The fake baby Instagram adoption scam
When US couples want to adopt a baby they often post ads online and search social media for women pregnant with a child they aren't planning to keep. Sometimes it works - but there are dangers. One young scammer has tricked countless couples, just for fun, by stealing the identity of a pregnant woman.
It's early February 2019, half way through one of the coldest Michigan winters in recent history. The grey sky threatens snow.
Thirty-three-year-old Samantha Stewart is in her pyjamas at home in Wixom, just outside Detroit, doing Sunday morning chores. There's a full washing basket, a house to be cleaned and dogs to walk. It's just after 11:00 when she receives a direct message request on Instagram from @ashleymamabear2019.
It's not anyone she knows - but she accepts the message and starts reading.
"Are you looking to adopt still?" are the opening words.
It's six years since Sam had a hysterectomy. Throughout her 20s she underwent a series of operations in an attempt to control her endometriosis, a condition that causes the womb lining to grow in other parts of the body and can lead to crippling pain. They didn't work. By the time she was 27 it had become clear she would have to lose her womb - and the chance of carrying a child.
It took time for Sam to recover from the stress and the heartache. Though she longed for a family, it was only at the end of last year that she and her husband, Dave, felt ready to contact an adoption agency and begin the laborious process of adopting a child. They passed their home study, an assessment of their suitability to be parents, and underwent training. Then they set up an Instagram account, @findingbabystewart, posting requests for birth parents to contact them, illustrated by an empty cot in a freshly painted nursery.
Sam examines @ashleymamabear2019's Instagram feed. Ashley is 16, from a small town outside Atlanta, Georgia.
She posts mirror photos, love notes to her boyfriend Chris, and selfies with Snapchat filters. Her hair is straight and honey-blonde and a backwards cap usually covers his. But there is one thing that sets them apart from thousands of other American teen couples - the occasional shots of Ashley's figure, her face beaming as Chris places his hand against her swollen, round belly. This is the baby Ashley is offering to Sam and Dave.
The women begin messaging, but not before Sam has excitedly called Dave, her parents and Dave's parents. She doesn't spend much time wondering why they look so happy about the pregnancy, bearing in mind that it is unwanted. They're young, she thinks.
"Are you guys talking to any other adoptive families?" ventures Sam. "I'm just scared of being hurt. I want to be a mom so badly."
"Nope," comes the reply.
Minutes later, Sam shoots back: "I'm crying."
Ashley's life had been harrowing. Her parents were abusive, her mother killed herself. She was raped by her brother at the age of 14, resulting in a premature baby, a little girl who was placed for adoption. The adoptive parents shut Ashley out, preventing her from seeing her child. It would be hard to write a bleaker story.
The contact is constant. Sometimes Chris takes over texting because Ashley is feeling sick. When they talk on the phone, Sam finds Ashley's conversation immature, makes her excuses and hangs up after half an hour. They text about adoption plans late into the evening.
The temperature has now dropped to -5C, and a light snow is falling. Sam is exhausted from messaging. She explains that she's heading out for dinner, and so won't be on her phone for a few hours. She passes on her adoption agency's details.
But then, suddenly, Ashley becomes abusive. She tells Sam she would be a bad parent. Shocked and hurt, Sam stops replying. The adrenaline that has kept her going all day suddenly drains away, and she crashes on to the sofa.
"It's just - it's devastating. There's no other way to describe it," she says later, remembering this moment.
Sam assumes she will never hear from Ashley again. She and Dave consider deleting their Instagram posts appealing for pregnant women to contact them. Sam begins to feel that adopting a baby will take a long, long time.
Then, exactly a month later, as icy patches of ground are beginning to thaw, a message arrives. Ashley tells Sam the baby has been born early, at 31 weeks. Exasperated, Sam tells Ashley to contact her adoption agency, or leave her family alone: "Have a nice life and don't contact me."
It only takes 14 messages, though, for Ashley to persuade Sam that there really is a premature baby waiting for adoption. She names the medical centre where she gave birth and Sam and Dave get ready to fly there. Ashley sends a photograph of her cuddling a premature baby, wrapped in a white towel, wires trailing from the small body. It's captioned, "She's yours."
"Omg I'm literally losing it. I can't wait to meet her," Sam replies. "I can't wait to spoil that pretty little baby!"
There are three days of non-stop talking. Then Ashley blocks Sam on Instagram. When Sam calls, Ashley doesn't pick up.
There is no explanation, just silence.
Distressed, frantic, but already sensing that Ashley has been getting a thrill out of tormenting her, Sam posts a drawing of a broken heart on Instagram.
"They don't ask for money, they don't ask for material things like a lot of scams do. They want your time, emotional investment and quite frankly someone to talk to while promising you what you are desperate to find: your future child," she writes in the caption.
