“Her” story was a good one.
Last Tuesday, GeekWire wrote a piece about Sarah Hanson, the 19-year-old entrepreneur who auctioned off 10 percent of her salary for the next 10 years. One anonymous woman ended up investing $125,000 in Hanson so the teenager could fund her startup, Senior Living Map, and in exchange, the woman was to receive 10 percent for Hanson’s yearly income for the next decade.
The story, which was first-reported by VentureBeat and then by sites including Huffington Post, Yahoo! and AOL, was unique. Here was Hanson, a 19-year-old college student from Seattle, ditching the traditional college route and utilizing a silent auction site to help achieve her entrepreneurial dreams.
Now it looks like the story may have been too good to be true.
In recent days, since posting the story, a mounting pile of evidence suggests that Sarah Hanson may not actually exist. Yes, that’s right: This is looking like a hoax. By the way, if you’re reading this and know Sarah, please email me at email@example.com — though, as you’ll soon find out, that’s probably unlikely.
My initial back-and-forth with Hanson was via email, after she sent this message with the subject, “I’m the student who auctioned future salary.”
Hi, this week I auctioned 10% of my income for the next 10 years in order to be able to work on my startup full time.
The winning bid was $125,000…
I wanted to share this with you as I thought you might find it interesting and I live in Seattle.
I also did a pretty in depth interview with VentureBeat yesterday. Here’s the link in case you’d like to check it out…http://venturebeat.com/2013/04/12/teen-developer-funds-startup-by-auctioning-10-of-her-future-income/
Hope your having a great weekend!
I followed up and conducted the interview via email, which is often the most efficient way of gathering information for stories such as this.
But soon after publishing, we became suspicious. A story on peHUB, which has since been taken down, was first to raise questions about Hanson’s identity. Via email, I asked Hanson several times to verify her story via phone, but she declined each time, telling me that she was “trying to wade through a number of interview requests.” A separate time, she was ” traveling all day and doing a TV interview” that she would “send me soon.” I never received it, despite repeated inquiries about it.
In my initial email, I asked Hanson what high school she went to and what college she’s currently attending. I never got an answer, so I followed up with the same question in a few follow-up emails. No response.
Here’s what we know about “Sarah Hanson,” from what “she” told us:
- She lives in Seattle and is nearing the end of her first year at college.
- Last week, she auctioned 10 percent of her income for the next 10 years for $125,000 in order to be able to work on her startup full time.
- She started playing with code when she was 12. “My dad is a software engineer so that’s how I got exposure to it at a younger age than most,” she wrote.
- The “main catch,” of the agreement, she said, was is that if she doesn’t provide the 10 percent each year, the investor will have the rights to her ownership of Senior Living Map, which she currently owns 100 percent of. “That’s pretty strong motivation for me to make sure the investor receives the 10% each year,” she wrote.
- Her long-term goal for Senior Living Map, which she built after having trouble finding her grandmother an assisted living home, is “for it to be the number one resource online for anyone seeking senior living options.”
- She wouldn’t say how the $125,000 would be used, other than to cover her living expenses for now. “My hope is that it will give me a year or two of concentrated effort where I don’t have to think about how I’m going to pay my bills,” she wrote. “I can just focus on building and growing the site.”
For a 19-year-old techie, it’s very odd that Hanson has literally no Internet presence that matches her persona. No LinkedIn, no Twitter, no Facebook account that matched both her photo and description.
There’s this Sarah Hanson from Seattle, but she is a counselor who is working on her doctorate. There’s another Sarah Hanson from Seattle, but she’s well over 19 years old and works in publishing. Then there’s this Sarah Hanson that shares similar facial features as the entrepreneur “Sarah Hanson,” but she appears to be a high school golfer from New Jersey.
Since we did have a photo of Hanson from her profile on the auction website, we ran a reverse image search on Google in an attempt to find other sources that had the same picture. No luck — the only results we got were for stories about her raising the $125,000 for Senior Living Map.
There two other elements to Hanson’s story: Senior Living Map and the auction website she used to garner the $125,000.
The Senior Living Map site is a little skeletal and certainly far less robust than similar sites like SeniorHousingNet or AssistedLivingInfo. It does, however, state in its terms that “Any claim relating to Senior Living Map’s website shall be governed by the laws of the State of Washington without regard to its conflict of law provisions.”
We ran a search of Washington state corporations and couldn’t find a “Senior Living Map,” or any other business registered to Hanson. While that certainly doesn’t mean the business is a hoax, it gave us more reason to be suspicious.
Then there’s 32auctions. The silent auction website seemed a bit clunky, so we reached out to the Wisconsin-based company to find out more about them. They replied within a few hours with a lengthly email. Here’s part of it:
32auctions is a private, small business in Madison, WI which was founded in 2009. The original focus was on helping the local community raise funds for various causes. We created a platform for running silent auctions which has a very low barrier to entry, allowing organizations/causes with very little (or no) money to create an auction and raise much needed funds.
Regarding the Hanson auction, here’s what they told us:
We have had no contact with the auction administrator. We first saw mention of this auction on April 14th through Twitter. From what we’ve seen, the auction looks legitimate. However, only the parties involved will really know.
The majority of auctions hosted on 32auctions are fundraisers for non-profits, schools, churches, friends/family with a significant life event, and businesses looking to help their communities. This is the first time we’ve seen someone auctioning off their future earnings to fund a start-up.
The website actually shared the Huffington Post story about Hanson to its Facebook page, writing “Here is an innovative use of our silent auction platform. She used our site to go after her dream.” The company also tweeted about the story and also tried notifying Madison-based TV stations about Hanson.
That raised more suspicions — was 32auctions behind the hoax? Did they create the story of Sarah Hanson to drive traffic to the auction website? I dug through the testimonials on 32auctions and tracked down one of the customers who left feedback. I contacted her and asked about her experience with 32auctions. She emailed me this:
I was skeptical when I first looked into using 32auctions. I have used them twice now and both times was a great experience. Last April and last month we did an online auction with approximately 20 items. Every aspect of the process, from beginning to end was easy and we raised money for our school.
So unless this person is also a hoax, it seems like 32auctions is a legit company that lots of people — more than 7,000, the company says — have used.
That’s about where we are at this point. What lessons can we learn from this? For starters, I certainly could have done more digging before publishing. The lack of internet presence for “Sarah Hanson,” did make me wonder, but both the auction site and SeniorLivingMap seemed legitimate.
This also speaks to a larger issue of bad information dispersed online, especially given the bevy of false reports during coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings.
But as journalists it’s our jobs to separate fact from fiction, and ultimately it’s our responsibility to get things right, even (and especially) in cases where people are trying to trick us. Our subsequent digging into this story, and the publication of this follow-up, are part of our effort to set the record straight in this situation.
At this point, we’re pretty convinced Sarah Hanson, the 19-year-old entrepreneur from Seattle, is a hoax. But if anyone around here knows otherwise, please let us know.
Reach staff reporter Taylor Soper at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Taylor_Soper