July 26, 2016

It began, as many stories do, with a tip.

Glenn Smith, special projects editor at The (Charleston, South Carolina) Post and Courier, was contacted by someone in February who’d fallen prey to a scammer.

Their crime? Legally, there was none.

Working off the tip, the Post and Courier would unspool a months-long investigation into a con job being run by about a dozen women across the United States: Getting would-be adoptive parents excited by the prospect of adopting a child that didn’t actually exist. These scammers, many of whom inflict emotional distress on their victims, are difficult to prosecute because there’s no law on the books that prohibits lying.

The investigation, which was published earlier this month, is an unusual one for the Post and Courier. In addition to a 2,000-plus word story detailing the problem of adoption scammers in America, the newspaper also released a three-episode podcast narrated by interactive editor Jason Emory Parker that gives a behind-the-scenes account of the investigation.

Together, the story and podcast are the latest project from the Post and Courier, which decided to double down on investigative journalism about two years ago, said Executive Editor Mitch Pugh. Since then, the newspaper has won many awards, most notably the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

After getting the assignment in February, reporter Lauren Sausser began getting in touch with about 10 women who’d been targeted by emotional scammers through message boards used by adoptive parents. The first victim the paper reached put out a call for victims to get in touch with Sausser, and the reaction was overwhelming.

“Honestly, the emails came pouring in,” Sausser said. “I did not have trouble finding victims to interview.”

After about a month of sleuthing, Sausser realized she had an important story. Through emails, text messages and bogus ultrasound images, scammers were fooling prospective parents with made-up children for the sake of extracting money or for their own satisfaction. In mid-March, she met with Smith, Pugh and Parker to talk about the story.

Central to the planning process was the story of April Lusk, a woman who victims identify as a prolific adoption scammer (she denied the charge to the newspaper). During the investigation, Sausser tried several ways to get Lusk to sit for an interview — she called, sent her a letter, sent a certified letter and knocked on her door — twice. The best she got was a terse, “It’s definitely not me” in a brief phone call.

Although Sausser thought Lusk’s story was compelling, she knew a reporter’s frustrated search for a scammer wasn’t the stuff of front-page news. So, the newspaper decided to put that side-story into a podcast, slated to be released along with the investigation.

“We thought that the process of trying to find her would be interesting to some people who are more interested in the ‘open your notebook’ type of reporting,” Sausser said. “But would that warrant a huge story on the front page of the Sunday newspaper? Probably not.”

There was a problem, though. By the time Sausser met with editors in March, she’d already conducted many critical interviews — including the quick phone call with Lusk. That meant Sausser would have to reinterview many people who’d already gone on the record, some of them with stories of emotional trauma. And it would mean trying to get in touch with the story’s cagey antagonist once again.

But it was ultimately worth it, Sausser said. Many sources gave better interviews the second time around, which made their way into the final version of the story.

“It’s almost like they practiced telling me their story the first time, and then they told it even better the second time,” Sausser said. “Several clips from the second interviews I ended up using in the story, because they were more concise or more poignant. So it turns out that it wasn’t a waste of time at all.”

The story and the podcast were released on July 15 and have so far received modest attention from the newspaper’s readers. After the first weekend, Stealing Hope drew about 10,000 pageviews, and about 2,500 people streamed the podcast.

Pugh said he’s happy the newspaper was able to shed light on a practice that, while not technically illegal, is exploitative and traumatic for people across the United States.

“I think one of the most interesting things about this story is that there really aren’t specific laws in place that prosecutors are using to arrest and charge these scammers,” Pugh said. “They’re just doing it for some kind of sick satisfaction.”

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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