"We need to talk about this."
The comments start coming in. Sam is not the only one whom Ashley has tricked.
In many countries, social media would be the last place anyone would look for a baby to adopt. In the US, though, most states allow something called private adoption, where couples hoping to adopt and birth mothers find each other independently. The arrangement is then formalised by an attorney or an adoption agency.
When Sam and Dave first signed up at their adoption agency, they were number 21 on the list of prospective adoptive parents. The agency warned them to expect a long wait and said they might get quicker results advertising themselves on the internet.
Pregnant women who don't intend to keep their child have the same choice - to approach adoption agencies, or search for adoptive parents online. Apparently, many feel that by making contact with parents directly they have more control.
At the time of writing, #hopingtoadopt is hashtagged 44,892 times on Instagram; #waitingtoadopt is mentioned 18,844 times and #hopefuladoptiveparents 10,758. Images of letter boards jostle for the attention of birth mothers: No Bump, Still Pumped, We're Adopting; Share This Photo and Help Our Family Grow; We are Officially a Waiting Family.
There aren't enough babies to go round, though, so many of these thousands of hopeful parents will be disappointed. The problem has got worse since countries that once provided large numbers of babies for adoption, such as Russia, China and Guatemala, clamped down.
"Most countries have ceased to allow the adoption of their children internationally, so the raw numbers have plummeted over the last 10 to 15 years by huge margins," says Adam Pertman, president of the National Centre on Adoption and Permanency.
Unplanned pregnancies have also become less common in the US - and the reduced stigma around single parenthood means that, when they do occur, the mothers are more likely to keep the child. The National Council for Adoption's last survey estimates that less than 0.5% of babies are placed for adoption.
Couples hoping to adopt may already have spent years trying to conceive, and even if they haven't, the long wait for a baby to become available for adoption can be frustrating and lead to impatience.
"Urgency creates desperation, and desperation creates sometimes decisions not being made with enough thought," says adoption specialist Dawn Smith Pleiner.
"Even though in the back of your head you know that it's probably not real, there's that glimmer, that feeling that there's a 1% chance it could be," says Sam. "And you go with it anyway."
The comments stack up under Sam's broken-heart Instagram post. In Utah, Kristen and Michael Johnson have also been contacted by Ashley and Chris, though this time the teenagers from Georgia have used a different account. In Kentucky, Ashley Middleton and her husband Brian have received messages from this second account. Another woman says she has been contacted by both Instagram accounts. (It is most often women who are approached - two couples say that Ashley refused to speak to their male partner.) The photos all feature the same pregnant blonde-haired young woman from Georgia, offering up her child.
Kristen starts getting messages from Ashley on 14 March, the day after - unbeknown to her - Ashley has ghosted Sam.
Over rambling, intense phone-calls, Ashley urges Kristen to visit her 31-week-old prematurely born baby. "One time, I talked to her for four hours. It's a long time. I don't even talk to my own mother for that long, ever," says Kristen.
Ashley hits the Johnsons at a particularly vulnerable moment.
They've been waiting two-and-a-half years to adopt one more child. "We were so tired and sick of trying to adopt, and wanting it to be done," Kristen says. "We got highly emotional about it instead of thinking more rationally."
Kristen books flights to Atlanta for $500. In the frantic scrum to find a babysitter, she realises that Ashley hasn't sent any documents from the hospital. She rings to double check. It's a brief phone call: the charge nurse tells her there is no 15-year-old called Ashley, no father called Chris - and no baby.
"My stomach just dropped and I was literally sick. We cried a lot. My husband cried," she says.
"We couldn't believe, after everything we had been through, that we still fell for it."
There was a Facebook group where couples shared stories like this - the internet has made it easier to carry out a scam, but also harder to sustain one. The names used by many scammers all over the country are shared and circulated quickly.
Ashley, it turns out, uses a number of names and accounts: Alyssa and Josh, Ciara and Daniel, Mackenzie and Matt. Each couple's story has familiar elements, either the same abusive parents, the mum lost to suicide or the connection to Georgia. Usually, it's all three. Messages are incessant, phone calls come at strange times, and conversations drag out over hours. Sometimes the ruse lasts for a day, sometimes a few. It typically ends in tears.
Sam thinks the scammer's real name is Melissa, because a couple of the fake Instagram accounts have tagged someone with this name. Melissa has square-framed glasses, tangled red hair, and looks as though she's in her late 20s.
Kristen isn't convinced. She has a hunch the scammer is a spiteful middle-aged woman. Both agree, though, that the perpetrator is probably based somewhere not far from Atlanta, because she knows the area so well.
Other victims have different theories. Some wonder if the scammer is in fact a group of people, because of the amount of time it must take to send so many messages - perhaps a group of anti-adoption activists, whose aim is to keep hopeful parents busy, to demoralise them and to hinder their search for real birth mothers.
