to lose, he has a reputation. He is not gonna want this to be tarnished. And this guy was loaded, so… Damn, this is my first real big fish. So we began talking, and that went on for weeks. The guy even sent me a video. He was casually dressed, there wasn’t anything shady, in the dark; it wasn’t explicit, it was just the guy in his apartment, saying stuff like: “Hi, Jack. It’s a beautiful sunny day here in Miami, and I just got back from the pool. I hope you’re having a wonderful day. Thanks for your message, you’re a lovely kid.”
He was actually very open with Jack and told him things that he felt about his life. He was so insecure about his homosexuality that he had never had a relationship with a man, and now he began thinking of Jack as a friend, eventually. He was just a sad fella. It was kind of hard to do this guy because being a lesbian myself, I was a bit put off by the idea of threatening to out people, because that’s really awful. I felt like a traitor, because I myself was in the closet at one point. I was still in middle school and no one knew; I just panicked whenever anyone hinted at knowing. So I didn’t really wanna exploit that fear, and that made it hard to not feel guilty. But then I thought about how I was posing as a 15-year-old boy luring older men and that just because I felt empathy for this man, I couldn’t just skip him, because every other case was gonna be similar. If I felt empathy for everyone, I wouldn’t make any money. I never in the threat letters included “Hey, you’re gay and no one knows, and I’m gonna tell them.” It was just given. He is not only a closeted gay man, he’s a closeted pedophile. They can be a dad, they can be a doctor, they can be gay, but they all still wanna have sex with children. That’s what I had to keep in mind to allow myself not to feel too shitty about what I was doing. At that point I put aside our common bond. I sent out a threat letter to this guy.[I have saved documentation of all your conversations with Jack.]
I threatened him correctly. I made him think that I was someone that had accessed Jack’s account without Jack’s permission, so he was under the impression that he had done something really wrong with an actual 15-year-old.[I will do all of this unless you do the following thing: send me a $500 gift card.]
“Send me a $500 gift card, or I will ruin you. I will ruin your reputation. I have a video of you. I will send this out to everyone on your Facebook.” He had a LinkedIn account, so I had his entire work history at companies that I could send the information out to. He really was pushed up against a wall, he didn’t have a choice. He was really panicky, saying “Please, don’t ruin my reputation.” He fell for it, and he agreed to do whatever I wanted, and that’s it. I sent the guy a message saying, “Well, thank you for cooperating with me. I deleted all of your messages, I deleted your video as well, I won’t be contacting you ever again. Alright, bye. Stay away from children.”
I never blackmailed anyone in my area, because I found that to be too dangerous, and the most obvious thing to do was to ask them for gift cards.[Send me a $500 Amazon gift card…]
They were eCards, internet cards that you can just send to an e-mail. I would have the gift card within minutes, without them knowing anything about me.[…or I will ruin you.]
Then once I received the gift card, I would either purchase things online that I knew I could resell — electronics, iPods — or I would just sell the actual eCard in Craigslist, for maybe 80% of its worth. That way, I would end up with actual cash in my hands. And if purchases were ever traced, it would be traced back to them and not me.
When people ask what I do for a living, I’d rather say “Oh, I’m a successful artist,” or something that is worth being prideful of, not “Oh, I’m a con artist.” This isn’t a career that I’m happy with. I’m not making music, or art, or anything. This isn’t what I aspire to do with my life. If I didn’t have to do it to survive, I wouldn’t. If I had parents that could support me, or if I did have a career or a job that paid me enough, I would stop. It’s not something that I do out of pleasure, I’m not that malicious. I don’t think I’m very malicious at all.
In the beginning, I kind of got a rush. In the beginning, it did make me feel like I had some power over people. In the beginning, I did feel in control of the situation, but the thrill factor wears off. When I’m working, I’m just a machine, it’s all mechanical. I’m a robot, and I’m just repeating the same crap to people, just worded differently, the same stories over and over again. It’s just monotonous.
I just completely detach myself from my work. My work stays on my laptop. Once I close that laptop, I return to being myself entirely, and I don’t think about it. I just swallow all of it and put it out of my mind when I’m not working. I return to being my everyday normal self — this fine person. I’m usually fine.
My mom knows what I do, I told her during winter break. She didn’t know how I was making money and she thought I was either prostituting myself or selling drugs. So I told her the truth, expecting her to yell at me and tell me I was an idiot and ground me, even though I’m 21. But she was actually understanding, and she told me that she thinks pedophiles are pigs. I mean, she’s a mother.
