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13 murders and counting: criminals are now using Facebook Marketplace to lure victims

“Warning: don’t meet up with this person on Facebook Marketplace, you could get robbed!” read a news update posted by CW39 Houston on 16 April 2021. In the article, the Houston Police Department warned citizens to be on the lookout for Shawnne Williams, who was accused of robbing six different people after meeting them on the platform.

The same month, 54 year-old Denise Williams responded to a listing on Facebook Marketplace about a “cheap refrigerator” in hopes of gifting one to her boyfriend. But when she got to the apartment of the seller, identified as 26 year-old Joshua Gorgone, she was stabbed multiple times—later passing away due to massive blood loss. In May, more transactions and meetups on the platform turned lethal—with reports of at least 13 murders since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic alone.

According to The Sun, these reports include the case of Melissa Miller, who was shot to death by a buyer who showed up at her apartment to “check out” a computer she had listed on Marketplace. In June, 26 year-old Kyle Craig was robbed and shot multiple times when he took a big sum of money to a buyer-seller meetup arranged on the platform. Additionally, teenagers Charlie Perez and Enrique Gonzale were reportedly lured into Englewood, Chicago, for a meetup—where they were shot dead by the buyer who had supposedly expressed interest in Perez’s father’s Honda Civic.

Violent acts like these aren’t unique to Facebook. Who can forget the era of Philip Markoff, aka the ‘Craigslist Killer’ who allegedly met all his victims through ads placed on the advertisements site Craigslist? Male escort and porn actor Luka Magnotta, who reportedly met his victim Lin Jun on the same platform, is definitely not out of the loop in this case. One major reason for concern here, however, is reports finding Facebook Marketplace to be larger than Craigslist in the US—housing more than 1 billion users worldwide.

It doesn’t end there. Apart from these violent crimes, a new report by ProPublica details a string of scams on the platform involving everything from work visas and vaccine cards to male enhancement products and Brazilian rainforest land. Fraudsters here are targeting both buyers and sellers—resulting in financial losses, hacked Facebook accounts and stolen personal information.

“Since the start of the pandemic, criminals across America have exploited Marketplace to commit armed robberies and, in 13 instances identified by ProPublica, homicide,” the non-profit newsroom wrote in the report, adding how the profile of Denise Williams’ killer remained online with active listings until ProPublica contacted Facebook.

Misguided confidence and unkept promises

Facebook Marketplace was launched in 2016 after the social media giant witnessed the popularity of local Facebook groups dedicated to trading and selling various items. Facebook therefore created the service as a dedicated hub where people could post items for sale and connect with interested buyers—usually living in the same area to complete the transaction effortlessly.

Hitting 1 billion users a month this spring, Marketplace is undoubtedly a business success. However, this growth has partly been built on the company’s assurances about the safety of its platform in the first place. “Marketplace lets you see what real people in your own community are selling,” Facebook assures. “You can see their public Facebook profile, mutual friends and seller ratings so you can feel confident in your purchase.”

This confidence may be misguided. Although Facebook claims to protect users through a mix of automated systems and human reviews, the ProPublica investigation—based on internal corporate documents, interviews and law enforcement records—reveals how those safeguards fail to protect buyers and sellers from scam listings, fake accounts and even violent crimes.

“Marketplace’s first line of defense consists of software that scans each listing for signs of fraud or other suspicious signals before it goes live,” the report reads. “But Marketplace workers said these detection services frequently fail to ban obvious scams and listings that violate Facebook’s commerce policies.” The investigation also found how these automated systems sometimes even block legitimate consumers from using the platform.

According to ProPublica, such flaws reflect Facebook’s approach to overseeing its platform as a whole. “It launches and scales new products rapidly—thanks to an unrivaled user base of roughly 3 billion people—and then leans heavily on automated systems, low-paid contractors and a smaller number of full-time Facebook employees to enforce its rules.” This approach has essentially fostered misinformation on the networking site, with Facebook groups becoming “hotbeds of violent speech and radicalisation.” This, in turn, has enabled scammers to earn millions by placing ads that rip off users.

