Blackmail or Revenge are Plausible Motives
By Doug Porter
Over the past week, a dozen San Diego reporters and editors have been listed on PredatorsWatch.com, a website infamous for labeling innocent people as pedophiles or child abusers.
Among those targeted were editors and reporters with the San Diego Union-Tribune, NBC7, the San Diego Reader, and the Southwestern College Sun.
San Diego Free Press editor Barbara Zaragoza (who has contributed articles to the Reader as a freelancer) was notified via a Google Alert email on April 4, which included the linked headline claiming she had been “arrested for having sex with boy, child abuse.”
The site, registered in Belize and owned by ‘retired’ revenge porn king Scott Breitenstein, skirts libel laws by claiming listings are submitted by third parties, taking advantage of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which protects Facebook and similar sites when user posts are obscene or illegal material.
Those listed on the site are offered the opportunity for removal by calling from a list of ‘reputation management’ sites, who then offer to negate the posting, charging fees as high as $1200.
Zaragoza called several attorneys looking for help and was unable to find one with experience in this area. She called the San Diego District Attorney’s office only to be directed to a list of automated responses.
Down The Rathole
She described, via email, attempts to deal with PredatorsWatch:
Predator’s Watch had a button that said, “DELETE THIS PROFILE NOW” next to my photo. (The location listed was wrong — San Diego. It also listed a weird email: firstname.lastname@example.org).
If you click that DELETE the button and you get this [list]…. I tried to call one or two of these on the list and got nothing — except for Internet Reputation.com. https://www.internetreputation.com/
I got on the phone with someone at Internet Reputation and it sounded like he was in a private home. (Meaning, I’m used to hearing background noise of other colleagues when I talk to telemarketers or GoDaddy support.) The guy at Internet Reputation was the one who told me that it would cost $1,200 to remove the offensive material, but it would take 14 days.
I asked him why it was so much and he said because he had to work to try and get PredatorWatch to take it off. He didn’t elaborate on how he was going to take the material off but said that there would be a money back guarantee within 14 days. I told him I would think about it.
At about 4:30pm yesterday he called me back asking if I was still interested in making the purchase. I told him ‘no,’ and that not only did I see journalists were being targeted, but I was writing a piece about this (to which he laughed and said, “Wow, Predator Watch is dealing with the wrong people.”)
I then launched into saying that I was also investigating if he and his website were involved in the scam. He was casual and said “no” and I explained that he might want to ask Predator Watch to take his link off the website because it looked like he might be considered part of the scam. His tone remained casual as he insisted he had nothing to do with it. We ended the conversation.
Managing Your Reputation, for a Fee
However, I also turned up numerous claims about reputation management companies being owned by or colluding with reputation ruining outfits. The world of online image repair is filled with claims and counterclaims of greatness or evil. After a while, I didn’t know who I could trust.
Typical of what I read was a negative review from an anonymous ex-employee at GlassDoor.com:
The pay wasn’t bad and you get the option to work from home, apart from that not a good thing about this company.
This company is extremely unethical. They sell you on how they help people and they sell customers on the same thing. In reality they’re the ones that put the mugshots or ripoff reports online in the first place, then extort people hundreds of thousands to get things taken down. I would never work for a company like this again, I still cringe at the thought of it.
Why This Matters
People in the business of reporting news depend on having a good reputation for building contacts and gaining access to data. The whole world seems to be driven by search engines these days, as Michael Fertik, the founder of one of the world’s largest online reputation management companies—Reputation.com explained to Forbes:
The internet can be quite vicious in the sense that someone in your personal or professional life who wants to do damage to you can be very good at it. A former spouse can go after your small business because of a divorce or former employees can try to destroy your life if you fire them.
But it matters even if you aren’t in the business of selling things. Every life transaction now begins with a search, and even in a good economy, prospective employers will be doing searches on you. The thundering silence you might hear is your best indication that your digital profile isn’t doing the work it should.
Other Cities, Other Instances
Detective Rob Davenport from York, Pennsylvania has been following up on a similar complaint filed by a journalist.
His research confirmed the San Diego Union-Tribune as well as a Florida newspaper owned by Tronc were also targeted in similar scams.
