Vanessa’s account advertises four packages, ranging from $55 to $100 a year and spanning from nude photos to videos of her having sex.
On a “lucky night,” she said, when her followers are active and their pockets loose, Vanessa fields messages from over 100 guys, mostly in their late teens to early twenties, saying they're “down” to subscribe and asking “how much?”
After they choose their subscription, Vanessa sends them her account information for digital payment apps like Cash App or PayPal.
Once she ensures their payments are sitting safely in her bank account, she blocks them. On everything.
‘I’m not trying to get murdered'
Alex Hawkins, vice president of pornographic media company xHamster, called Premium Snapchat accounts a curated version of reality.
“We don't want gods and goddesses as much as we do the person on the subway, or our co-worker, or classmate,” Hawkins said. “That's the fantasy.”
Vanessa said she first had the idea to advertise a fake Premium in June 2018 – weeks after graduating high school – while visiting family in California.
At the time, she said, she had over 2,000 friends on Snapchat and roughly 15,000 Instagram followers.
“I just decided to do an experiment one day and I didn’t post about Premium, but I got a Venmo and a Cash App and I said, ‘Cash App me for a surprise,’” she said.
Days later, she had the idea to draw more people to her Snapchat by “swiping right” on every person that popped up on her Tinder feed. By the end of her two week trip, Vanessa said she had made $1,500.
This strategy remains the basis of her business model today.
While Vanessa could not obtain the financial records for her initial Premium earnings from 2018, she provided The Daily Tar Heel with evidence of a slew of PayPal and Cash App transactions that she has received in recent months.
“I make sure it’s never anyone from (my hometown) or really anyone from North Carolina, because I’m not trying to get murdered,” she said.
Vanessa also searches potential buyers’ names in her Instagram followers list. If they’re following her, she blocks them.
“I might wait a little bit to block them (on Snapchat) because they'll ask me where it is, or sometimes they'll send me more money trying to get me to respond,” she said.
Once the guys realize they’ve been scammed, they’ll usually report her for fraud on whichever app they used to pay her.
Vanessa has been permanently banned from Venmo. She’s run through over 50 Cash App and PayPal accounts.
Two and half years since Vanessa began advertising the fake account, she estimated the account has raked in over $17,000. As of early March, she had nearly $20,000 in her bank account.
‘I like you, I’d like to see your boobs’
Chris Anderson, a 33-year-old business consultant living in central Pennsylvania, currently subscribes to two Premium Snapchat accounts.
“I mean it’s porn, but it’s also like, ‘I like you,’” he said. “Even if it’s not, ‘I wanna be in a relationship with you.’ It’s like, ‘I like you, I’d like to see your boobs.’”
Anderson said he got scammed in 2015 by an old college acquaintance advertising nude photos on Facebook. He didn’t report it and lost $50.
“It made me feel really shitty because it was somebody I knew and she had put it out there, so I kind of felt like, ‘Oh I’m helping someone out and I’m getting something,’” Anderson said.
Anderson has been scammed three times since he began paying for private social media porn. He’s never reported any of the users.
Mike Stabile, spokesperson for the Free Speech Coalition, said scammers are a small minority compared to legitimate users in this relatively-new adult entertainment industry.
“I think that there often is this idea that this is the way the industry operates, as opposed to sort of these rogue people who come in and do it,” Stabile said.
Anderson has refrained from reporting those who scam him because he doubts he could ever track down the person taking his money.
Other victims face the same issue, with an additional feeling of shame.
“All of America is pretty twisted up about sex in general and so, when you add in paying for sex, which I think has a huge stigma, it seems to be very unlikely that people will report a scam or that they’re somehow not getting what they are paying for,” Raleigh-based sex therapist Reed Watson said.
A Snapchat spokesperson said the company strictly prohibits pornographic content on its platform, and it works proactively with law enforcement, government and other safety organizations to prevent such activity.
Durham-based lawyer Jonathan Jones said he thinks selling pornography on social media platforms like Snapchat is legal, as long as the person posting and appearing in the content is over 18.
But Jones said actions like Vanessa’s most likely violate North Carolina’s law of obtaining property by false pretenses — a state felony charge wherein someone promises goods or services in exchange for money, but never actually provides what was promised.
Jones said he is skeptical, though, as to whether or not accusations against Vanessa would ever make it into a courtroom.
“Who's gonna show up to the police department and say, ‘Hey, I paid for nudie pics and the lady didn’t give me nudie pics?'" Jones said.
Amber Lueken Barwick, domestic violence resource prosecutor with the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, also said she’s doubtful a case against Vanessa would hold up in court.
“If you were a member of a jury, and you heard that laid out in front of you, who would you even be more sympathetic to? The person who was scamming and getting the money, or the person who was trying to pay money for a quick nude picture?” Barwick said.
‘They don’t really understand’
Sitting in a study lounge around the corner from her dorm room, Vanessa takes a break from laughing at the “stupid frat guys” she’s scammed over the past two years. She grows quiet, shifting uncomfortably in her seat before describing her childhood.
“I was never starving, but I didn’t always have food,” she said. “I’d often be at friends’ houses eating, or families would come bring me food.”
Growing up, Vanessa said, the lack of healthy food at home made her self-conscious about her family’s financial status.
In high school, she worked year-round at various grocery stores. A small portion of her earnings went toward new clothes. The rest she’d either give to her dad to help with groceries and bills, or deposit into her savings account.
But Vanessa still had no idea how she was going to afford college, she said. Then she discovered Premium Snapchat.
Eight months later, she got accepted to UNC with a scholarship that covered her tuition, room and board.
With the money she’d made from Premium sitting in a savings account largely untouched, Vanessa realized she wouldn’t have to work year-round for the first time since tenth grade.
Vanessa said she plans to stop using her Premium after she graduates. As far as ever getting caught, she said she’s more worried about potential employers seeing her lingerie photos on her public Instagram account.
“I hate how people paint it in a bad light, but it’s always the people who have always had everything so they don’t really understand how much I need it,” Vanessa said. “When you don’t have it, anyway you can think of, you’re gonna do it. No matter what the consequences might be.”