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Warrior Eli, Internet Fraud, and Stolen Pictures

Last week, Tertia posted about the Warrior Eli story, namely because her children’s pictures were utilized in the hoax.  Hoax.  I actually don’t know if the story is fully fiction, a fake life and a fake death for Dana Dirr.  I spent the weekend trying to reconstruct the chain of events and characters since so much of what had been posted online is now gone excepted in cached form.  Combing through deleted Facebook pages and pictures taken from other people’s blogs and Flickr accounts, I tried to understand how someone could create a dynamic, somewhat-involved Internet trail that is… fiction?

It began with two people… or characters (depending on how much of this is fabricated — I truly don’t know): Dana and JS Dirr.  The couple had Facebook accounts linked to numerous friends, who may also be fictional.  They also had ten children (with an eleventh on the way), one of whom was a son named Eli who was experiencing childhood cancer.  Dana connected with other mothers blogging about their children’s experiences with childhood cancer.

I am not sure how many people interacted with Dana Dirr prior to her death, or whether they only became sucked into the story during the events on Mother’s Day. (There were definitely people who followed Dana Dirr’s story prior to the death because donations to cancer organizations in Eli’s name stretch back several months.)  Last weekend, Dana Dirr died in a car accident, but not before delivering the child she was pregnant with at the time.  The story made the rounds on Facebook — it was simply too cruel for people to comprehend.  A family who was already dealing with the tragedy of childhood cancer had now lost their mother — on Mother’s Day.  The family insisted they needed nothing but if people were moved to do something, they could make a donation to one of several childhood cancer organizations, including Alex’s Lemonade Stand.

I only learned about the Dirr family because two of Dana Dirr’s children were portrayed with pictures of Tertia’s children from So Close.  I’ve read Tertia’s blog for about six years and have watched her twins grow up in photographs.  So what is truth and what is fiction in this story remains to be seen, though what is fact is that the photographs of two of Dana Dirr’s children — Lily and Jade — are an infertility blogger’s children, Kate and Adam.  And in poking around, other people have stepped up to claim ownership of other photos used on Dana Dirr’s pages.

Since people started noticing their images stolen, all of the pages from the Warrior Eli Facebook page to their fundraising page on Alex’s Lemonade Stand have been removed, which doesn’t bode well from a truthfulness standpoint.  And that’s about all I’ve been able to figure out from reading the various blog posts by people who were sucked into Dana Dirr’s story.  It doesn’t have the closure yet of a Beccah Beuschausen nor does it have an explanation for how the images of others ended up being the visual aids for someone real, therefore, the story lingers in truthfulness purgatory.  Who really knows what to believe?

Deep breath.

Fraud on the Internet is hardly a new invention.  We’ve seen the same scenario come up time and time again: a tragic story (more often than not  involving a child and/or a woman) gains traction on the Internet.  No red flags are raised because the only things asked of those emotionally involved are prayers, attention, or donations to a well-known organization such as the American Cancer Society.  At some point, the story takes a very upsetting twist and people start feeling as if something is amiss.  And then it is revealed that the entire situation was fabricated — there is usually no mother and/or child at all, and if there is, the mother and/or child is not exactly in the situation portrayed.  From Little April Rose to Kaycee Nicole* and other  Münchausen by Internet cases.  The fraud is usually perpetrated not for financial gain, but for the attention, support, and care the person creating the hoax receives.  The situation may not be real, but the love flowing towards the fictional story is.  And real attention, support, and care are all desired human wants (and some would say needs) that cannot be bought.

Some people respond that the damage done by fraud on the Internet is hardly on par with the damage inflicted by people such as Bernie Madoff who destroyed lives with his scheme.  But just because life savings aren’t wiped out doesn’t mean that Internet fraud doesn’t inflict irreparable damage to the trust that is the foundation of the online world.  From trusting WebMD to provide us with useful information akin to what we’d gain from our face-to-face doctor to building friendships over time-space via blogs, we spend every single one of our online minutes walking a trust tightrope without a safety net in place.

When we’re in the face-to-face world, our body actually has a physical reaction to things that don’t seem right.  But the Internet is a medium that restricts almost all of our senses from in-taking useful information.  Imagine conducting your face-to-face relationships without your sight, smell, taste, or touch.  The only thing you’d have is the ability to hear without tone or inflection — the equivalent to words on a screen.  The Internet places us at a very large disadvantage, and therefore, all we have to go on is that foundation of trust.  And when it is broken, we realize just how vulnerable we are every time we accept information from a computer screen.

