The proposal looks enticing, frozen there on the computer screen. “Bored?“ it reads. “Let’s have some fun.“ The message apparently comes from a 19-year-old student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She wants to party with a “cool guy.“ She is “definately“ looking to hook up today. Her come-on is in the form of an ad posted on the “casual encounters“ section of Craigslist, a dark corner of the online classifieds network that’s devoted to no-strings-attached liaisons. “Send me a message and we can trade pics,“ she continues. “I am for real, and want this to be discreet. My father’s well known in Vegas.“ This last touch is nice. The rebellious child of a washed-up pop performer? Some sex-crazed refugee from the Wynn dynasty?
Actually, no. The author’s real name is Michael—as in, not a chick. Michael Crook is 28, not 19. He has greasy dark-brown hair and a skin condition. He’s not studying at UNLV; in fact, he’s not even in Vegas. He’s sitting at a broken-down desk in Syracuse, New York, in a tiny room with nothing on the walls, junk cluttering the floor, and a jar of off-brand VapoRub and a losing scratch-off lottery ticket lying next to the computer monitor. It’s a cold, gray autumn afternoon, and Crook’s doing what he likes to call a sting. So far he’s hit up 14 American cities with fake ads like this one. He checks the local weather to make them more realistic (“Dreary outside, so let’s hook up!“). Then he sits back and watches the responses pour in, literally hundreds within hours: respondents freely offering phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and pictures, including cock shots.
And then Crook busts them. In September he posted an ad, mined all the personal information he could from the responses, and put everything on his site, craigslist-perverts.org. (He says he got more than a million hits in just two weeks, until one of Crook’s victims had him served with an injunction—and Craigslist, citing copyright infringement, demanded that he shut down the site.) But he didn’t stop there. Once his prey was caught, he escalated to torture. Take the married Las Vegas man who sent Crook a photograph and phone number: Crook followed up by sending e-mails about the exchange to the man’s wife and coworkers and, for good measure, the media. “I have never been humiliated in quite this fashion,“ the man told the Las Vegas Sun in October. “The nights without sleeping . . . it’s just been unreal.“
Tough titty, says Crook. “I’ve had guys beg me, Oh, no, please don’t expose me—my wife will catch me.’ Blah blah blah. She needs to know.“
In an era of Dateline pedophile stings and watch-’em-pay jubilance, a sex-baiter like Crook represents a new breed: the Internet vigilante. Crook is a self-appointed marshal of the cyberfrontier, a private investigator who’s hired himself not to expose criminals—the morally dubious actions of his quarry aren’t illegal, after all—but to halt whatever behavior he deems deplorable. After one guy used his corporate e-mail address to invite the ad’s “girl“ to his conference room for a little mischief, Crook notified the respondent’s boss. In a similar situation involving another company, he faxed a copy of the compromising e-mail to the sender’s manager.
The vast, relatively unregulated territory of the Web, like the Old West, is proving hospitable to such Lone Rangers with their own ideas of justice. “One aspect of the Internet is that law doesn’t reach it all,“ says John Palfrey, a Harvard Law School professor who specializes in privacy and technology issues. “It’s hard to police. So you see private sheriffs popping up all over the Internet—private actors taking law into their own hands because no one’s policing it.“
“Some people call it cruelty,“ Crook says as he doctors up a photo of some grinning brunette he’s downloaded to use in one of his fake ads. “I call it accountability.“
Crook’s degree of vindictiveness may be singular, but he’s just one copycat following the spontaneous—and booming—trend of online sex-baiting. It all started last September, when Jason Fortuny, a 30-year-old graphic designer in Seattle, put up a phony ad on Craigslist, posing as a submissive woman looking for an aggressive, dominating man. He got 178 responses, each of which he posted on the Internet: phone numbers, cock shots, and all. A few weeks later, Crook gave it a go too, taking it several steps further. Then a 24-year-old Portland, Oregon, resident posted an ad as a 26-year-old woman into bondage, collecting the hundreds of responses he got and uploading many of the sordid details onto a public site.
Why would anyone do this? Crook has no qualms about his actions. “Sure, these guys didn’t break the law,“ he says, “but isn’t it kind of pathetic that they’re looking for sex on Craigslist?“ (He’s married—he met his wife not online but at a church dance—and the father of a 2-year-old daughter.) What might speak louder as a motive, though, is Crook’s history of provoking rage as a hobby. His home page contains a link to a Holocaust-denial site, and he’s argued that American troops deserve to die for enlisting—that they are overpaid “pukes“ and “scumbags.“ He’s purchased the URL RacismWorks.com for a future project. It’s not hard to see his sex-baiting antics as a blend of sanctimonious policing and attention-grabbing stunt.
