That was not intended happen. In 2020, 19-year-old Liam sat at his laptop in a house surrounded by fields in the Irish countryside, an energy drink bubbling at his elbow. He leaned over to take a closer look at the profile photo and sure enough he saw the face of an old rugby friend looking at him.
Just weeks earlier, Liam, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, had been living in Waterford in south-east Ireland and was about to start his sophomore year. Then Covid-19 closed the city and his university campus. Every Saturday there were now more pigeons than people on the main street. Pubs and cafes closed their doors and job opportunities dried up. “Financially, it was worrying,” he says.
Increasingly concerned, Liam responded to a Facebook ad for a “freelance customer service representative” working remotely for vDesk, a Cyprus-based company. He was invited to an online interview. At the end of the conversation, the interviewer asked what he thought about hosting dating websites.
“I thought I might moderate hateful content on Tinder, something like that,” he says, “they didn’t know what kind of work it would actually be.”
It didn’t take long for him to find out. Instead of moderating content, Liam was asked to accept fake online personas – called “virtuals” – to chat with customers, who were mostly men looking for relationships or casual sex. Using detailed customer profiles and well-crafted virtual videos, Liam aimed to entice people to pay for message-for-message conversations with fictional characters. So it was that while pretending to be Anna2001 he was staring at an old acquaintance. But he needed the money, he thought, his hands resting lightly on the keyboard. So for the next two minutes he played the part he was paid to play.
Liam is one of hundreds of freelancers around the world creating fake profiles and chatting with people who signed up on dating and hookup sites. WIRED spoke to dozens of industry professionals who had worked for months at two of the companies involved in creating the virtual profiles. vDesk did not respond to requests for comments. Often recruited for “customer support” or content moderation roles, they played roles in sophisticated operations aimed at wringing subscription money from lonely hearts searching for hookups online.
In a kitchen In Mexico, more than 5,000 miles from Liam’s home in Ireland, Alice faced a similar dilemma. Frustrated, she circled the profile of someone she knew from her hometown in France. His chat history contained all of his personal information: his name, city, job, previous marriages. names and ages of his children. He had spoken to a virtual for almost two years. He says he’s in love with her.
Alice – whose name was also changed to protect her privacy – was the next to inhabit this virtual space. “I could tell him,” she thought, “and I really should.”
Alice, like Liam, had responded to a job ad for vDesk during the pandemic. The position was intended for a “freelance remote translator”. Alice, stuck in Mexico with no way to pay her rent and no way to return to France, has tried. “I even sent them a long cover letter detailing my skills as a translator,” she says dryly, “how embarrassing.”