IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Almost Became a Victim of Human Trafficking at the Sochi Olympics
With my hairbrush as my microphone and the front porch as my stage, I started performing variety shows for my childhood dog from the moment I could talk. There was no fighting it; I was one of the many little girls who dreamed of growing up and becoming a star.
As I went through life, I added NFL Cheerleader, TV host, Writer, Reporter, and Radio Personality to my resume. Recently, however, the price of fame may have nearly cost me my life, when a man fabricated a broadcasting contract with a major network in order to get me and another media personality to Russia for the Sochi Olympics.
Now I’m not referring to the stuff you see on "Celebrity Rehab," nor the haters, the gossip or the “nature of the beast.” But I’m referring to the con men who prey on women’s dreams and pose as Hollywood professionals to put women in dangerous situations -- such as human trafficking. Had it not been for our instincts that led to an investigation, the only TV show we’d have ended up on would’ve been Nancy Grace.
To keep those involved in this situation anonymous for a pending case, I will merely explain the scenario. A man claiming to be a talent acquisition agent booking correspondents to cover the Sochi Olympics approached me via my website back in September. Given my background in sports broadcasting hosting a nationally syndicated motorsports show and working on sports talk radio, it made sense he was recruiting me.
Before even meeting with him about it, I did my research. He had a website displaying his credentials and his Twitter validated his connection with the industry, including interactions with celebrities and other professionals, and someone I worked with even validated his work history.
Meanwhile, he was very professional and extremely knowledgeable in conversation. He seemed as legitimate as anyone I’ve ever worked with.
After going through a lengthy application process of sending reel upon reel of my work and jumping through hoops to audition, I was told I was chosen by a production company in LA who works with the network to be their live event emcee/beat reporter, along with another credible sportscaster in the Charlotte area.
I again did my research and it all checked out. So I filled out a work visa, signed a non-disclosure agreement upon receiving a preliminary contract with my salary, and even got a round-trip flight itinerary. And in turn I rearranged my whole life so I could take off for a month to chase a dream.
Then, two weeks before we were slated to depart for Russia, this “Talent Acquisitions Agent” said he needed to expand his host team and asked if I could get some more of my girlfriends in the industry to come to Sochi. I made some suggestions, then his “assistant” (who we later discovered through an IP search was really him) sent me the link to print out a hard copy of a visa application for a girl to fill out and give to him.
I spent four months applying and interviewing and he’s sending my friend a work visa without even seeing her work? Now, my friend is really talented, but wanting her passport and social security number before her reel just seemed fishy to me.
So I reached out to the other broadcaster slated to go to Russia and we assessed that our instincts were telling us the same thing. So we started to investigate deeper, proving my theory that the FBI should contract suspicious women to do their detective work on men.
She and I concocted a plan to contact the production company in LA directly to check his credentials without stepping on his toes in the event it turned out we were just being paranoid because of all the scary things we were hearing in the news about Sochi. And despite the fact the man exerted as much effort as a full-time job to pose as legitimate –- and never once crossed any line, but rather posed as a devout family man -– we got the results back and suddenly needed the real FBI.
The production company didn’t even know who he was and informed us not to travel and got us in touch with their lawyers immediately to help us. Lawyers who said how lucky and smart we were for catching him after reading over our dealings with him, as he seemed that legitimate. The amount of effort this man put into posing like a Talent Acquisition Agent is not only deceiving, it’s alarming.
So there I was, on my birthday of all days, with my suitcase full of adapters, make-up, heavy coats and winter hats I just bought ready to go to the airport to fly to Sochi, and instead I was talking to FBI agents and lawyers of every kind.
Now why would anyone go to ALL that trouble just to scam two women in order to lure them into a foreign country?
Jillian Mourning, founder of the non-profit and VH1 Do Something Award-nominated organization, All We Want is Love, took some time between speaking at colleges and galas about human trafficking to advise me that it is really common for men to pose as talent/modeling agents in order to traffic women. So many of the stories I’ve heard from survivors of Sex Trafficking start with, “I was hired for a modeling job.”
“The Olympics is a huge draw for trafficking,” Jillian added. “It’s a major sporting event in a foreign country, and American women are typically sold for more in foreign countries.”
Not comforting, but very real. Either way, this wasn’t going to end well. And unfortunately I am not the daughter of Liam Neeson, so I wouldn’t have had a happy ending had I gotten on a plane.
So for any young girl wanting to get into the business –- the first step is to seek a credible agent. If you have to pay a lot of money upfront to sign with an agent other than getting headshots made, then they are likely not a credible agency. And if you have to pay money to audition, that’s a red flag for a business scam.
Never talk to anyone about out-of-town jobs without your credible agent or manager. I regret taking advantage of the freedom my agency gives me to seek journalism opportunities on my own, as I should have directed this man to my booking agent directly to discuss everything from the moment he contacted me via my website.
In fact, the contact form on my site says to contact her for bookings (duh, Brittney!). But you get my point -- just like the junk mail that comes to your house that reads: “Here’s a check for $350,000!” -– if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. There is no short cut to Hollywood, so don’t try to get on any other roads to get there, because they lead to dead ends.
While I want to say, I can’t believe this happened to me, all I can really say is, I can’t believe this actually happens. And it can happen to anyone. Even experienced, smart women can fall victim to the cons of a professional. And while I ultimately didn’t go to the airport to get on a plane for Russia, I know there are countless women out there, younger and more naïve, who would have. I survived to tell them not to let their ambition cloud their intuition.