She didn’t have any…
No, she had her doubts. She said, “You need to stop, because you’re gonna have a lot of problems eventually.” She was more concerned about my legal safety than she was in judging me. She thought it was kind of cool that I was teaching these men a lesson and taking their money. I mean, I don’t think any mothers… I think mothers would probably give me a ribbon, or something.
Do you think so?
Yeah, but I shouldn’t get a ribbon. I’m not a hero.
How come you’re so open about it? Because I don’t think I would be.
Yeah, that was a mistake, to be honest, to be that open about it. It was something that I was too proud of to keep to myself. In a sense, I was bragging about all the money that I was making and how quickly I was making it, and all of my friends found it amusing and really interesting, therefore I continued to fill them in on what was going on. No one thought I would go forth with it and actually succeed in any way, everyone thought it was a big joke. But the more I told them what I was doing, the less they pretty much respected me, and all of my friends began to just dismiss my opinions about moral topics.
One of my roommates stole our neighbor’s computer during a party, and I told her that I thought she was shitty for doing that, and she just said, “Well, you’re not really in a position to be judging me, considering what you do.” At that point I stopped being so open about it.
My best friend felt really uncomfortable about me doing it. She would say things like “Ellen, I hope you get arrested so that you learn your lesson.” That was really offensive. Those sorts of things would really upset me. Our friendship was pretty rocky for a little bit, because, I mean you’re my best friend, why would you… Do you understand that if I got arrested it would be for 20 years? Are you saying that you hope that? Because if you do, then I don’t wanna be your friend anymore, if you want my life to be over that way. I actually had to lie to her and tell her that I don’t do it anymore. I don’t think she’d be able to still be my friend if she knew that I’ve been continuing doing this.
And if this is your best friend and it’s someone that you like and respect, why don’t you listen to her?
Because I’m dumb. I know I should stop, I know what everybody says about it is true, but I like the money, I like the cash money flow.
Do you feel like a repeat-pedophile offender? In a sense of, like, how they commit a crime and then they get out of the jail and they’re still doing this thing that’s destructive.
Yeah, actually. I think I’m a little hooked, because it’s just easy. I don’t know how I’m gonna go back to real life after this. I could be a waitress and make chump change compared to what I’ve made, by working a hundred times harder. I guess I could do that. Real life’s out there, waiting for me, and it’s not gonna be fun, and it’s not gonna be easy, but I should step out there. Now I’m just trying to be poetic… I’m trying to give you a closing line, so we can end this.
The real life’s waiting out there for me… Now we can record the door closing to my room, and my footsteps…
But do you not see the connection? Or do you not see how…
I see the connection. That’s why I made the connection to drug dealers. Drug dealers say they make easy money and then they go to jail maybe, and then they come back and they deal more drugs, because that’s the easiest way for them to make money again.
Do you feel like you’re gonna follow that path?
I feel like I have the ability to stop. I’ve never had an addictive personality, but I feel like I need to have a certain amount of money before I can stop.
So do you see this as a long-term thing or how…?
I don’t know, I wanna quit soon. As soon as I make $5,000 I think I’m gonna quit. I think…
So your plan is to retire when you make $5,000
When I make another $5,000 I plan to retire. I plan to retire.
Why didn’t you retire when you got your last $5,000?
Because I hadn’t been approached by the cops, and now it’s a whole lot more real to me.
I decided to create another alias, Lisa. A week ago I was using Lisa’s profile and I began talking to this substitute teacher from Philadelphia. He was pretty hesitant, so I said something like “Oh, you’re a really handsome guy. I’m sure a lot of your students have crushes on you.” He would write something like “Maybe” and then move on and say “So how’s the weather over there?” But he continued to talk to her anyway. He asked for the girl’s phone number, and I gave him my phone number.
How come you started using the phone number?
It makes them open up faster. Eventually, at around two in the morning we started texting. He initiated it, he winked and I played along.[You see, I’m not used to this. I don’t know how to talk…]
And he said, “It’s okay, you’re doing well.” The conversation turned explicit. I said, “I would love it if you kissed me on my neck, and then throughout my…” Then I said, “I’m going to sleep, we’ll talk tomorrow.” He said, “Alright, good night Lisa. 😉 <3” Whatever.
