helen-louise (baratron) wrote,

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on internet fraud and fake babies - a cautionary tale

I was recently the victim of an elaborate hoax. Some of you have read some of this already, but this is the full story.

The story:
A couple of months ago, I started going to a couple of new Sims 2 irc channels, where I met a woman who went by the net handle of Jorenne or Jojo. A few days after I joined the channel, Jorenne said that she was pregnant and showed us some blurry ultrasound pictures. She was very excited about the pregnancy - to the point I asked if this would be her first baby. She said this was her third pregnancy, but neither of the previous babies were still alive. She told us about her husband C, in the Army, and her ex-husband B, and his strange demands.

On Sunday or Monday of this week, Jo told us that C had been posted overseas to Kosovo. She was really worried how she'd cope with him away whilst pregnant. Then on Thursday night, she apparently went into premature labour and was rushed to the hospital. Her sister Julie logged on to the server to tell us what was going on, and F, a trainee midwife, told us what might happen. Everyone was quite scared and upset. On Friday morning, the baby Casey was born - at 26 weeks gestation, and a mass of 880g. He was in the neonatal intensive care unit, possibly unlikely to make it, and Jo herself would need to be kept in hospital until Monday or Tuesday.

The truth:
There was no pregnancy and no baby. There are almost certainly no two pre-existing lost children. We don't know if there's a husband or an ex-husband, or even the age of the woman concerned. We're pretty sure she is female and does live, or has lived in, Aldershot in Hampshire. And we know she plays Sims 2.

The warning signs I chose to ignore:
When I first met her and discovered she was pregnant and asked if it was her first baby, and she said "My third - but the other two are no longer with us". That was a vague enough statement that I specifically asked if that meant they'd gone to live with her ex, and was told that they were no longer alive. Over the next few weeks, I wondered why, if she had lost two babies before, she was so excited about this pregnancy to the point of showing ultrasound scans to people on the channel, buying things for the child and choosing names. My existing knowledge of people who've lost babies is that they would be very wary of the new pregnancy, not counting any chickens until they'd hatched - and any joy would be tempered with grief.

However, I didn't like to pry, and I figured that the other babies must have been early miscarriages, and she was past that stage in this pregnancy, therefore everything was okay.

Why I tried to help:
When I found out what was supposedly going on with Jorenne, I wanted to do something. There were three reasons. Firstly, she was going to be in hospital for quite a few days herself. My gall bladder experiences over the past year have taught me what it's like to be terrified and in pain in hospital. That's bad enough by itself - I can't even begin to imagine being terrified and in pain and not sure if your baby that you just gave birth to is going to survive.

Secondly, I have another friend I met originally through the Sims community, who this really happened to. Not exactly the same story - her babe wasn't premature - but she went home with a baby who within days was blue and unable to breathe, and she was dismissed as "just a fussy first-time mother", and by the time his heart defect was diagnosed it was too late to do anything. I've seen the photos of her pregnant, the photos of her & her partner with the baby, then the photos of him increasingly bloated and sick, and the photos of his grave. There is no question in my mind of the truth of that story - he really existed and really died, and I couldn't do a sodding thing to help due to the fact we were in different countries and I had no money because I was too ill with depression to work. Jo and her baby Casey were supposedly in the same country as me and within 30 miles of where I lived. How could I ignore that?

Thirdly, I'm a strong believer in karma. I believe that it's what makes the world go round. I help people whenever I can because if I help this person today, then when I need help, hopefully it will be available. I do things for other people not because I'm a fantastically nice person, but because I see it as something of an insurance policy. And doing things for other people makes me feel good.

What I did:
First, I suggested sending some flowers from everyone on the channel. I asked what her favourite colour was - apparently, navy blue. So I looked around several UK online flower companies to find someone selling a bouquet with blue flowers in. Now, I didn't want to get a specific "Congratulations on the Birth of your Son" bouquet in case by the time she got it, she no longer had a son - but everyone on the channel was insistent that they thought it was appropriate to commemorate the baby's existence. I thought, if people really wanted to mark the birth of the baby, that she should get the thing for him while he was still alive - the worst thing I could possibly imagine would be to get a hearty "Congratulations" present on the morning of his death.