Juli Wisotsky, an adoption attorney based in Athens, Georgia, says she too has had her time wasted.
In March, an adoption agency from another state asked her to talk to a pregnant girl who had matched with one of their couples. Although Juli was about to go on a platinum wedding anniversary trip with her husband, she delayed it to talk. She and the 15-year-old exchanged messages through the night, as the girl claimed she was being admitted to hospital.
Despite her 23 years' experience in the job, it took Juli nearly 24 hours to realise she was being conned. The final giveaway was an ultrasound image, stripped of all identifying details.
"It's partly my fault as I'm a very nurturing person. So I'm trying to nurture her and help her," Juli says.
And the same scammer has remained active.
Since March, Juli says, she and her colleagues have been called by families from Georgia, Colorado, Texas, Alaska, New York, Minnesota, Alabama, Illinois and Utah. All of the families were approached on Instagram by a young woman from Georgia.
"The emotional scams took me - when I was younger - completely off-guard," says Dawn Smith Pleiner, who has run the Vermont-based Friends in Adoption agency for nearly four decades.
Long before the arrival of the internet, women would call for "hour-long-talking-with-your-best-friend conversations", she says, and it was "never ever to do with money - never".
"Then you realise that the due date is long gone, and you're still talking.
"There are so many lonely people out in this world today that just want some attention."
It's a scam that's hard to prosecute. Most states still don't have the legal tools.
Since September 2018 there have been laws in place in Georgia to stop financial adoption fraud, but not the emotional kind. "It's very frustrating," says Juli Wisotsky.
One option could be to raise a civil case for intentional infliction of emotional distress. "But, does somebody want to get involved in a lawsuit for that?" she asks. "Or do they just want to let it go and try to heal and grieve what is a loss to them? Even though there was no baby there, they thought there was a baby. It's a grief."
Traumatised couples regularly report this scam to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Centre. In a statement, the FBI told the BBC that although they were aware of emotional adoption scams, these were still uncommon. None of the parents have received a follow-up call.
But it's not only the potential parents who have been hurt, there's another person too. Because Ashley isn't just a fake Instagram profile, cobbled together from some images and an active imagination. Ashley is a real 22-year-old, who lives in Georgia. Her name is Ashley King - and her identity has been stolen.
Sam, playing detective, finds Ashley's profile easily - the pictures are all public. She messages her to warn her that her photographs are being used to trick people. And she points out that whoever runs the fake Instagram accounts knows intimate details about her life, her husband and her baby.
Ashley's voice lowers as she describes the shock of seeing photos of her newborn child on another person's Instagram account.
"The woman had loads of people thinking that they were going to adopt my daughter," she says. "It's a really scary thought. Why would someone do that?"
She immediately files a report with Gwinnett County Police. What the scammer says about Ashley's childhood is completely false, she explains, but when it comes to her daughter the impostor even knows what hospital she was born in.
"King stated the only information that was incorrect on her daughter was that she was listed as being born premature at 2lb 8oz when in reality she was born at 2lb 12oz," reads the police report.
"All other information was correct."
Sam thinks it's likely that the fake Ashley knows the real one.
"I don't live in a very big town but if you picked a random woman out of my town and expected me to know her life story, I wouldn't know it," she says. "You would only know those details if you actually knew someone."
But Ashley has no idea who it might be, and this makes her nervous.
"Now I have to look over my shoulder making sure this woman isn't watching my kid, because she knows about where I lived," she says. "It's really scary." (Ashley and her family have since moved house.)
Georgia has a law on identity theft, but it's debatable whether it is applicable in this case. A few states have already passed legislation to tackle online impersonation, but prosecutions may not succeed if no money has changed hands. Who can put a value on a broken heart?
Gwinnett County Police say they are not currently investigating.
It must be hard for the scammer to remember exactly what she has said to different couples. When Sam is first contacted it's by someone pretending to be 16 years old. But a month later, Ashley says she will get her dad to call the adoption attorney "since I am only 15".
The scammer tells another couple that her middle name is Lorraine. Later, they suggest Olivia Lorraine as a potential name for the baby. She then replies, "Olivia is my middle name! Sounds perfect to us!"
But these are not her biggest mistakes.
To call or text hopeful parents, the scammer uses non-fixed Voice over IP (VoIP) telephone numbers, the technical name for calls that go over the internet, created through companies such as Google or Skype. These numbers require very little information on sign-up, making them difficult to trace.
But just occasionally she gets careless. One of the numbers used to contact Juli and Kristen isn't an internet number. It's a real mobile number, from Georgia, and registered to someone called Harry.
