Sex Slavery, The Internet, And The Wisdom Of Crowds

At 3:09 p.m. Wednesday, a user named "fake" posted a thread titled "Help me help my friend in DC" to the seemingly staid "travel & transportation" section of Ask MetaFilter. What's happened since then is your feel-good-while-feeling-bad story of the day.

Fake wrote:

A Russian friend of mine may be in a dangerous situation in Washington, DC.

My friend and former student K arrived in DC yesterday, along with a friend. She came over on some kind of travel exchange program put together by a Russian travel agency called 'Aloha'. They paid about 3K for this program.

The program promised a job offer in advance, but didn't deliver. They said they would send one via email, but failed there, too.

Her contact in the USA barely speaks English, doesn't answer her calls but does answer mine. He has asked her and her friend to meet in NYC tonight around midnight, with promises of hostess work in a lounge. Yes, I know how horrific that sounds- that's why I am working all possible angles here.

She is not going to NYC but I need some help handling and understanding how to handle this- I have a friend helping them with a cheap hotel for the night, but that's all at the moment. I am presently driving to LA and could fly her and her friend to meet me there on Saturday, but couldn't house them indefinitely. I will be monitoring this thread over the next hour.

"The next hour" turned into the next 24 as the two Russian women, against fake's advice, set out toward the NYC rendezvous. As the Internet watched and the night turned to morning, procedural concern ("I just called the DC Russian Embassy at 202-298-5700; they are still open.") gave way to preemptive horror ("I am fucking sick and wrecked and need to get away from this phone. If you choose to meet them at the station, be prepared for them to want no help.")

Fake's story unfolded like the plot, it will be said, of Law & Order/ Grand Theft Auto IV: Liberty City/ The Wire/ that Liam Neeson monstrosity of a flick Taken/ CSI [Location]. Offers abounded from Ask MetaFilter posters to help keep the two women in DC overnight so they could roll in red tape in the morning (one poster, charmingly, offered to show 'em the sights: "Going to the Smithsonian or something could be fun and is almost definitely better than sitting around fretting. Even if everything turns out great in the long run, there's no reason not to take advantage of their time in DC.")

Internet users around the country chipped in, focusing their online stalking skills away from their exes and toward the digital paper trail of the "Lux Lounge," the Coney Island Avenue storefront where the women would, at the strike of midnight, be arriving to engage in a collaborative two-way negotiation of vacation benefits and telecommuting options.

One user, "Pollomacho," cropped up to say that he and his coworkers at the State Department were "on it." Another contributor recommended @-ing Ashton Kutcher on Twitter.

But fake's efforts seemed only to spook the two women. At 10:49 Thursday morning, having called the women's visa sponsor, he filed a troubling report:

[The visa sponsor] called the girls on the bus and spoke with them. In a brutalizing about-face they assured him that everything is fine, that they feel safe, and apologized for the 'problems I am causing'. They insisted on continuing in spite of his asking them not to go.

"I hope for the best," the Ask MetaFilter users reassured fake, buckling down like Floridians in wait of a hurricane. "Please pull off the road and get some rest." And lo, the pestering seemed to pay off! At 2:59 yesterday afternoon, fake posted a text he received from his friend:

D! Listen. I don't know how thanks you. Lux lounge is a strip bar, if we will go there, I don't know what would be… Thank you so much.! You saved our lifes.

The Internet rejoiced. A friend of mine emailed that she shed tears at her desk. Saved by the net! Evil wiki-foiled by good!

And like clockwork, Slate was there with the doubts. Editor Daniel Engber, with his arch capitalization of HEROIC and HEARTWARMING, pointed out that the man behind "fake" was a techie dude named Dan Reetz, who "is involved with something called the Fakeproject Corporation of America."

And of course, there's the cinematic perfection of the whole thing, itself the best 24 plot since Kim Bauer got caught in an underground lair with a panther or bear or whatever that was. In addition to the crisp pacing and questionably-colorful characters — the Ask MetaFilter user who met the women at the bus station in New York and ushered them to safety uses the screen name "internet fraud detective squad, station number 9" — there was the ongoing detail that fake was driving through Wyoming through the ordeal, in and out of range, batteries dying, "keyboard on my droid starting to glitch out," and presumably leaning up on a truck against the sunset at an abandoned gas station, striking a match off his jeans for a cig that he'd toss behind him as he drove down the road, the gorgeous explosion behind him reflecting not only in the rearview mirror, but in his mirrored glasses too.

At any rate, I kind of think it's legit? If only because MetaFilter types are second only to Wikipedia editors for self-seriousness and all the attendant suspicion. (As the thread celebrates when the girl's trip is stopped, a handful of schoolmarms step in to request that "rejoicing" be moved to a different thread, one titled "The kindness of strangers".) With the number of users involved in the exchange, including a number who mention speaking by phone with Reetz, it would certainly have to be a long-planned and well-crafted effort to have been fully pulled off.

Either way, it's depressing. Hoax or no, the modern-day slavery and sexual exploitation that is human trafficking is a real global issue that needs our resources and enforcement to stop. You should totally @ Ashton Kutcher about it.

Help me help my friend in DC [Ask MetaFilter]
The kindness of strangers [MetaFilter]