Then there is the entire case of boosting such advertisements. While Facebook doesn’t take a cut of the sales happening on Marketplace, it does allow users to pay and “boost” a listing in order to increase its visibility. Although the platform claims to invest heavily in ad review and refund advertisers whose accounts were compromised and used to buy ads, ProPublica noted the case of Reeves, a Louisiana-based IT consultant who tracks Marketplace scams.

According to the consultant, Facebook is profiting from bogus vehicle and real estate ads. This criticism stems from his chat with real estate agents and others whose accounts were hacked and used to post advertisements on Marketplace. “Facebook is an accessory by accepting money for scam ads,” he added.

When ProPublica reached out to Facebook, the tech giant claimed how “all online marketplaces face challenges, and ours is no exception, which is why we’re always working to prevent new ways to scam and defraud people.” Facebook also added how “any suggestion that we aren’t trying to solve these complex problems or protect people who use Marketplace is not only false but misunderstands our entire approach to safety.”

Although Facebook has a plethora of areas it needs to improve upon, all these moves would essentially slow down its growth—which is a goal the platform is touting at the moment. ProPublica additionally noted how the company recently told its investors that Facebook Marketplace is one of its most “promising new sources of revenue.”

Red flags and recommendations

While Facebook allegedly continues to work on ways to prevent such fraud and violent crime on Marketplace, let’s address some personal measures you could take to stay safe on the platform. For starters, take your time and thoroughly investigate the seller’s profile for telltale signs of a scammer before buying something off Marketplace. A key aspect to look out for is the date the Facebook account was created. Brand new accounts, in this case, are a red flag. A quick reverse image search of their profile picture will also help you strengthen your research.

Next is to avoid meeting up with a potential buyer or seller at their house for the transaction. Instead, suggest public spaces as the ideal meetup spot. According to CNET, many police stations also have “exchange spots” in their parking lots to facilitate such activity. Even if your local station doesn’t have a designated exchange area, meeting in the parking lot of police stations, in clear view of security cameras, is the safest way to meet any stranger. You can even bring a friend along to double your safety or share your location with someone you trust all the while. If the other person suggests a spot, make sure to look it up and snoop around before agreeing to meet them there.

Another tip is to avoid carrying huge sums of money in cash. At the same time, be cautious of buyers and sellers who insist on communicating or receiving payments outside of Facebook’s official channels. Always make sure to engage in such transactions where their correspondence can be monitored—be it while making the deal virtually or meeting up physically. And if they ever show signs of flakiness, back out. With new e-commerce and thrifting platforms surfacing everyday as we speak, you’re bound to find what you’re looking for elsewhere anyways.

‘Trash streaming’ is a disturbing YouTube subculture where streamers get paid to broadcast abuse

“Broadcast Yourself,” urges YouTube’s official slogan as 500 hours worth of content is being uploaded to the platform this very minute as we speak. Encouraging users to share parts of their lives with others, the slogan highlights broadcasting’s potential for creators to amass a loyal fanbase en route to mainstream success. But what happens when a group of live streamers—due to low viewership and donations in gaming streams—decide to switch up their content and foster a murky online subculture altogether? Introducing ‘trash streaming’, a growing trend among Russian streamers that pushes legal boundaries in order to stand out on various platforms.

What is trash streaming and why is it a concerning trend?

The idea behind trash streaming is ‘fiendishly’ simple: invite a few friends over, get drunk, start a live broadcast and ask viewers to donate in exchange for carrying out the dares they suggest. This may sound like a rough-yet-explicit sketch of most live streams out there, but what really drives trash streams into a subject of concern is the type of dares suggested and carried out.

Featuring a group of alcohol-induced streamers, trash streams are usually set up by an individual who hosts what are known as “trash parties.” Inviting other participants to engage in dares, the group ultimately split the earnings among themselves after a trash stream. Bidding as much as 15,000 Russian rubles ($205) per dare, these streamers are often suggested to engage in bare-knuckle brawls with others, rotten eggs fights, extinguishing cigarettes on their bodies and jumping from third-floor balconies for viewers to witness. It doesn’t stop there. Over the past year, trash streamers have undergone a concerning shift into a list of verbal and sexual assault cases.

