The whole thing started in May. Well, sooner, but for that I'd have to scroll back and see when I first posted a photo of one of my kids to my blog.
But in mid-May 2012, l started getting a bunch of really weird emails from my web server from my blog -- referral to a particular post from another website. I figured it was spam. I moved the 600 referral notices to my spam folder. More came. It was weird.
No. I did not go to the website. I had no idea what it was. Probably a spammer trying to get to me. I have had weird referrals and stuff to my blog from companies selling, er, enhancement drugs and whatnot. I just file those away in the spam folder.
A few days later, I received this email:
I'm not sure anyone has contacted you with this information.
There's been a scam artist using your little boy's pictures and claiming
he's her own child. http://warriorelihoax.wordpress.com/2012/05/14/i-found-the-real-eli/
I'm really sorry to tell you this. I'm the one who has
been writing the site and I forgot to let you know about it.
If you have any questions or anything or want more
information, please let me know.
Weird, to be sure. That address was the link that had been on all the referrals. And there is was. And it was weird. An adorable (and slightly pitiful) photo from my blog, of Adam somewhere between bouts of tears, only being portrayed as a child with cancer. Yikes! Weird! And this lady has busted the crazy person who was behind it.
Moving on, I dismissed this as a weird but strange incident. What else do you do? I like having a blog and I guess that is the risk, though I DO NOT APPROVE SO DON'T GO USING MY PHOTOS FOR YOUR PURPOSES, THANKS. But my mom reads my blog, and I sort of figured she was about the only one. And besides, I was powerless to do anything about it.
In September, I got another strange email -- this one from my brother. Now my brother's emails are often strange (we come from a strange family, after all), but this one was something I knew about.
I got this e-mail today - I don't know if it's legit or
scam. If you want to follow up, that's your call.
---------- Forwarded message
From: Druckerman, Shana
Date: Tue, Sep 25, 2012 at 5:30 PM
Subject: ABC News, 20/20 - question?
To: "brian's email address"
Hello Pastor Brian,
Please excuse a kind of random email, but I'm trying to reach out to a family
member (I believe) named Jenny Sherrill. She writes a blog called
"Call It What You Want."
I couldn't find proper contact information on her website, and so I thought I'd
try to see if I could reach her through you.
I am working on a story for ABC News about an alleged internet hoax and I
believe one, if not more, of her personal photos was used by someone else under
false pretenses. Perhaps she's already aware of this whole thing, as I
believe a number of people have been contacted in one way or another.
As part of my research, I wanted to reach out to every parent I could find
whose photos were used and I was hoping Jenny might be willing to have a quick
chat by phone. If you're comfortable passing this along, I would really
appreciate the help.
I am best reached at this email address or on my cell phone ---------. I will
also be reachable at my office tomorrow and Thursday at -----------.
Thank you in advance for your help.
Interesting. So I sat on it for a little bit, then emailed this lady back saying I wasn't sure what I could do to help, that Taryn seemed to have covered it all. I posted on Facebook, asking my friends, "What would YOU do if a 20/20 producer contacted you?"
I wasn't really sure what my input would do to advance the story, or if putting us out there would bring out the creepers...
Then the other brother made the comment that people really are victimized by these sort of creeps on the internet, those who claim to be something that they are not. (He also comment that Brian was the correct brother for her to have contacted, and that if she'd contacted HIM, he'd have knitted a really delightful story of his own that would have put the hoaxer to shame for being so mundane and non-dramatic. But that's beside the point.)
I decided to give this producer a call. We chatted a bit. I described a couple of the photos Taryn had used on her website, photos of this poor "child with cancer", "Warrior Eli", that were actually Adam.
"I have those photos on my desk right now," she said. "That is so weird. I am looking at photos of your son here in New York."
The perpetrator of the hoax, a woman in Ohio, had sent photos of Adam in a "care package" to someone who was following "Eli's" cancer battle, along with "Warrior Eli" bracelets and pictures "Eli" had colored.
Those two photos -- the baby with the giraffe? the boy with the hat? -- Both Adam. (Also not a 4-year-old, as portrayed, but when he was between 9 and 18 months.)
I agreed to send this producer some current photos of Adam -- and his family -- to show that he is actually a normal and healthy child and to help the viewers connect the fact that these aren't just "stock photos" borrowed from some business but real, actual people whose likenesses have been used to elicit something false from others. In the case of the perpetrator of this hoax, she apparently just enjoyed weaving a complex and dramatic story -- one that spanned 10 years or more and had much tragedy and sorrow. (Had she not chosen to "kill off" the "mother" of this family, she might not have been uncovered, but a dramatic Mother's Day vehicular crash that left the "mother" dead and a baby born by emergency surgery had set off the hoax alarms in the mind of Taryn, the Chicago woman who uncovered the hoax.) But why not let people send money to help this poor family? Why not accept gifts from others? She had taken advantage of the kindness of others -- she had preyed on the sensitivity of followers of this tragic story and made them feel like fools.
The segment was slated to air in October. Then it was bumped for more "current" topics. I set my computer to record 20/20. The show got bumped again. I stopped hearing from Shana, the producer.
This morning, I got up to three messages in my Facebook inbox.
From Emily: "Were you just on 20/20? I swear there was a picture of you and the boy on 20/20."
From Linda: "Natalie just saw your 20/20 show. It was on tonight. She was freaking out."
From Natalie (Linda's neighbor): "I just saw your picture on a 20/20 special about fb scams! I took a picture of the picture . Isn't this you?" and the photo at the top of this blog.
When I checked my emails from yesterday, there was a note from Shana, but I'd missed it because Tim was using the computer to work on Mark's Pinewood Derby car (making stickers -- NASCAR cars need stickers).
Fortunately, I have been recording 20/20 all along, so we have the segment (which was short, and near the end of the show) to watch and save for later.
It's also available online at http://abcnews.go.com/2020.
And now you know how I missed my photo on national TV. (Oh, and I used a not-so-great photo of myself because 1) I am not vain and 2) It was from the same day as the photo of little Adam with the giraffe.)