The message thread reads like the play-by-play from an alternate reality game, wherein complete strangers work together to solve a complex mystery. But the drama that played out on MetaFilter this week was no game. If not for the intrepid members of this 11-year-old digital forum, a couple of young Russian women might possibly have fallen prey to sexual slavery.
Dan Reetz's post appeared Wednesday evening at Ask MetaFilter, a portion of the site where people seek help from the crowd. Mostly it's mundane—someone needs suggestions for a good pet store in their area, that kind of thing.
But this post stood out: "A Russian friend of mine may be in a dangerous situation in Washington, DC," it began.
Reetz, a 28-year-old who goes by the online handle Fake, joined MetaFilter in 2004 and is a trusted user, according to Jessamyn West, the site's community manager. In 2006, he spent a year teaching English in Russia, and became close friends with one of his students, whom we'll call "K." "We used to walk around and talk about music and everything," Reetz told me. "I learned most of my Russian from her, so I have bad street Russian—and she learned most of her English from me, so she knows all the English swear words! We've been in touch ever since."
So he was thrilled when K contacted him recently to say she was coming to the United States to work for a few months—part of a murky cultural-exchange arrangement set up by a Russian outfit called Aloha. K and her friend would pay Aloha about $3,000 each. In exchange, Aloha would find them jobs and—with the help of another Russian company called Visa—a US visa sponsor. The women paid their money, and were offered positions as lifeguards in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
But then things started getting weird. On the eve of the trip, Reetz says, the job offer was rescinded, and Aloha replaced it with an intermediate one, which didn't pan out either. "Then they told them, 'Just fly to the US and we'll mail you an offer," Reetz recalls.
Which was ridiculous, of course; the women insisted that Aloha send their offer by email instead. But when they arrived in Washington, DC, and checked their inboxes: nothing. They called Aloha and were given a phone number for a guy named George. No last name.
The women—just 18 and 20—tried calling George. When he bothered to pick up, he spoke Russian poorly. K called Reetz and asked if he would call George on their behalf. Reetz did so, and discovered that George didn't speak much English, either.
Later, George called the women back, saying he had found a job for them as hostesses. They were to come to New York to meet him. After midnight. At a sketchy nightclub. He said they would be put up in what he admitted was a "really crappy" apartment, but promised they would later be moved to a much nicer one that was currently being remodeled. Reetz was instantly suspicious. "Once I realized that was happening, I said, 'Holy Shit! It just stinks of trafficking,'" he recalls.
The women were scared to meet with George, and Reetz urged them not to go, saying they should spend the night at a hotel instead. And that's when Reetz turned to his MetaFilter friends.
He was on the road at the time. Reetz had been a PhD student in visual neuroscience at North Dakota State University in Fargo—he hails from Bismarck. But the program wasn't working out, so he accepted a job with Disney in Glendale, California, to do camera and lens research. As all of this craziness went down, he was driving across Wyoming in a car packed to the hilt with his belongings. (When I caught up with him, he was crashing with a kindly MetaFilter user in the Salt Lake City area.)
Although it's altogether possible that George's offer was legit, what happened to Reetz's friend sounds like a textbook case of how human traffickers ensnare young women. But it's what happened next that makes this story worth telling. After Reetz summed up his friend's situation online, the MetaFilter community got fired up. They made inquiries. Gathered info. Called police, embassies, and trafficking hotlines. Posted official phone numbers. Offered sofas, food, money, visa knowledge, and safety escorts for the women. Dozens got involved.
Lalex: I just called the DC Russian Embassy at 202-298-5700; they are still open. Also, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center has a 24-hour phone line at 888-373-7888.
Fake: I am going to make her call the embassy right now.
Zinfandel: A J-1 visa is a cultural exchange visa, and some types of work are allowed. So they're not automatically in trouble with immigration if they work while here. It sounds like they would need a new sponsor, though, and I'm not sure there is time to arrange that. Here's more info on what types of jobs are allowed: DS-2019 form.
User Schmod posted dirt on the place where the women were to meet George:
...Was some sort of Russian restaurant when the Street View car drove through. A google search seems to indicate that a variety of restaurants have operated out of the location. The property was listed for sale in Feb09 for $89,000, got in a lot of trouble with the food/building inspector between April and May, and was pulled from the market in August...
A Tajikistani restaurant was operating at the location in 2004, and had the same phone number. [The club] had its "grand opening" on Feb 26, 2010. This photo does not inspire confidence. Since then, the club has played host to a small number of acts. There are other tidbits indicating that it operates (at least on occasion) as a strip joint.
Reetz had previously called the Russian consulate, which proved worse than worthless, he says. He then began calling all the numbers people had posted, trying to figure out who had jurisdiction. It was the same from all of them: Yes, the situation sounded suspicious, but the women would have to call for themselves. He got better assistance from Pollomacho—a MetaFilter member in a position to pull strings, who posted:
For future reference in situations exactly like this please contact the US State Department at jvisas at state dot gov. We (and by that I mean my coworkers and I) will get this situatuation rectified immediately upon learning of such situations. We cannot take action to ensure that women like fake's friend here are not exploited unless we know about these situations!