Basically, he explained to Barbara Zaragoza, after being put on PredatorsWatch, journalists receive an email requesting one of their news stories be taken down from a website because it’s “fake” news.
The journalist then answers the email and the person on “the other side” says the journalist must take the article down AND they’ve already posted a lot of fake news about the author.
The journalist then communicates with a scammer-recommended agency, which asks for money to have the fake news taken down…. and then after payment, asks for more and more money, saying more money is needed in order to take it down.
PredatorsWatch.com isn’t the only place where theses bogus listings have appeared in recent weeks. Similar false profiles have also appeared on ComplaintWire (now deleted) and ComplaintsBoard.
Union-Tribune publisher Jeff Light is among those being falsely accused on multiple platforms. (I reached out to Light by email for comment and am still waiting for a response.)
A spokesperson for NBC7 gave this response to an email inquiry: “This is a phishing scam and the information is false. We are working with the authorities.”
The ‘Most Dangerous Man on the Internet’
Scott Breitenstein, who lives in East Dayton, Ohio, is the mastermind behind all these sites, according to Fusion.net.
ComplaintsBureau.com was his original site and, according to the story he told reporter Kevin Roose, Breitenstein discovered ultra-profitable the revenge porn business almost by accident.
His days of posting lurid photos contributed by anonymous jilted lovers ended last year after Roose played a video made for him by Annmarie Chiarini, a victims services director with the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative.
From the Fusion story:
She went on, outlining the legal actions that had been taken against revenge porn distributors. I watched Breitenstein’s face intently as he viewed the video; and to my surprise, he didn’t look angry or defensive. He sat quietly as the video ended, staring off into the distance. And then, after a minute or so of silence, he said something I hadn’t expected to hear.
“You know, she might be right.”
Breitenstein is not a stupid man. But his understanding of revenge porn’s social fallout was puzzlingly simplistic. In all the hours we’d talked, he never expressed sympathy for women who had their nude photos posted to his site, but he also didn’t express malice or ill will toward them. He just sounded like he hadn’t really thought about it. To him, the revenge porn victims who filled his inbox with takedown requests just seemed like an administrative headache to be dealt with, not a series of people feeling real pain as a result of a crime having been committed against them. He’d never actually been face-to-face with a victim of revenge porn before.
Facing a serious decline in revenues, Breitenstein has moved on to greener pastures.
New Money Makers
From the Australian News.Com:
But it appears the “most dangerous man on the internet” has found other, equally vile schemes.
Known for his misogynistic sites on which he’d post nude, non-consensual photos of women (as well as personal information) submitted by their disgruntled exes, Breitenstein’s CheatersRUs, ReportMyEx, STDregistry — along with 28 additional similar sites — were responsible for humiliating countless women.
These days, the former plumber from Ohio is accused of running a business that targets men from social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, ripping their photos off to post on such sites as Predatorswatch.com, accompanied by noxious, gut-wrenching claims such as: “This man is a child rapist!”
Based on my research–I felt like I needed a shower afterward–into PredatorsWatch.com, it would appear that somebody (we’ll never know who, since all submissions are anonymous) is working through various occupations, attempting to find those most susceptible to blackmail.
From late in 2016, I found fake listings for executives with Bay Area tech companies, including Cisco, GE Digital, HP, AWS Amazon, and SKTA.
Now it appears journalists are being targeted. I found three named from NBC7, four from the Union-Tribune, two from the Reader, and four from the Southwestern College Sun.
Why This Scam?
There may be–and this is just a theory–a South Bay connection behind these anonymous reports, since some of the reporters named have covered the area. Obviously, this doesn’t work when it comes to the named editors, but, hey, it’s a start. Revenge can be a powerful motivator.
In these days of what seems like an ever-shrinking pool of credible news reporting, this scam should also be looked at as an attack on freedom of the press.
I couldn’t help but feel when looking at pictures of Scott Breitenstein–who looks a bit like Trump minion Steve Bannon–that this could be a powerful political tool in the wrong hands. That’s one more reason that a way needs to found to shut this kind of cruel nonsense down.
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