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 unwitting face of so many romance scams?
Almost every day, Vanessa gets messages from men who believe they are 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 to help relatives.
But it is all a lie. Vanessa doesn’t know these men. Instead, her pictures and videos – lifted from her past life in adult entertainment – have been used as the bait in online romance scams dating back to the mid-2000s. Victims had money extorted through fake online profiles using Vanessa’s name or likeness, in a type of romance scam called catfishing.
The flood of messages containing tales of lost money and ruined lives have taken their toll.
“I started becoming depressed, and blaming myself – maybe if my pictures weren’t out there, these men wouldn’t be getting scammed,” Vanessa says – we’re not using her surname to protect her full identity.
For about eight years, Vanessa worked as a “camgirl” – streaming explicit material live on the internet via webcam. Because she was a bit shy when she started out, she decided to create an alter ego called Janessa Brazil. “It’s not really me, it’s Janessa, so I won’t be ashamed,” she thought.
She picked the surname Brazil not only because it’s where she was born, but also because it’s one of the most popular search terms on the internet. It was a savvy decision. “I hate that name,” she says now. “But it helped me get popular quickly.”
For a while, things were great. Vanessa enjoyed the relationship with her fans, who would pay up to $20 (£17) per 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 says she was earning about a million US dollars a year. Janessa had her own website, a successful brand and a vibrant online presence. But in 2016 her online profile went dark.
It took us nine months to find her for the podcast Love, Janessa. When we finally spoke to Vanessa in her modest apartment on the US east coast, she told us that part of the reason she quit making online content was to try to stop the scammers. “I no longer want to give them the power to use anything of mine ever again,” she says.