The next morning, armed with myriad goodwill offers from the MetaFilter community, Reetz again tried to convince his friends not to go through with the meeting. But the women were running out of money, and they didn't know or trust these people who were offering them things online. What they needed was a longer-term job. They would meet George at the club.
Reetz finally badgered them into calling a national trafficking hotline, where the staffers, through an interpreter, questioned them exhaustively, but ultimately offered no assistance. "I found out later they were working behind the scenes," Reetz told me. "But it was very frustrating. I had already lost credibility with the girls. I'm like, 'Oh, these guys will help you,' and here they just ask a bunch of questions and wear them out."
All along, the women's visa sponsor—which had no connection with Aloha—had thought the women were in Virginia Beach. They "kind of panicked," Reetz says, when he informed them what was going on. The sponsor then called the women directly and urged them not to meet with the man at the club. "This is where things got really horrifying," Reetz told me. "They wrote back and said, 'You must have talked to Dan [Reetz]. Don't worry about him and the problems he's causing. We're fine. Everything's fine and we're going.' And then they wrote me and said, 'Don't contact me anymore.'"
This story has a happy ending because someone—and not even Reetz is quite sure who; he thinks there were more than one—managed to get to the women during their bus ride. He suspects maybe Pollomacho's friends, but several agencies had the women's phone numbers. (So did some of the Metafilterers, as you shall see.) All the authorities Reetz had spoken with had been deliberately vague about what, if anything, they planned to do about the situation, and Reetz feared the worst. "We kept running into this wall over and over again: They're over 18. If they want to do this, they can do it."
Yet there in the background, the wheels he and his online friends had set in motion were turning.
The MetaFilter crowd rejoiced Thursday afternoon, when Reetz posted the following text exchange:
D, please, stop calling somebody, please, don't call to xxxx. All is ok. There is no problem!!! 11:25AM.
D! Listen. I don't know how thanks you. [The meeting place] is a strip bar, if we will go there, i don't know what would be... Thank you so much.! You saved our lifes. 3:33PM
No thanks necessary. It wasn't only me. 3:35PM
Also, there may be people to escort you at the station. They are good people. 3:35PM
Yeh, i know. I've sms with (mefi member) i think she is cool) miss you. & see you soon. 3:35PM
Fake's next post read as follows:
I just stopped and puked my stress out on the side of the road. Not out of the woods yet, but omfg, omfg
Even without the authorities, the MF crowd was on it. When the bus arrived, Kathrine Gutierrez (screen name: internet fraud detective squad, station number 9) was there to meet the women with the offer of a crash pad and a personal tour guide. Gutierrez, first contacted by Newsweek, told how she had texted the women:
"It’s Kathrine, come visit me. I don’t really care what you do, let’s just enjoy ourselves in New York." She offered to show them around the city and let them store their suitcases in her apartment. They agreed to meet her at the bus station.
"I was hoping I’d get the chance to talk to them and get them to reconsider before they went to meet him," Hines says. "You can’t control someone—they’re adults, they can make their own decisions—but I was hoping I could keep them from doing it with their consent."
She wasn't the only one there to meet them. Reetz got her in touch with New York City's finest, who showed up undercover. West told me the police didn't know what make of Gutierrez, thinking at first that she might be in cahoots with the traffickers. Gutierrez, in turn, told Newsweek she thought she was being followed by Russian mobsters. Lucky her it was just the fuzz. The police detained everyone for a couple of hours to get it all sorted out. But Reetz told me K and her friend are now safe and sound and staying at Gutierrez's apartment. (She's "great," he adds.)
Matthew Haughey, MetaFilter's founder, caught onto the thread Wednesday afternoon and stayed up till midnight monitoring it. It's a "shocking story," he says. "I was pretty happy with the outcome." But the grand effort by his membership doesn't surprise the 37-year-old Haughey—who describes MetaFilter as a smart and "highly collaborative" bunch with 12,000-15,000 "active" users—out of 45,000 total. In 2001, he recalls, the MetaFilter hive mind spent three intense days exposing a middle-aged Kansas woman who, for the previous two years, had posed online as an 18-year-old cancer victim. "Maybe once a year something weird comes up and everyone goes nuts doing research for that person," he says.
Reetz is just trying to process it all—and catch up on lost sleep. He's now headed for Las Vegas, where another MetaFilter user will put him up. As for the Russian women, he says, they have received a few thousand dollars from the community to take care of expenses and get them to where they might be able to find work. "I've been a member for a long time and I've seen 'em do stuff like this on a really small scale," he says. "But this is definitely the most unbelievable, ridiculous and amazing example of people pitching in."
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