In the social-media driven society of today, it is commonplace for scammers and catfish to make their ways around, trying to con people out of their money and followers. Even in such a dangerous place as the internet in this day, it is still extremely rare for a major corporation or company to fall for a con-artist’s tricks. When it does happen, it is considered a big deal.
Enter the curious and confusing case of Sarah Phillips and ESPN.
In early 2011, Sarah Phillips was a 22-year-old Oregon State student and blogger that stared to gather a following on the forums of gambling website Covers.com. She attracted such a following, she was eventually offered a position as a full-time blogger for the site.
It was this work that garnered the attention of ESPN. After a short time writing for Covers.com, ESPN editor Lynn Hoppes reached out to Phillips via Twitter. The since-deleted tweet read, “@RealSarahPHI hey, sarah, i’m mr. lynn hoppes of espn.com. give me a shout when you can. thanks. firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Shortly after the tweet was sent, an alleged meeting occurred, and Phillips was hired to write for ESPN.com Page 2, now known as ESPN.com Playbook. “I landed a job with ESPN because they thought I was pretty, quick witted, and knew my stuff,” Phillips stated in an email. “I was in disbelief when Covers approached me, and that feeling is multiplied by 1 million when ESPN approached me. I never considered ESPN. Ever. I didn’t even know how to go about getting to work with them. But, here I am. I’m freaking excited.”
But this isn’t how the story ends for Phillips. Shortly after her hiring, a 19-year-old college student and runner of the popular Facebook page NBA Memes, a man using the pseudonym “Ben,” received a Facebook Message from an account he had never heard of or recognized. In this message was Phillip’s contact information, suggesting that she was interested in beginning a sports website and was looking for contributors.
Ben agreed to join the site as a contributor, supplying memes similar to his Facebook page. Once the agreement was in place, Phillips then presented the idea of Ben becoming an editor and creator. Through pageviews data, she suggested that he could go from making 1,000 dollars per month as a contributor to making anywhere between 38,000 and 100,000 dollars per month as an editor and creator. To a broke 19-year-old college student like Ben, this was a deal he couldn’t pass up.
Phillips had Ben eventually reach out to the main editor, director, and website developer of her new website, FauxESPN.com, to set up the details of his contract: Nilesh Prasad. Prasad, who had told Ben he was the managing director of ESPN.com, continued talks with him. In these interactions, Prasad mentioned to Ben that as soon as the website would gain traction, ESPN had plans to buy it, and that in lieu of taking any profit from the sale, Prasad would receive a promotion to vice president that he had longed hope for.
Prasad also convinced Ben that the audience from his NBA Memes page was key. Ben was promised a percentage of the revenue based on the amount of the audience he brought in. “For example, if FauxESPN.com generates 50,000 dollars in revenue in June, and you contribute 10 percent of the total viewership with your content, then you will receive 5,000 dollars for that month,” Phillips stated to Ben in an email outlining the terms of his employment.
Later that same day, Prasad contacted Ben claiming that he was using illegal and unlicensed photos on his NBA Memes page. He told Ben that if he wanted the job, he would have to give up page administrator duties to Prasad so that he could scrub the page of the illegal photos. Ben agreed to do so.
Within two days, Ben had been removed as an administrator of his NBA Memes page, with both Prasad and Phillips being the lone administrators. Suddenly, communication stopped between Ben and the two, and it became obvious that Prasad and Phillips were using his NBA Memes page as a gateway to their website, now titled the Sports Comedy Network. Phillips and Prasad had changed the “about” section of Ben’s NBA Memes page to say, ““We’re moving to www.facebook.com/pages/Sports-Comedy-Network/442988682383985.”
Soon after this occurred, Deadspin released an article surrounding Phillips and Prasad’s hijacking of Ben’s Facebook page. In the article, Deadspin uncovered many interesting points about Phillips’ and Prasad’s backgrounds. Deadspin recognized that during her time at Covers.com, Phillips used three different photos of three different women as her profile pictures. In addition, Deadspin learned that, despite what was suggested, ESPN never met with Phillips in person before she was hired.
As for Prasad, he had no ties at ESPN, let alone being a managing editor for ESPN.com, like he claimed to Ben.
Deadspin also revealed that Phillips and Prasad had run the same scam they did to Ben at least twice before. They approached Erik Miller and Brent Booher, creators of popular Twitter feeds @_Happy_Gilmore and @FauxJohnMadden, respectively. Like Ben, they had agreed both to join on the Sports Comedy Network and to hand over control of their Twitter accounts, but quickly pulled out of their deals after hearing Ben’s story.
Following the release of Deadspin’s story, ESPN cut ties with Phillips. Rumors began spreading that Phillips was not even a real person. She confirmed herself to be real on her Twitter account shortly after explaining that she used multiple photos to conceal her identity.
Sarah Phillips’ social media accounts, including her Twitter account, have since been suspended, and she has not been heard from since her termination from ESPN.
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