I felt like he was ready to be threatened. So I woke up to go and take screenshots of this guy’s profile. When I sat in front of my computer, opened it up, logged in and I realized that he had blocked me. So I pulled up my phone and I texted him; I said, “Hey, did you block me?” And he said, “Yeah, I think it’s wrong to be talking to you. I’m sorry, I regret what I did.” And I was gonna let him go. He did show remorse and I should have stopped, but I thought “Well, he already fucked up.” This mistake that he made in the moment, it was gonna cost him $500, and it’s gonna get my rent paid. But then he continued to ignore me, he stopped replying so I got a little fierce with him. I was like, “Hey, listen, I know you’re ignoring me. Here’s a blog that I made with your pictures and all of your information on it. God forbid anyone Googles your name.” So I sent this guy that link, and then the next morning I was woken up by a phone call at about nine in the morning, and it was a Philadelphia area code, so I thought it was actually that guy calling back, but when I picked up it was actually a deeper voice, a much more commanding voice. And he asked, “Is this Lisa?” “No…” “This is officer yadda-yadda from the Philadelphia Police Department. Who’s this?” I froze up. Should I answer, should I not answer? What am I gonna say? I just hung up.
I got out of my bed, ran to my roommate’s bedroom, and while I was telling her what had happened, I actually received about three more phone calls. I even received one voice message. It began playing, and I quickly pressed number 7 and I deleted the voice mail. I sat there holding onto my head, wondering if they were doing a thorough investigation, finding out my IP address, contacting the FBI… I was just afraid that they knew too much. I felt like how the pedophiles probably feel when I send them a threat letter. I was able to feel the kind of anxiety that they feel.
My roommate told me to get back in my room and start deleting everything as soon as possible. I ran to my room, logged into Facebook, deactivated that profile, went to the multiple Gmail accounts that I had made, deleted all of them, changed my phone number, deleted any trace of Lisa off the internet. And I just waited.
Two days went by and the cops didn’t call me, nothing. I don’t really know if anything came about from it, but ignorance is bliss. I just forgot about it, and hopefully the case was dropped.
* * *
When I changed my phone number I had to contact my mom, and I initially told her that I was just being harassed by a man who I didn’t know, but then I told her the truth and she was really scared for me. She made me promise her that I wouldn’t do it again, and I broke that promise to my mother. I mean, I haven’t done it again, but I’m planning to. I don’t know man, it’s hard to be the kind of person that I would like to be morally. I don’t know if there’s any turning back now.
I’m doing this to make money, I’m not a good person in that sense, but I do hope that it’s making them think twice about ever talking to children again, and I hope it’s getting them some psychological help, out of fear of being sent to jail. I hope I’m doing some good, but in some cases I think I might even be doing some bad as well, because these people maybe never had a source to fulfill their fantasies with, and now they meet this kid and they talk about it for the first time, and they might actually go forth and try it again, even after the blackmail. So who knows, I don’t know if I’m doing any good or… I know I’m doing bad, but I don’t know if I’m doing any good. I hope I’m doing some good.
I do have a very strong sense of right and wrong, it’s just sometimes I decide to stray from that. Just because what I do is immoral doesn’t mean that is entirely who I am.
Have you ever considered to call the police about former pedophiles?
What keeps me from doing that is I don’t want to get myself in trouble, I don’t want them to arrest the pedophiles and then trace something back to me, and I don’t really care to live with the guilt of actually ruining someone’s life, even if it is a pedophile. I think you have to have some sympathy for these people, because I can’t think of anything worse. I mean, I’m thankful that I wasn’t born with that and that I don’t have to deal with that demon every day. I feel bad for these people, because they spend their whole lives fighting the urge to do something and then they just give into the desire and make a giant mistake that costs them their entire life. I don’t have to worry about that, I don’t have any kind of lust for anything that would ruin my life like that, other than maybe money.
* * *
So it’s been a couple of months since we last talked. You told your best friend that you stopped, and then you told your mom that you stopped and a big part of me doesn’t believe you. Not all of me, but a big part of me doesn’t believe that you stopped pedobaiting.
Well, I understand that you don’t believe that I’ve stopped, but I have and I don’t really know how to go about convincing you. If I were to do it again, I wouldn’t be as open about it with anyone, and I guess that means I could be lying to you guys. But I’m not doing it. The person that I am now doesn’t find it correct to do those sorts of things that I used to do, and that’s the only evidence that I can give you…my word. My word is the only evidence that I can give you. You choose not to believe me, then. Oh, tough shit.