Even knowing this, some of my closest friendships have come out of the Internet.  And I trust them.  Even knowing that there are people in the world who would take someone else’s photographs and construct an online existence for themselves out of them.  I can’t really explain how or why I can make this leap beyond pointing out the fact that there are deceitful people who exist in the face-to-face world, and yet even after our core is shaken from their deeds, we still are able to love, to trust, to connect with others afterward.  Because we need to as humans.

I think it’s important to go into the Internet with an open heart as well as the remembrance that you are unable to utilize so many of the senses you use in your face-to-face world to make those gut decisions.  And therefore, proceed with caution.

* In a heart-stopping moment as I wrote this post, I found something that Theresa Erickson wrote back in 2009.  Completely missed that until now, but it makes the surrogacy scandal that came to light last year all the more chilling.


1 Chickenpig { 05.21.12 at 9:26 am }

This is just all kinds of messed up. Even if it is true, or shades of it are true, why steal the images of someone else’s children? My gut reaction is the this is an internet scam being run by some pimply faced loser living in his parents’ basement. He is getting his kicks out of people’s sympathy, and possibly bringing in some cash for weed off of the lemonade stand.

I have often wondered if the ALI community will be infiltrated by one of these desperate people hungry for attention and support. We are all so open and trusting here, and willing to give support in any way we can. When I was in college there was a young woman that started attending a group of rape survivors. Two of the women in the group were friends of mine, and they started to feel like her story was off, her reactions didn’t seem genuine, either. But they would never confront her or refuse support, naturally, even though they were hurt and puzzled. It turned out later that the young woman in question admitted to a counselor and other students that she had not been raped. Not only that, she made disparaging comments about other women in the group (most of the members being anonymous). My friends had come to me because I was an RA and they were hoping I could do something. But other than provide counseling for the young woman (who obviously needed it) there was nothing else I could do.

Like you said, we don’t have our senses to guide us on the internet. We can only hope that we don’t end up with someone like that around here.

2 Alexicographer { 05.21.12 at 10:11 am }

How dreadful.

I haven’t to my knowledge been taken in by one of these scams (yet…), and I get the importance of trust, and the damage they do to that. But I find that I feel concern, too, for the perpetrators — that behavior simply cannot (can it?) be the sign of a mentally sound mind (and I’d distinguish — sharply — between the attention-seeking behavior of “Dirr” and the kind of fraud Erickson committed that involved considerable financial gain, though that distinction may reflect my own non-understanding of the motives of the former, still, Erickson’s behavior strikes me as self-serving in a “normal” (not mentally ill) but dreadful way, whereas “Dirr’s” strikes me as self-serving in a way that suggests mental illness (and is also dreadful)).

Still, ugh, ugh, ugh.

3 marwil { 05.21.12 at 11:27 am }

Oh my gosh what a story. I’m just shaking my head in disbelief!

4 Audrey { 05.21.12 at 12:31 pm }

I have to say, I’ve been wondering about this internet Münchausen thing for some time now, every time I turn around there’s someone faking sick kids being outed. I’m not big on people who spend their time doing background checks and pulling public records and analyzing every post certain well known bloggers post, I mean get a life right?, but I do sometimes wonder about these things myself. I can see how people get their heart broken when they feel like they “know” this person because they’ve been reading them for X amount of time. Emotional investment is something I think people often overlook when it comes to life in general, whether on the internet or off. That’s why people write off ’emotional cheating’ whereas others find it to be just as bad as actual physical cheating.

5 Corey Feldman { 05.21.12 at 12:33 pm }

That is nauseating. But ultimately the internet is a communication tool. It can be used to commit fraud, or save a life through 911. But some people are sick and others are monsters or some combination of both. But there are also a lot of good people int he world and on the internet, just like in our neighborhoods. We just can’t always tell who they are.

6 It Is What It Is { 05.21.12 at 12:35 pm }

I, too, have followed Tertia’s blog for years, watching her children grow up virtually. I’ve read other posts where her words or photos were used, by others, without her approval or knowledge, effectively stolen and put forth as someone else’s own idea or children or picture(s) or whatever.

I was aghast to see her twins used to commit this crime (I think it is criminal to pass off another person’s children as your own and, further, to fabricate a story about them in a way to solicit donations (even if they are to actual charities, or whatever).