So, the price of the present was going up & up as people suggested adding teddy bears and balloons - and I'd never intended to ask anyone else for donations towards it - it was going to be a thing from all of us but paid by me, because I was the most local and could afford it. I wasn't doing anything that evening, and thought "sod it, if I'm going to spend £40 on a bunch of flowers I might as well go to the shops and buy it myself & deliver it today, so she's got it while the baby's still here, just in case the worst happens". I was just going to get a bunch of flowers and a card, but it escalated, and I ended up getting a whole load of stuff to make her stay in hospital a bit more bearable, as well as a gift for the baby. I bought:

* two helium balloons - to cheer her up. One was a generic "Congratulations!" balloon and the other one was a "Baby boy" balloon.
* a colouring book and felt-tip pens - as when you're stuck in hospital you desperately need something to pass the hours away, but you're unlikely to have enough brain to concentrate on anything.
* a blue teddy bear and blanket from Mothercare, suitable from birth upwards - obviously it couldn't be put into the incubator, but it could be used as soon as the baby was a bit healthier. I thought that would be more appropriate than a "newborn" baby outfit that wouldn't fit a premature baby until he was 6 months old.
* an Evian water spray atomiser, to moisturise the skin - as my skin got completely dried out in hospital, even though I was putting cream on it constantly.
* a Jack Sparrow action figure from the Disney Store - to look after her until her husband was allowed home.

I also tossed in an elderflower eye gel from the Body Shop from my own stash - it's hypoallergenic, so if I can use it with my crappy skin anyone can, and I thought if you were crying your eyes out with stress, you'd want some eye gel to try to stop them hurting.

Then I rushed down to the bus station with two large, heavy shopping bags full of goodies, flapped a bit in panic about the time, finally found a bus to Twickenham, just missed the train to Ascot, had to wait half an hour for the next one, couldn't get hold of inquis who lives in Camberley so called a taxi to meet me at Frimley station, went to Ascot, changed trains there, crossing a platform with the large, heavy shopping bags, got off at Frimley, found the taxi & went to the hospital. There, over a period of 15 minutes, I found that Jorenne was lying - there was no patient with her name or any of the aliases she uses in the hospital, no baby boy called Casey Jones, and no patient who even begins to match the situation. They had babies in the Special Care Unit, but none that premature born that day.

More missed warning signs:
Weirdly, when I got back from the shops, Jo herself was on irc. Three things about this interchange seemed weird, but they actually combined together to provide a plausible story.

1) It was strange that she was on irc at all. Most NHS (state-funded) hospitals in the UK do not have bedside internet connections. On my most recent stay in Kingston Hospital (March 2006), they'd finally managed to get an extremely slow, shitty, cut-down Internet Explorer web service running at each bed - but it costs 4p per minute and crashes about every 10 minutes. And it was strictly web only, and only one window was possible. Trying to open multiple tabs in the browser made it behave extremely strangely.

2) She was typing at her normal speed, & stuff. The "stuff" is a bit hard to explain, but people have a particular style on irc. With little non-verbal communication, you tend to pay attention to people's usual mode of communication, the type of language they use, how they spell words and use punctuation, that sort of thing. Anyone who's done irc with me will know that I pretty much don't use capitals at all because it hurts my thumbs & wrists too much. I'm pedantic enough to edit my posts carefully, but I can't do that in real time.

Now, on my shitty hospital web service, any typing was done via a small rubber keyboard that was extremely slow to use - especially with one or more needles in your arm. (Sorry if that is triggery for anyone, but it must be said - typing at your normal speed in that situation is impossible even on a regular keyboard.)

3) She said she was in Frimley Park Hospital. I was surprised that, as a member of a military family living in Aldershot, she wasn't being treated at either the Cambridge Military Hospital or the Louise Margaret Maternity Hospital. However, all three of these hospitals merged together a few years ago to pool their expertise, and I thought perhaps Frimley Park had the best resources for infant intensive care.

What I haven't mentioned already is that I'm familiar with Frimley Park Hospital. It's where I was born, for starters - where I went for physiotherapy in my teens, and where my mum was treated for cancer. She is still a regular outpatient there, and she's done nothing but praise the hospital - she says it is extremely high-tech, clean, and efficient. So when Jorenne said she was in Frimley Park Hospital I figured it was entirely possible that she had a bedside internet connection, and that it was "real" internet. So rather than arousing my suspicions, these oddities just seemed to confirm the story.

4) Jorenne was complaining about the hospital food, saying it was all revolting brown lumpy mush and she'd needed to send her sister Julie out for pizza. This seemed really quite odd, because my mum is the fussiest eater alive, and she thinks the food at Frimley Park is wonderful, totally unlike most hospital food. They had no problems catering for any dietary special need, and could make delicious soups even for people who were only allowed clear (transparent) fluids. In fact, my parents often stop at the hospital cafeteria for food now, because it's one of the best places in Camberley to eat. But, again, it wasn't difficult to find an explanation for it - when you're really upset, the finest food in the world would seem like brown lumpy mush.

