Mother Horrified Son's Picture Was Used in Scam on Craigslist

Jenni Brennan said scammer is using her baby's picture to lure consumers.

August 3, 2009, 2:20 PM

Aug. 4, 2009— -- Jake Brennan is a happy baby. He likes to play with his brother's "big boy toys" and is learning to walk, using furniture to steady himself.

And he's definitely not up for adoption.

Yet the Abington, Mass., 9-month-old's picture, stolen from the Brennan family blog, is now being used in an apparent Internet adoption scam, with a Craigslist post advertising the little boy as a Canadian-born orphan now living in Cameroon.

"I felt angry -- really, really incredibly angry," Jake's mother, Jenni Brennan told today, saying anger was just one in a "range of emotions" about her son's picture being used by scammers.

Brennan, 30, said the family had been using a WordPress blog for nearly two years to update the family on her children's milestones, including stories and pictures. She and husband Josh Brennan, 29, routinely looked at the hits the blog was getting and saw through the site's tracking technology that those hits were coming from family and friends interested in the daily trappings of life with Jake and big brother Jackson, 3.

But then Brennan said she got an e-mail from a woman she had never met, warning her that some of the pictures of Jake kept on the family's blog were being used by a scammer who was using Craigslist to lure potential adopters.

Brennan said she and her husband thought the woman's e-mail itself was a scam or a phishing tool used to get information about them.

"It was really short," she said. "I think it said 'Urgent -- Please open about Jacob.'"

When concern about their son won out over concern about their privacy, the Brennans decided to very cautiously e-mail the woman back.

Turns out Jenni Brennan said that the woman's friend had fallen for an adoption scam from a St. Theresa Conception Parish which asks for $300 to start the adoption process about a year ago.

And when she saw the same ad pop up again she posed as an interested adopter to see what the scammer would send back.

What she got, Brennan said, was a picture of Jake Brennan, a chubby blond-haired little boy. Because the family's blog address popped up when users rolled their mouse over Jake's picture, the woman knew where to find the Brennans.

Jenni Brennan said her first response was to click on the ad itself -- housed in the London Craigslist's childcare section -- and fire off an angry e-mail to the scammer demanding that Jake's no longer be used without her permission.

Brennan said she never heard back and when she created a fake e-mail address the next day to contact the scammer as a potential adopter of her own son, they e-mailed her Jake's picture from when he was about 7 months old.

The advertisement's headline reads "Cute Baby Boy Available for Adoption."

Mother Feels Helpless Trying to Get Son's Picture Off Internet Scam

Brennan said the adoption story she was told was that the baby's father had died and that the mother no longer had means to care for him. The child, in an African orphanage, was supposed to have gone to a Christian home.

Brennan said that when she realized she had no power to force the scammer to stop using her son's picture she felt helpless.

She filed complaints with the FBI and the Massachusetts Attorney General's office, both of which sent her back communication saying they'd look into it.

A spokeswoman in the FBI's Boston field office said she could not confirm or deny any ongoing investigations. Similarly, a spokesman for the Massachusett's Attorney General's office said he could not comment on whether or not the office was investigating, but confirmed they had received Brennan's complaint.

Brennan said she also contacted Yahoo, which shut down the e-mail addresses used in the Craigslist ad by the scammer, the adoption "lawyer" and the supposed orphanage in Cameroon.

When asked for comment about the advertisement, Craigslist responded with a statement from CEO Jim Buckmaster saying, "As always we caution Craigslist users to deal locally with folks you can meet in person. Following this one simple rule avoids virtually all online scam attempts."

Brennan is still in contact with the scammer's alleged lawyer identified in e-mails as Tamajung, and when she questioned him whether this was a scam because his e-mail had changed, Brennan said Tamajung assured her that it was a problem with Yahoo's server that had since been resolved.

Her hometown Abington Police Department assured Brennan they'd do what they could, but that they may never know who was behind it.

"They said often it's difficult to get to the bottom of scams like this," she said.

Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, told that they are seeing a lot of "scam-type activities."

Brennan's story, he said, is "not something to my knowledge we've seen before, but it's certainly not a surprise."

"It's an outrageous story," he said. "Just takes your heart out for this mom."

He noted that Craigslist, which has come under fire for not taking down advertisements that are not only illegal, but violate company policy, is working with the center and a number of attorneys general to clean up portions of its Web site.

But Craigslist, he said, is not the only Web site where scams can be found.

"I think we've made some headway ... but there are millions of people who are using it responsibly and some that are not," Allen said.

Allen said that while child protection experts understand why families want to set up Web sites to share photos and stories of their children, they have cautioned parents about doing so in a public domain.

"The reality is that when you post pictures, when you pose images, there are risks," he said.

'My Instinct is That This is Pure Scam'

For their part, the Brennans have changed their blog to be password protected and they only allow access for e-mail addresses they know belong to family and friends.

She urged other parents who maintain blogs to do the same as well as finding some way to protect the photos, either through a watermark or low-resolution posting to make them undesirable to others.

"We never though of all the million of photos on the Internet our son would be chosen," she said.

And while they at first were worried for their son's safety, nervous that the scammer was local and trying to take Jake from them, Brennan said they now recognize this is simply about money.

Allen agreed saying that there is very little physical risk to children whose images are used in this way.

"My instinct is that this is pure scam. This is an attempt to use this to steal money from people," he said. "People are trying to sell just about anything they can sell."