California Attorney General Kamala Harris had exhilaration in her eyes as she publicly announced in late 2013 that her eCrime Unit finally had shut down one of the most notorious revenge-porn websites in the world. The men charged were innocent unless proved guilty in court, but the website of stolen, pornographic and debasing photographs was something no one should have to endure, she said.
The website was considered so disgusting and destructive that a couple of detectives in two different countries had begged me not to mention its web address for fear of further humiliating and endangering the women whose naked photos had been posted by vindictive ex-lovers or “friends.”
Eventually, the police pulled the plug on the site, but what I saw before that happened is hard to forget: thousands of photographs — more than 10,000 it turns out — of women, teens, and underage girls captured in revealing positions never meant for prying eyes; of youthful drunken group sex; and of confident women in revealing lingerie whose partners would one day turn their personal information and photographs over to strangers as part of their hateful revenge campaigns. I cried the first time I found the site, plastered with the smiling, unsuspecting faces of girls and women, along with desperate pleas for mercy from the victims and their families alike.
“PLEASE HELP! I am scared for my life! People are calling my workplace, and they obtained that information through this site! I did not give permission for anyone to put up those pictures or my [and]. I have contacted the police, but those pictures need to come down! Please!” reads one post, which is now entered as evidence in an extortion case.
In another message posted to the now defunct website, a new husband begs the owner to show a semblance of humanity for his devastated wife. When her nude photograph — taken years earlier at a party — was posted, he said she lost her teaching job, which also hurt her students, who loved her. They fled their community after locals turned against them. (No word on what happened to the two naked men in the candid photograph.)
Revenge-porn victims around the world no doubt rejoiced when they heard Kevin Christopher Bollaert, a 27-year-old San Diego man, had been arrested in connection with the site. In court documents, police alleged Bollaert had set up a callous criminal scheme to capitalize on men’s desire to humiliate or harm women. Internet technology makes it easy for the angry, the vindictive, the mentally ill, and the intoxicated to shatter lives. There are many more sites online that routinely post stolen intimate photographs and videos, often of underage girls, but this particular site had an additional grim twist, police say.
He posed as a ‘good guy’ running a scrub website; in exchange for hundreds of dollars, he removed the very same photographs he’d solicited and posted
Bollaert allegedly got help from family and friends to set up the extortion website, through which he asked for images, but also personal details of the victims: full names, ages, addresses, telephone numbers, and [and] accounts, which, police say, he then made public. The scheme was to allegedly get other people to join in the harassment and tormenting of the targets. The more people harassed and stalked the victims, the greater the odds that they’d unwittingly turn to Bollaert. Why? Because he’d allegedly also set up a sister website, called changemyreputation.com. There, police say he posed as a “good guy” running a scrub website; in exchange for hundreds of dollars, he removed the very same photographs he’d solicited and posted. Police shut that one down, too.
Pleas for help from the women, like the ones that made me cry, were also entered into evidence by the California prosecutor: “I have gone to the police, I’ve had a restraining order put in place because of this site [and] my phone has been going off EVERY 2 MINUTES with strange men sending inappropriate things to me.”
Another woman posted: “It’s disgusting. Also, I’ve had to … have a sexual harassment charge put in place in court because of this. I don’t know what gets you off about ruining people’s lives, but I was underaged in the photos posted of me so, yes, you are showing child pornography.”
In the media, Harris announced 31 felony counts against Bollaert, and made it clear that she was on the warpath for more arrests. But minutes after Bollaert’s arrest flashed across the newswires, I checked the notorious site; it was “parked” on the French server, Gandi. So, it was still there, lying low, on standby. The website’s documentation shows Bollaert appears to have used his own name when registering both websites in 2012, and that he’d applied to the United States Patent and Trademark Office for a site trademark.
It’s remarkable that Melissa Nester will even talk about the last few years of her life spent in the Web net of an adult cyberstalker who cost her the career she loved, all her money, and the sense of security that comes from growing up in a privileged American family. Ironically, all Nester had wanted to do was share her good fortune with a woman in need. “No good deed goes unpunished, right,” she says when I reach her by telephone in northern California.
Nester’s nightmare began when the divorced mother of two, who at the time was working at a charity fundraiser, joined an online forum where women shared tips about kids, food, books, love, and life. “Mary” quickly came to the group’s attention. “She was kicked out on the street, had no money, said that she was starving, that she has no jewelery. She had these pets that were her only thing keeping her alive that she loves so much, and that her husband would beat her … and basically she might as well end it.”
Nester and other forum members stepped up, sending Mary cash and gifts, beginning in 2010.