“Have you thought this out?“ one of his victims, who calls himself Paul, wrote in an e-mail to Crook. “You are in the process of ruining lives. . . . This is no frat house joke. If you were to lose your wife, family, friends and job, consider what a man might do. . . . My advice, take it down before it gets out of control and I’ll consider it a good prank. Keep it posted, live in fear.“ Crook cut and pasted Paul’s e-mail, in its entirety, onto his website.
Not all sex-baiting has ethical overtones, though—purported or otherwise. Some make no excuses for its intent: to cause grief to anyone foolish enough to handle his personal information carelessly. Fortuny, who started the phenomenon, might be considered a distant cousin of a “griefer“ (in Net lingo, someone who kills teammates in online multiplayer games) or a “troll“ (someone who revels in making others miserable by, say, dropping the n-bomb in black-rights chat rooms). He’s mostly interested in taunting those who he feels take themselves seriously. Fortuny’s venture into sex-baiting, he says, was an experiment. All he did was cut and paste someone’s Craigslist ad from another city—“it drives me krazy 2 get tit fucked, cuffed, ass spanked with welts and bruises“—and post it in Seattle.
“I literally just grabbed a friend. We sat down one night. We said, Here’s this ad that we pulled from some other Craigslist,’ and we said, Okay, what kind of responses does this actually get?’“ he says. “Twenty-four hours later, we got all these responses and saw all of these men surrendering their personal information—names and phone numbers and naughty pictures and everything—and we just went, Oh, my god.’“ It was particularly surprising considering the explicitly violent nature of the ad. Fortuny, who says he had a “crisis of conscience“ just after posting the responses, says he’s been threatened dozens of times and has had to change his number. There was even a week, he says, when his friends were concerned for his life.
“They said, Jason, you don’t know who you’re screwing with. You’ve got people on this list who have military e-mail addresses. They will not hesitate to find you and kill you—and they’re military, so they know how to make sure that the body is never found. Please just make the whole thing stop.’ And I said, No, no, I’m not going to make this stop. I’m going to keep going.’“ The physical threats turned out to be empty, but pranksters hacked into his cell phone.
Unlike Crook, Fortuny doesn’t actively pursue his targets, but he doesn’t lose any sleep over the possible repercussions—such as rumors that his actions have destroyed some marriages and cost some jobs. “I mean, at the absolute worst, let’s say someone freaked out, saw that their picture’s up there, and they think that this is the end of the universe, and they kill themselves,“ Fortuny says. “They just straight up jump off of a bridge. Who made the decision to kill themselves? Did I tell them to go kill themselves? Did I make any moral judgment about any of this stuff?“
Fortuny’s experiment has spawned acts of countervigilantism. A couple of days after he posted the responses, Fortuny says, someone notified nearly everyone on the list of 178 respondents, informing them that they were victims of a prank and advising them to take action. But because the men who fall into sex-baiters’ traps have volunteered their personal information, they don’t have much recourse. Raising too much of a stink might draw even more attention—though one Seattle man on Fortuny’s list sees it differently: “I’m going to have words with the person who told me, Just ignore it and it will go away.’“ Both Fortuny and Crook have been threatened with legal action. But Palfrey of Harvard Law doesn’t think such lawsuits would stand a chance. “It’s hard to argue that any of these acts are illegal in most contexts,“ he says. “It’s easier to say that people posting messages are committing general-purpose fraud. But there isn’t a law that says Thou shalt not defraud someone and then humiliate them.’“ Yet to focus only on the unapologetic viciousness of sex-baiters’ schemes would be missing another point: Why would anyone send their personal information to a stranger? Sure, the promise of sex tends to have deleterious effects on our powers of reasoning. Combine that with the Internet’s lure of anonymity, though, and you’ve got the ultimate arena of embarrassment.
“The instant nature of these responses often doesn’t make for reflective moral judgment, so a lot of behavior that people wouldn’t commit over the telephone or in person, they’re willing to engage in in this seemingly anonymous medium,“ says Deborah L. Rhode, director of the Center on Ethics at Stanford University. “The actions of all parties in this situation really illustrate the corrosive aspects of this technology, and people are going to need to learn better ways of suspending their responses.“
Even sex-baiters’ victims admit they’d be wise to show more restraint. “Jason is a horrible person for what he did,“ says Marcus (not his real name). Marcus says he’s a 27-year-old from the Seattle suburb of Redmond whose personal info ended up on Fortuny’s website after he responded to the bogus Craigslist ad. “He ruined a number of people’s careers and personal lives. I think what he did is criminal, but certainly not unexpected. In Jason’s defense, these people need to be smarter. The Internet is full of scary people. I would never tell anyone my real name until I got comfortable around them.“
Of course, that doesn’t explain why a photo of Marcus’ cock is posted online.