During a trash stream in October 2020, blogger Andrei Burim (popularly known as Mellstroy) invited a group of women to a party in Moscow and offered to split the revenue gathered in exchange for collaborative dares. During the broadcast, however, Burim repeatedly slammed a 21-year-old model’s head against a table. As of today, the blogger is awaiting a trial for assault. Although YouTube blocked his main channel, where he had amassed a following of 500,000, Burim now streams via his backup channels while publishing exclusive content on Telegram.

Another case involves Ivan Pozharnikov, a thrash streamer famous for mocking homeless people in exchange for donations from viewers. With more than 700,000 views on his YouTube channel, the streamer admits to filming such videos with the aim of “re-educating the homeless.” One of his victims is a 32-year-old Yaroslavl native, Valentin Ganichev, who allegedly takes part in various trash streams where he is pelted with eggs, doused in cold water and even buried alive—all in exchange for a meal and a roof over his head. On most streams, Ganichev is either drunk or out of his mind on drugs while pleading for help during the dares. This led many viewers to believe he was being forced into participation. Following an official police investigation, however, Ganichev admitted to being a volunteer for trash streams.

One of the most shocking incidents in the subculture involves trash streamer Stanislav Reshetnyak, popularly known as Reeflay in the community. In December 2020, Reeflay locked his pregnant girlfriend, Valentina Grigoryeva, out on the balcony of his apartment in sub-zero temperatures. Dressed only in her underwear, Grigoryeva quickly succumbed to hypothermia as the streamer then proceeded to drag her body into the apartment and call for an ambulance. The entire event—from being paid $1,000 by a viewer to inflict abuse on his girlfriend to the police arriving in his apartment and declaring Grigoryeva dead—was broadcasted live on his YouTube channel. The trash streamer is currently sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter.

The controversial appeal backing viewers

According to Slangit, trash streaming started out as an online trend in the mid-2010s on streaming platforms like YouTube and Twitch. Considered as a “marginal spin-off from the world of video game broadcasts,” trash streamers majorly consist of gamers who have migrated to the uncensored eco-system of YouTube following their permanent bans on Twitch. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have further propelled viewers towards trash streams as a form of entertainment in itself. The demand, in this case, is born out of an amalgamation between lonely viewers and ‘streamer boredom’—both seeking a sense of community.

So, what is the appeal for such streams among its audience exactly? Imagine commenting under a live stream of your favourite celebrity. Now imagine them noticing your comment and reading it out loud and live on-air. Trash streams essentially build on this interactiontaking it to a level where they are even ready to break laws to fulfill the challenges assigned by you.

“I was attracted by its real emotions,” said Anton, a 25-year-old security guard. In an interview with Russia Beyond, he admitted to falling down the rabbit hole during a work shift “out of sheer boredom,” “You can watch it endlessly, it’s just like real life.” For 19-year-old Nikita, trash streams are a hangout where streamers are very likely to listen and respond to whatever he has to say. According to a 16-year-old schoolgirl, Polina, trash streams used to be funnier despite their bad taste. She highlighted how “there were lots of funny jokes about the death of a participant’s mother” where viewers sent in donations with comments saying that it was his mother communicating to the streamer from the other world.

While Polina cracked up after recounting this incident, Anton was quick to break down in sobs. “They should all be locked up except for Valentin Ganichev (the 32-year-old homeless volunteer for trash streams mentioned above), who’s mentally ill. It’s nothing but sadism in the highest degree,” he added in the interview. Another fan of trash streams, nicknamed ‘xbpm_music’, claimed that the broadcasts have helped him “pine less” for his homeland. “It’s fun for me to see typical Russian idiots,” he said. “Sometimes I look at them and think: ‘Damn, I really need to do something good, otherwise I’ll become like them.’ Motivation or what?” he philosophised.