Type the number into Google and it immediately pops up - on a very pink website selling homemade slime. Thick, gluey and intensely squishable, slime was the toy of 2017 (the same year the site was last updated). The shop sells slime for $5, shipping is the same again. It also, inexplicably, sells six cupcakes for $18. And there is an email address with a name - Gabby.
When I call the number, it doesn't go well. After my first question Gabby goes silent. Then she hangs up.
Jessica Simmons, a mother of two adopted children, both of whom she found on Facebook, knows the name Gabby, and that telephone number, all too well.
In August 2016, a young woman contacted her on Facebook, saying she was pregnant. She began to fill in forms with Jessica's adoption agency, giving her name and address: a small town outside Atlanta. Her age: 23.
"After about a month of talking to her every day, I reached out to one of her family members by private message," says Jessica. The family member told her this was not the first time Gabby had pretended to be pregnant, and not to trust her. There was "nothing anybody could do to stop her" Jessica was told.
Three years later, a pregnant 16-year-old from Georgia called a Google Voice number on a Minnesotan couple's adoption page. As they talked with her for hours, they inadvertently recorded part of a conversation.
Listening back to the recording, the young woman's nasal voice still gets to the wife, making her anxious. "She spoke very low and quiet," she remembers. "She was very needy and demanding and it made me very uncomfortable."
As well as the fake Instagram accounts, Gabby also has a personal one. Photos of a curly-haired girl with glasses sit alongside slime-making videos, in which her voice can be heard - it's the same as in the recording, and it's the one I heard on the telephone.
Nothing has been posted on this Instagram account since June 2018. There is no mention of babies, adoption or pregnancy. The list of people she is following is revealing, however. It includes Ashley King.
By the time I speak to Ashley a second time, she herself has come to suspect Gabby may be the woman impersonating her, after stumbling across a bizarre series of messages from her on Facebook, most of which she doesn't remember having received.
The first message congratulates Ashley on the birth of her daughter. Then they keep coming, asking for baby pictures and updates on the child's health, month after month. At one point Gabby says:
"Can you send me a video of yourself saying, 'Hey'? Then I'll leave you alone.
"Or 'Hey I'm Ashley.'"
Although that request goes unanswered, Ashley does occasionally send short, polite replies. And once or twice she even responds to Gabby's strange demands - for example by sending a photo of her post-baby stomach. A photo which, of course, ends up on Instagram.
At the time, Ashley points out, she had a newly born premature baby and passed much of her time in a sleep-deprived haze. It was only later that she realised just how many messages she'd received from this random Facebook friend, whom her husband had known vaguely when they were younger.
"When I was going through them, I was like, 'Oh my goodness, I should've seen this a long time ago, when it first started happening,'" says Ashley. "I was very angry at myself. How I could not have caught it before?"
Juli Wisotsky can't quite believe it when she ends up on the phone with Gabby again on 31 July, four months after their first conversation. From her law office, she takes a call from a 15-year-old named Mackenzie on behalf of a couple in New York, with a story she feels like she's heard before. After one minute 20 seconds the girl hangs up and blocks her number.
This call comes more than two weeks after I started messaging Gabby and asking questions about her conversations with couples hoping to adopt.
A number of fake accounts Gabby used were reported to Instagram by her victims, but they remained online for months, until the BBC started asking Instagram why. Then they were deleted. An Instagram spokesman said: "Keeping people safe on Instagram is one of our biggest priorities. We're aware of this issue and will disable any further accounts in violation of our policies. We encourage anyone to report content they think is against our guidelines using our in-app tools."
"It is breaking people's hearts," says Juli. "It's just wrong and it's evil. And that's a strong word to use. But I believe it is."
"The more I think about her and who she probably is - she probably has a very sad existence," says Sam. "Part of me thinks that she might not even realise what she's doing is wrong."
Sam just wishes she would stop.
It is another rainy Sunday in Wixom, this time in May. An Instagram message from a private account comes through to Samantha Stewart's phone. "Here we go again," she thinks.
"I was super suspicious. But it was much different on the phone with her," remembers Sam. The woman "asked all the right questions. She wanted to know about me and my husband. About our house."
The next day, the sun comes out. Sam and Dave drive for three-quarters of an hour to meet the young woman with their adoption agency worker.
Twelve days later the couple are at home with their new baby, Parker.
"The instant he took his first breath everything was healed," Sam sobs.
"Every bit of heartache and worry, it all disappears. I wouldn't want this type of scam or anything like this to deter people. Because even though it's horrible, you won't regret it. It won't matter.
"You bring your baby home and none of it matters."
Sam changes their Instagram handle to @wefoundbabystewart.
Follow Naomi Pallas on Twitter @naomi_pallas
Listen to her report We were promised a baby on Instagram on BBC World Service's Trending at 22:36 BST on Friday 23 August. Or catch up later online.