- By Hannah Ajala and the Love Janessa team
- BBC World service
For over a decade, stolen images of a former adult star have been used to scam victims out of thousands of dollars. How does it feel to be the ignorant face of so many romantic scams?
This article contains spoilers.
Almost every day, Vanessa receives messages from men who think they’re in a relationship with her – some even think she’s their wife. They are angry, confused and some want their money back – which they say they sent her to pay for daily expenses, hospital bills or help relatives.
But it’s all a lie. Vanessa doesn’t know these men. Instead, her photos and videos — taken from her past life in adult entertainment — have been used as bait in online romance scams dating back to the mid-2000s. Victims had extorted money through fake online profiles using Vanessa’s name or likeness, in a type of romance scam called catfishing.
The deluge of messages with stories of lost money and ruined lives has taken its toll.
“I started getting depressed and blaming myself — if it weren’t for my photos, maybe these men wouldn’t be scammed,” says Vanessa — we don’t use her last name to protect her full identity.
For about eight years, Vanessa worked as a “camgirl” – streaming explicit material live on the Internet via webcam. Being a bit shy when she started, she decided to create an alter ego named Janessa Brazil. “It’s not really me, it’s Janessa, so I won’t be embarrassed,” she thought.
She chose the surname Brazil not only because she was born there, but also because it is one of the most popular search terms on the internet. It was a smart decision. “I hate that name,” she says now. “But it helped me get popular quickly.”
For a while it went great. Vanessa enjoyed the relationship with her fans, who paid up to $20 (£17) a minute to watch and interact with her. “I want to please them. I want to have fun with them. And they get hooked,” she says.
At the peak of her career, she reportedly earned about a million dollars a year. Janessa had her own website, a successful brand and a vibrant online presence. But in 2016, her online profile was locked.
It took us nine months to find her for the Love, Janessa podcast. When we finally caught up with Vanessa in her humble apartment on the US East Coast, she told us that part of the reason she stopped creating online content was to try and stop the scammers. “I no longer want to give them the power to ever use anything of mine again,” she says.
Vanessa first noticed scammers pretending to be her when a man posted into chat during a live show, adamant that he was her husband and that she had promised him she would stop camming. She thought it was a joke, but asked him to email her.
More victims came forward with similar stories, posting comments during her shows and asking her to prove her identity. Scammers also popped up with weird requests for her – such as donning a red hat – images that they then used to trick victims.
The constant comments, emails and tense atmosphere began to affect her business. “It was a nightmare,” says Vanessa. “But I felt sorry for these guys. What should I do?’
At first she tried to answer every email, which took hours a day. She says her husband at the time, who was also her manager, also started eavesdropping on the messages. He told scam victims that he and Vanessa were not liable for the money the men lost.
“If I got all the money these guys sent all these scam artists, I would be a billionaire today and not be sitting here in my little apartment,” she says.
Vanessa thinks it’s in the nature of many men to want to take care of women, which explains why they send money to someone they haven’t met yet.
“Even if they don’t have the money, they’re still willing to give it, just to feel loved,” she says.
Roberto Marini, an Italian in his early thirties, was addicted to a fake Janessa. It started with a post on Facebook from a striking young woman calling herself Hannah, who complimented him on his start-up – a sustainable farm on the island of Sardinia.
After three months of exchanging photos and loving messages, she began asking for money. First for small things, like a broken phone, but soon she needed more. She told him that she had a hard life – when she wasn’t taking care of sick relatives, she had to make a living from adult entertainment.
Roberto wanted to save her and felt a “father-like energy” towards her. But he was frustrated that they never got to speak face-to-face — every time they arranged a phone call, her phone broke or something else came up.
Then he discovered thousands of pictures and videos of Hannah online — except they belonged to adult entertainment star Janessa Brazil — and many were more explicit than the pictures Hannah had ever sent him.
Their love felt real, so he wondered if she wouldn’t reveal her true identity in case it would complicate their relationship.