5) I told Jo that I was going to come and bring stuff up to her. She kept saying how "overwhelmed" she was that someone would do that. She said she'd told the hospital to deny all knowledge of her being there, because of some other ex-partner (not B) who she'd had to get a restraining order out on. (Yeah, another crazy dramatic story.) She said she'd had to wave the court order around a lot. I just told her to tell the hospital my name and that I was bringing stuff for her, and I showed her my gallery of recent photos of me. She promised she'd tell them to let me in.

6) Jo also gave me her "sister" "Julie"'s phone number to arrange dropping the stuff off. Conveniently, it was a Virgin Mobile number that was permanently on voicemail. Virgin do not offer contracts, only pay-as-you-go phones, and I don't think you need to register to top them up. So it was a number that was essentially untraceable, unlike a normal BT land line. Of course, I didn't find anything weird at the time about it being on voicemail, because I figured if the sister had been at the hospital all night and had only just left to get some sleep, she would have switched off that phone to avoid being disturbed.

I wonder whose phone number that really is?

Proof of the lies:
By the time I got there, it was outside the regular visiting hours, but I figured it would be ok as I was just dropping stuff off for someone who was "too upset to see anyone" anyway. Jorenne said she was in the ward "imaginatively called" Maternity A, so I went up there. And found:

1) No one called Natalija Jones or Selena Jones or Serena Jones or Jo anything was a patient there. There was a Helen Jones, but she wasn't expecting a visitor. No baby in the Special Care Unit even began to match the description - none were that premature and born that morning.

2) By the time I started asking about a patient with a laptop, the nurses were looking at me as if I was crazy and were trying to get me out of there. They don't allow any item that expensive into the hospital for fear of theft while the patient sleeps, and anything electrical that a long-stay patient brings and wants to plug into the hospital mains has to be tested for safety by their own team of competent electricians.

3) Frimley Park doesn't have bedside internet connections. The only internet access for patients is through a cybercafe near the front of the hospital that is open at fairly restricted hours.

4) I discovered also that there was no way she could be online from a mobile phone, because on my way out of the hospital, having turned on my mobile phone to attempt to call her "sister" for the tenth time, I set off a "screamer" unit that yells at you if you have a mobile phone switched on when you walk through their detector field. It frightened the life out of me, I can tell you!

All of this proved to me that Jorenne was lying, and lying badly. I was very upset and shaken up - I knew I had a 2 hour journey to get home and by the time I'd be getting home it would be gone 11pm, so I'd have spent 7 hours running around - all for a baby that didn't exist. I called Richard, Ludy and Alexa from the train home, and they calmed me down, and Ludy pointed out that even if Jo was lying this time, it didn't mean it had never happened to her - just that it hadn't happened now. Sometimes people take a long time to process grief, or don't process it properly at the time and then it resurfaces much later, but it can be hard to deal with. It's often easier for people to "act out" the story as if it is really happening than to tell people they're upset about something that might have happened 10 or 15 years ago.

5) When I got home & logged on, the owner of the channel said "Jojo said she was really sorry" and I was like "oh... sorry for what, exactly?". Because I wanted to know for certain whether she was lying before I said anything to anyone else - I was still willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. She could have been rushed off to another hospital for some reason, and it was just that the night-time staff only had the records of the current patients, for instance. But the excuse that was given was, unfortunately, yet another lie - a medical emergency with the non-existant baby. Supposedly, Jo had rushed to the Special Care Unit and forgotten to tell the reception staff not to deny knowledge of her to me. It's the NHS, forgodsake - they don't get involved with weird shit like that. The most they'll do is deny access to a visitor - they won't deny all knowledge of a patient. You'd have to go privately for that.

So I just couldn't leave everyone on the channel stressed and upset about the "baby". I made it clear that all I could prove was that there was no baby emergency now, that it might not all be a lie, and that I thought Jo needed sympathy, not condemnation. Even then, some people didn't believe I was telling the truth.

6) Then I had to go to Paris, because the ticket was already booked and non-refundable, and excuse me, I've just spent 7 hours and £60 rushing around for a liar, I'm not going to lose any more time and money on her. But I kept thinking about the situation, if there was some way to prove for certain that it was a lie. After a day of wandering round taking photos (which I will, of course, post when I have time to sort them out), I got to the hotel where there was free wifi access. I checked the thread again to see what the news was, and saw Jo had posted a new picture - "Casey at 8 hours old", I felt I had to know where those pictures had come from - were they photos of a real baby Jo had lost in the past? Or just stolen from a stranger's web site and passed off as her own?

