How I stopped an Internet sex hoax.

Inside the Internet.
Aug. 1 2005 12:31 PM

Green-Collar Crime

How I stopped an Internet sex hoax.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.
Click image to expand.

A tip for all of you aspiring investigative reporters: When you expose an Internet sex hoax, there are going to be consequences. Take it from me. My sleuthing got me an unplanned role in a piece of erotic fiction that starred Chewbacca as a Wookiee Casanova.

It all started on the weekend of July 4, when I spotted a discussion on the Web site Metafilter about a new fad called "greenlighting." The dubious claim was that an "emerging underground [group] of sexually promiscuous teenagers" had started wearing green shirts with the collar popped up. When a greenlighter spotted a fellow traveler, he yanked his or her collar down, triggering anonymous sexual escapades. (What's it called when you wave off a green-shirted lothario? Redlighting, of course.)

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Along with several other bloggers, I immediately posted my doubts that these jolly green hornballs existed. Later that day, I checked my blog's traffic reports and found that a number of visitors were coming from WookieFetish, a site that, true to its name, sports a photo of Han Solo's big hairy sidekick, Chewbacca. The page that linked to my site was locked up in WookieFetish's members-only discussion boards. I signed up for an account using my real name and the handle "cfarivar."

I discovered that WookieFetish was the planning ground for a massive hoax. It seemed like the ringleaders, who went by MadChad41 and Halcyon, were trying to match the success of 2004's "toothing" scam. A guy named "Toothy Toothing" (later revealed to be a British magazine editor) sold gullible journalists on the idea that British teens were initiating anonymous sex acts by typing "toothing?" into their Bluetooth-enabled cell phones. The WookieFetish schemers kick-started their prank using the same methods as the toothers: a phony forum laying out greenlighting etiquette ("What do I do after I get collared? Simply go into a secluded place and begin the act you wish to engage in"), backdated blog entries, and hot tales of green-shirt sex told to gullible reporters ("A well known soap star was seen greenlighting for ladies after live8").

Later, I found out via Wikipedia that greenlighting began its short life on a message board at the site Something Awful. The plan was to create a video compilation of green-shirt-wearing pickup artists and distribute it to blogs and peer-to-peer networks. The ultimate goal: "to spread the rumor until it reaches some national attention ... the Oprah show, Good Morning America, or some crappy national news channel."

Before any video started making the rounds, I outed the greenlighters with a few choice quotes from WookieFetish. I also logged into Wikipedia and updated the entry on greenlighting (which has since been deleted) with a terse, "This is a hoax." When some additional skeptics posted screen shots from the Something Awful forum, the jig was up. The WookieFetishists closed down their message board that night. I thought it was all over.

Then the first e-mail came in. "You seem like the kind of person that would go to a child's birthday party uninvited, and then proceed to explain loudly how the magician does all his tricks." That was soon followed by comments on my blog. "If this hoax had gotten big and you were the one to bust it, then maybe you could've found an e-girlfriend," one said. "Poorly played, cfarivar, poorly played." By midafternoon, my cell phone had a voice mail when I hadn't heard it ring. "This is the nicest phone call you're going to get," intoned a measured, even voice that Anthony Hopkins would envy, "asking you to remove your blog from the Internet."

Checking my site's traffic numbers again, I saw a surge since the night before. A lot of it originated from my own Wikipedia entry. (Yes, I added an entry on myself to Wikipedia. Why haven't you?) Clicking through, I saw that the greenlighters had replaced my boring "technology journalist living in Oakland" entry with a detailed sexual fantasy involving ... a Wookiee. I read as far as "Chewie reached down with his jaw and grasped the jeans and knickers, tugging them down savagely" before taking the story down. They responded by adding a clumsy Photoshop job of me accepting a Pulitzer Prize from a Wookiee. I tried to undo it. Someone else added a British tabloid page marked up to depict me as a terrorist.

That night, my cell phone rang again. "Hey," said the voice—a familiar, calm male voice. "Come back to the boards." The greenlighters wanted to be friends! As he went on about how cool it would be if I posted to their site, I realized that a) this was almost certainly the guy who threatened me earlier, and b) I was staring at his caller ID. Still, I decided not to do anything. My mysterious caller hadn't gotten the memo—greenlighting was so over.

A failed hoax doesn't leave many traces. All that's left are cached versions of the greenlighter forum, a cached version of the Wikipedia entry, and a Something Awful screenshot. And what became of WookieFetish? All of the message board's greenlighting plans have now been replaced with ... discussions of Wookiees.

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