Roberto was confused and joined one of Janessa Brazil’s live online shows. “Is it really you?” he typed into the chat. He didn’t get the answers he wanted, and he paid by the minute, so he didn’t stay long.
In his search for the truth, Roberto also emailed her, along with many other people he thought might be the real Janessa. During our interview with her, Vanessa looked back in her inbox and found a message from him among thousands of emails.
“Hello. I feel the need to talk to the real Janessa Brazil,” he had written in 2016. She had replied an hour later, “I am the real Janessa Brazil.”
He asked her a few more questions to find out if they had spoken before. This email exchange was the first and only contact they had ever had.
But that wasn’t the end. Roberto continued to be caught up in scammers. He says he sent them a total of $250,000 (£207,500) over four years, gulping down his savings and borrowing money from friends and family, as well as taking out loans.
We found Roberto through his online posts warning others that fake accounts were scamming people using Janessa’s stolen images. But even after everything that had happened to him, part of him still believed he had a deep connection with the real Janessa.
That’s the sign of a successful scam, says Dr. Aunshul Rege, a Philadelphia criminal justice expert who has studied online romance scams.
She says messages are often sent by criminal networks working in teams to care for victims and share images and information. She’s even found a sample of the guides they use — practical guides that also include excuses to avoid a phone call that could expose them.
The scam follows a pattern – love bombings, threats of a breakup, and then requests for financial help, ostensibly to allow the couple to finally be together. The tactics are so formulaic they’re chillingly familiar to anyone who’s been on the receiving end, but they work.
“As humans, we are wired to help each other. That’s exactly how we are,” says Dr. Rege.
Vanessa says she hates these cruel tactics. “They show love and then take it away. The boys get desperate and are willing to do anything to get it back,” she says.
Dr. Rege thinks it likely that Roberto’s scam was carried out by an organized group. She says there are huge networks operating around the world, with significant numbers coming from Turkey, China, the UAE, the UK, Nigeria and Ghana.
One of the places where Roberto was asked to send money was Ghana, home to a group of online scammers called the Sakawa Boys. We tracked down a few in Accra. “Ofa,” a sweet-natured young man, told us that impersonating people online is time-consuming and involves a lot of administration – if only to keep track of the lies. He admitted that the work made him feel “bad” but that he had earned more than $50,000 (£41,500).
When he showed images of Janessa, Ofa said he hadn’t used them himself, but understood why they would be a favorite among scammers. He also said that a scam only works if he needs a variety of photos showing the women in everyday situations, such as cooking or at the gym.
Vanessa thinks her photos were used in part because she shared so many candid moments from her daily life. “I totally put myself out there, so they had a lot to work with,” she says.
But she draws a clear line between her professional alter ego and her real self. “Vanessa has panic attacks. Janessa doesn’t,” she says.
Eventually, the unstoppable tide of scam victims grew into “a monster” that traumatized Vanessa.
Having to perform on camera every day began to affect her mental health and her marriage. Exhausted, Vanessa told us she started drinking before her shows. She says she hates watching videos from that era because she can see her own misfortune.
In 2016, she said she couldn’t take it any longer and decided to quit. She says she took her car, left her home and husband, and left for a new life. Now she’s training as a therapist and writing a memoir – taking back control of her own story.
Vanessa has never gone to the authorities to report scammers using her image. She doesn’t think they would take her complaints seriously. “They’ll look at me like, ‘You’re a porn star,’ and laugh at my face,” she says.
Over the years she has become more resilient. She knows that scammers may never stop pretending to be her, but she understands why some victims fall into the trap.
“When it comes to love, we can be so stupid,” she says. “I know, I’ve been there. It’s like, ‘Damn! I’m smarter than this!’ So it happens to all of us.”
Report by Hannah Ajala, Laura Regehr, Katrina Onstad and Simona Rata
Listen to love, Janessa here