Last week, we published a long story about Sarah Phillips, the ESPN columnist who, among other things, used her connections to the Worldwide Leader to hijack a teenager's Facebook venture. The story developed quickly from there, getting progressively more complicated as more tipsters came forward with their own Sarah Phillips stories. In case you got lost somewhere in the sea of updates, let's get you up to speed.
Who is Sarah Phillips?
She's 22 years old and lives in Corvallis, Ore. She attended Oregon State, but hasn't studied there since last summer.
So she's a real person?
What's with all these different photos of her?
In some of her columns, Phillips used photos of a woman named Ivy Smith, a hairdresser in Eugene, Ore. In her eventual Twitter apologia, she said she wanted to conceal her identity.
How'd she get to ESPN?
Phillips developed a following in the message boards at Covers.com, a gambling website. Covers gave her a column, and in August 2011, ESPN's Page 2 came calling. We'll return to ESPN in a bit.
And who is this Nilesh Prasad guy?
Phillips was the distaff side of a sort of low-rent social-media-scamming version of Bonnie and Clyde; Nilesh was the other half. He is a few years older than Phillips—26, according to public records—and he shares an address with Phillips. According to one person who knows a number of Sarah's and Nilesh's friends, "Everyone here readily admits that Nilesh is more or less the 'puppetmaster' in this situation."
How'd they meet?
According to some Oregon locals, Prasad and Phillips have known each other for years. It's not entirely clear if they're dating now, but it appears they got to know each other when she was in the eighth grade and he was a senior in high school. They worked at a T-Mobile store in Corvallis together and got fired together as well. A source told us they were "selling phones and activating phones outside of policy (selling them on eBay and other routes)," then claiming commissions.
They seem like a good couple. What did they do to that kid with the Facebook page, exactly?
The kid is a 19-year-old college student (let's call him Ben) who had created a popular Facebook page, NBA Memes, a collection of LOLCat-like image macros of NBA players. Phillips asked him to contribute to her new web venture, the Sports Comedy Network. She told him to get in touch with the editor of the new site, who turned out to be Nilesh Prasad.
You said they "hijacked" his page. How?
Prasad told Ben that he was a "managing director" at ESPN.com who was on the cusp of being promoted to VP. (This was a lie—Prasad did not work for ESPN). He eventually got Ben to give up administrator rights to the page by raising the specter of a copyright-infringement suit. Under Phillips's and Prasad's control, the NBA Memes page became a vehicle to steer traffic to the Sports Comedy Network.
So what was the fallout?
Shortly after our story was published, ESPN cut ties with Phillips. She returned the NBA Memes page to Ben. It's unclear if the Sports Comedy Network will still launch.
That's it? This whole thing was about some kid and his Kobe lulz?
No. Ben wasn't the only one who got suckered. When our story came out, Phillips had at least two other people wriggling on the hook, Erik Miller and Brent Booher, creators of popular Twitter feeds @_Happy_Gilmore and @FauxJohnMadden. Phillips had told the pair that she was working with an editor at ESPN.com (presumably this was Prasad) on a new site, called FauxESPN.com, a precursor to the Sports Comedy Network. Miller and Booher were set to the join the team. All Phillips needed was—
Lemme guess: All she needed was access to their Twitter accounts
Correct. After our story was published, the two quickly ended their relationship with Phillips.
So she and Prasad were sort of a roving Twitter protection racket?
You could say that. It appears that Phillips was also in possession of another popular Twitter feed, @OhWonka. She also took over this person's Twitter feed so she could goose her own follower count. She agreed to pay him and then never did.
What's the point of a social-media scam, anyway?
Phillips told Miller that FauxESPN.com would be "a way for us to monetize the followings we've created on Twitter." The site would also lead traffic to her weekly stories at ESPN.com. More traffic for her ESPN work meant more traffic for her new web venture and so on—traffic begetting traffic begetting traffic. In fact, in Phillips's last piece for ESPN, she opened her column by linking to a photo from the Sports Comedy Network.
Was she involved in any other unorthodox business activities?
Here's one we know about: While Phillips was still writing for Covers, she and Prasad began work on a website called SarahPHI.com. At least two people, Matt and a person with EA Sports Consultants, provided money for advertising on the site. Not long after, the site was shut down.