“Getting pleasure from watching violence is a mental disorder,” said Alena, a practising psychologist, in the interview with Russia Beyond. In her opinion, trash streamers satisfy both their own need for savagery and that of their audience. The psychologist equated an average viewer to an armchair boxer “who would probably beat his wife but knows that she would go to the police.” She also explained how the audience often includes those who have been previous victims of assault and humiliation themselves. “Understanding that ‘I’m not the only one with a grievance’ helps many to crawl out of the pit of despair,” the psychologist added.

Another psychologist, Lyubov Kalinovskaya, highlighted how viewers are the main participants in trash streams since they ultimately control the actions carried out by streamers. This, in turn, pushes viewers down a lane where they vicariously realise and re-evaluate their own ambitions. “For many, trash streams are unique because they guarantee reality and no one ever knows how it will end. That creates a thrill for the viewer like ancient Romans enjoyed deciding the fate of a defeated gladiator,” said Kalinovskaya.

On the other side of this equation, the appeal backing streamers essentially lies in trash streaming being considered as “a form of voyeurism thousands are happy to pay for.” In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Vasilyenko, an ex-porn actor and reality TV show contestant admitted to launching his trash stream network in January 2020 to “capitalise on the interest in his persona.” When Russia went into lockdown in April, Vasilyenko left his job and began streaming full-time, playing video games during the day and inviting friends for alcohol-fueled dares at night. “It was easy money,” he said. Streaming under the name ‘German Yagodka’, Vasilyenko makes 8,000 rubles ($109) per day on YouTube—worth half of a cashier’s monthly wage—despite having a mere 4,500 subscribers. In essence, the trash streamer admitted to being paid to have fun with friends without having to venture out.

The rise of trash streaming can also be traced back to the competition on various streaming platforms. “The competition is fierce—you have to do something radical to stand out,” said Konstantin Gabov, a sociologist at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, to Radio Free Europe. “And in Russia, perhaps due to a low quality of life, people are ready to do it and others are ready to pay for it.”

“Banning trash streaming is like trying to ban fake news”

Multiple accounts of deaths and violent assaults ensuing trash streams have prompted the government to crack down on the trend altogether. On 16 December 2020, the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament proposed a ban on trash streams. An active part of Russia’s wider turn towards internet censorship, the ban also mandates punishment of up to six years for those who violate the same.

Given how the authorities previously failed to ban the controversial messaging app Telegram from the country, however, experts—as well as the streamers themselves—believe that the initiative is doomed. The list of reasons also includes the vagueness of the trend in terms of defining it legally. “Banning trash is like trying to ban fake news,” said German Klimenko, a digital entrepreneur and former adviser to Putin, in an interview with Rappler. “No one can even agree on a definition of what this stuff really is.”

While YouTube and Twitch constantly cracks down on such content, some live streams manage to evade restrictions. Even if their channels end up getting blocked on these platforms, trash streamers often operate using alternate, backup channels to circumvent the ban. They also upload exclusive content to Telegram and other file hosting services. “The only way to ban trash streaming would be to convert Russia’s internet into something more like Cuba’s or North Korea’s,” Klimenko concluded.

Although all efforts have the potential of ending up in vain, the Russian government is committed to cleansing the internet of trash streams with various legislations. According to The Sun, the government is currently considering forcing live streamers to register as individual entrepreneurs—making them pay taxes on donations and allowing the police to track them.

Trash streams essentially incentivises the boundaries of what’s considered legal and safe. Every time a trash stream is cut off from mainstream viewing, it only prompts two others to pop up on alternate platforms. It also makes one wonder about the lengths the trend would go to before it ultimately dies down. “It probably won’t be long before we see a professional studio production, shot from a first-person perspective, allowing the viewer to ‘try on’ the role of the murderer or victim, not just be a watcher,” a psychologist shared in the interview with Russia Beyond.

The fact that more than 2,000 hours worth of content has already been uploaded to YouTube while you read this article doesn’t seem to help this case either. Because no matter how wild the content is, it will always find an audience.