I would feel violated, epically.

I do post pictures of my son on my FB page, but not on my blog. he is 5 now and he is usually the driver of the posting (as in “Mommy, let me see that picture. You should post it on FB.”) not that I believe he fully understands what that means. Perhaps, in light of this and your philosophy with your twins, it’s time to stop. It’s something I need to mull over and reconsider but it’s about time.

7 Barely Sane { 05.21.12 at 1:07 pm }

This is all new to me and I am just sick about it. I am stunned and saddened for those who were duped. Wow. I mean,….wow.

8 Cristy { 05.21.12 at 1:46 pm }

When I first saw Tertia’s post, my heart hit my throat. Like you, I don’t know what parts, if any, of this are true. What I do know, though, is that someone used images of Kate and Adam for their own gain. I can only imagine what emotions went through Tertia’s being when she first learned of this. And then to see how far it went. My head was spinning as I read more and more.

I think your point of being open but cautious is a good one. But one of the things I worry about with the internet is how detached many people are able to be. Unlike physical encounters, it’s easier to lie over the internet. Granted, there are some very skilled liars in real life, but it’s not as simple as online. It’s hard to be overly guarded, though, as I do value the friendships I’ve made in this community. So, I chose to be more vulnerable. Now I just need to learn to listen to my gut more effectively.

9 Heather { 05.21.12 at 2:42 pm }

I saw this report from Tertia’s blog too and I was shocked. #1 that someone did a scam like that and #2, that they had that much time on their hands LOL! I just can’t imagine having that much time to be able to work up a fake life like that. I have a hard enough time keeping the real one going.

But as my tween-age girl is starting to go on the Internet, it reminds me to continue the talk that not everyone is what they seem IRL. You just have to be careful with what you do and who you support on the Internet.

10 Lori Lavender Luz { 05.21.12 at 4:46 pm }

Thanks for unknotting the skein to the degree you did. I tried to do so this weekend from Tertia’s post and stopped because it was just. so. unbe-freaken-lievable that someone would go to such lengths to perpetrate such a fraud.

I clicked over to Theresa Erickson’s comment about fraud and scamming. Wow. Just wow.

11 a { 05.21.12 at 6:01 pm }

I can’t understand what people get out of this sort of thing. I suppose that’s because I’m not a big fan of being the center of attention. But I suppose this fits into your external validation series on the end of the “when it goes wrong” spectrum. So odd.

Yeah, that Theresa Erickson comment – I don’t remember how long her scam went on, so I wonder if that was a sincere thought before she got corrupted or a cover-up of sorts.

12 Lisa @ Hapa Hopes { 05.21.12 at 7:27 pm }

I’m so glad you posted this because I was trying to figure out the whodunnits and trail of things this weekend and just got too lost. What a tragedy for all involved.

13 Daryl { 05.21.12 at 8:47 pm }

This kind of deceit on the internet seems way too easy. And you’re right about losing the senses we normally use to sniff out the BS, so to speak, in the real world. I hadn’t heard this particular story until now, but I’ve heard of similar ones, and I’m still aghast that anyone would have the nerve to try to pull off such a scheme.

14 Monica { 05.22.12 at 2:14 am }

This probably happens more than we think and it will, sigh, happen again. The people who do it are sick in some way and they are helped by the internet love that they raise in us. I try not to judge but I also don’t want to be taken, nor do I want internet friends to be hurt. I think in many of these cases the perp has been shown to be a woman. A sad woman who needs us. It’s a happy outcome when the only harm is betrayal of trust and donations to a worthy org.

But what are the signs that something is amiss? In the past, I recall post-fraud awareness that there were sentiments that some things seemed too ‘perfectly’ sad or parts of the story were rather similar to what happeneed to someone else.

How can we protect our images and words? I know there are programs that will search for your content elsewhere on the web like copyscape dot com. not an endorsement, just fyi. I think you can also just search for image filenames too, if the perp kept the same name, you might discover it that way.

I operate on instinct, gut feeling… without the tone or inflection my ability to get a ‘read’ on the internet is greatly diminished. So I have two choices: continue with open heart or put up walls. I choose open heart every time. But I do so knowing that there are lots of “us” and fewer of “them,” and “us” will watch over each other.

15 Orodemniades { 05.23.12 at 9:03 pm }

I have never heard of this whole thing until this post. Makes me wonder why?

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