Is any of this illegal?
Very possibly. Bradley Shear, a sports and social media attorney, identifies a "potential wire fraud issue here." He explains: "They were utilizing fraudulent means to have people turn over their internet assets. There are potential criminal issues here." Joseph V. DeMarco, a former assistant U.S. attorney who founded and ran a cybercrime team of prosecutors for New York's Southern District, sees a possible larceny case. Of course, anyone building such a case against Phillips and Prasad would have to put a value on those social-media accounts. That's easy enough to do when the accounts are owned by companies and used for marketing purposes, DeMarco says. It's much more difficult, however, when the accounts belong to individuals.
Still, all that seems pretty bush league. Did they ever get anyone's money instead of their social-media passwords?
Try this: When Phillips was still a columnist at Covers, one of her readers, Joe, asked her via private message if she knew of any reliable bookies. She directed him to someone who has the same phone number as Nilesh Prasad (and who almost certainly is Nilesh Prasad). Joe deposited a few hundred dollars with the bookie, who neither paid out Joe's winnings nor returned the original stake.
That's ... theft?
Yes. "If a bookie isn't anything but a thief," DeMarco says, "it doesn't take a stretch of the law to hold him accountable." And what if a victim won't cooperate (since it seems doubtful a gambler ever would)? In theory, prosecutors could bring a case without a victim's cooperation, but it makes their job much harder.
Are they potentially breaking any other laws?
There are the obvious ones. If Prasad was indeed a bookie, he was violating federal law. And if Sarah Phillips was steering people to him, according to DeMarco, that too could be a violation of "various state laws and federal law," namely the Wire Wager Act, both substantively and under conspiracy and aiding and abetting principles. "It's a violation to be a front person for a bookie and to help a bookie run their business," DeMarco says.
What was Phillips's reaction to the first story?
Her initial response was a tweet not long after we published our story (and right around the time ESPN was cutting ties with her):
That was soon deleted. Later that night, she again took to her Twitter and cryptically announced she was "cutting ties" with people. It's unclear if that referred to Prasad. She has not commented since. At last check, per Oregon State's student newspaper, The Daily Barometer, Phillips was still working at an AT&T store in Corvallis.
How did ESPN fuck up?
There are two arguments here. The first one is that no one at ESPN actually met Phillips in person. But this happens—you can't meet every freelancer you work with. The more damning issue is why ESPN hired her in the first place. She had been writing professionally for only a few months, and a quick breeze through her work at Covers would've shown that there were plenty of nagging questions about her identity, to say nothing of her writing. She was a walking red flag.
Why did ESPN hire her?
"I landed a job with ESPN because they thought I was pretty, quick witted, and knew my stuff," Phillips wrote a friend in an email.
So what's the moral of the story?
Well, there are any number of interesting angles. The story about Joe and his missing bets is a good glimpse into sports gambling as it operates today. On April 15, 2011—known as Black Friday—federal prosecutors hit three online poker sites with fraud and money-laundering charges. This drove internet betting further underground in general, which is why Joe was asking a gambling columnist for new bookie referrals to begin with. The war on internet gambling helped send Joe into the arms of the simplest of hustles.
OK, what else?
There's also the social-media hustle, which was addressed nicely by Chris Lehmann in the New York Observer. Sarah Phillips is what happens when personality becomes a commodity.
- Is An ESPN Columnist Scamming People On The Internet?
- Sarah Phillips Admits She "Concealed" Her Identity, Made "Poor Choices With Who To Trust"
- Sources: Sarah Phillips And Nilesh Prasad Picked Games Together, Scammed People Together, Got Fired From T-Mobile Together
- Another Sarah Phillips Scam: "I'm A Writer For ESPN And I Have A Plan To Take Over The World"
- Meet Nilesh Prasad, Sarah Phillips's Scamming Partner And Supposed "Puppetmaster"
- In The Realm Of Gambling Message Boards, Anyone Could Be The Next Sarah Phillips
- Source: Sarah Phillips Steered Business To A Bookie Who Was Probably Nilesh Prasad