Google gave me the answer. Random Google searches for "premature baby" and "premature babies" didn't give me anything that looked familiar, even after 15 pages on each search. But then I got a hunch based on the information that had been given - "26 weeks gestation" and "birth weight 880g" seemed awfully precise for a lie. So I tried "premature 26 weeks 880g", and obtained the website of a child called Nathan Windisch. Now healthy and much bigger, the photos of Nathan's first two days (uploaded between 27th July 1998 & 10th September 1998) were horrifyingly familiar. The enormous number of pictures and information documenting his life, and parents, and baby sister did not mention any mother or aunt called Jo, or her aliases, or Julie. It seemed, suddenly, awfully certain to me what was going to "happen" in the story we were being told - that the poor child would not survive, and Jorenne would be heartbroken and portray the bereaved mother, and so, too, would we be - and she would get so much attention, and it was all for nothing.

7) I sent a private message to the owner of the Sims site & channel telling her what I'd found. She was horrified, but over the next day more stories came out. F, our midwife, had told "Julie" what might happen to Jo and "Casey" - and the story that then came back from Jo was almost word-for-word identical. There were some other things she'd said to other people - that involve those people's privacy - that had made them question some of her story. The worst lie of all was when Jo told V, a friend with PCOS who is trying to get pregnant, that she had PCOS too - getting her hopes up falsely, and then putting the fear of God into her. Because there is a risk of miscarriage and premature birth associated with PCOS, and it all seemed horrifyingly plausible.

Throughout everything she told us, Jo was entirely believable. She went to great lengths in her hoax - I used the term "elaborate" advisedly. Another simmer, Z, described the story as "heartwrenching" - "how she lost her first 2 boys in the devastating car wreck, how her heartless family was so unsupportive during the ensuing breakdown" - I remember now, why her "sister" "Julie" was the only member of her family she was supposedly in contact with - "the details of her new risky pregnancy, her hopes and dreams for this new baby... it was all very intricate and she was always "on", even down to sending her hubby out to shops late at night to satisfy bizarre cravings". She went into so much detail that it was only tiny things here and there that seemed off, and it was easy to overlook them in the bigger picture.

What I feel it about now:
Part of me regrets that I didn't just send the flowers like I was going to - had I sent flowers to someone not a known patient at the hospital, the nurses would have just passed them on to cheer up whoever needed it. But had I done that, and the "baby" died, I'd have felt terrible. So I'm pleased, in a way, that I did go out of my way, even though it was wasted. If it's spend 7 hours running around for a baby & mother that didn't exist compared to no hours not running around for one that did, I know which one I'd pick, anytime.

I'm glad also that it was me who did it. I wasn't a particularly close friend of Jo before this happened, so I had less emotion invested in the situation. Even then, it took me several hours to accept that she was lying - I kept trying to find some way to reconcile what I knew. Also, while I lost some money (there's a £3 bus fare & a £7.60 train fare & a £10 taxi fare I won't see again), the fact is I'm not completely broke. It almost seems worth £20 to find out for certain that someone was telling lies and manipulating the emotions of my friends.

Yes, I still consider the people I know from the Sims community to be my friends. In all my time online, this is only the second person I've personally been involved with who's turned out to be something very, very different from what they represented. Even taking into account all the dodgy people that all my close friends have "met" online, it's been less than one a year for the 11 years I've been online. I still believe that most people are fundamentally decent, and that internet friendships are real friendships.

I feel, at the end of all this, that Jorenne needs help and pity, not scorn. What sort of person needs to make up a pregnancy, dramatic birth and dying baby to get attention? What on earth is lacking in that poor soul's life that they need to be the centre of attention in a small community of Sims fans on the internet? I'm also mindful of papersky's recent livejournal post on the connection between storywriting and lying. Had Jorenne presented this as a Sims story, we'd have found it horrible - but also moving and compelling. Why the hell did she have to pretend it was real?

Jorenne - whoever the hell you really are - get yourself psychiatric help. Really.

Finally, has this affected me? In the short term, yes. In the long term, no. I'd still go out of my way to help someone if I could. I'm not going to stop being a good person just because there are bad people out there. Will I be more cynical and ask more questions? Probably - of course! But that's not a bad thing.

I've left this as a public entry with comments enabled because it is a cautionary tale. Yes, you may link to it. Yes, you may comment on it. But if I get abusive comment spam, I'll turn it off.
Tags: fraud, internet drama, introspection, irc, sims 2

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