Does Sarah Hanson exist?
This image of ‘Sarah Hanson’ was used on the auction.

Follow-Up: This is ‘Sarah Hanson': Startup founder confesses to idiotic plot to hoax tech press


“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 taylor@geekwire.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…

http://www.32auctions.com/organizations/7349/auctions/8138/auction_items/167988

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.”
Senior Living Map, the website "Sarah Hanson" apparently created.
Senior Living Map, the website “Sarah Hanson” said she was able to fund through her use of the auction 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.

Sarah Hanson used a website called 32auctions to raise $125,000.
The person identifying herself as Sarah Hanson said she used the website 32auctions to raise $125,000.

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. 

Another red flag was that the site is registered through a proxy domain site called DomainsbyProxy, which allows people to register domains but keep identities hidden.

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.

Anyone who complies with our terms of use can host a silent auction on 32auctions.  Auction administrators are responsible for the content of their auction.  It’s also up to the auction administrators and winning parties to finalize the transaction.

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.

Comments

  • keyser soze

    Lennay Kekua lives!

  • Bob Silver

    So does Sidd FInch!

  • samdchuck

    I hope this is a lesson for you, do your research before you publish.

    • http://geekwire.com Todd Bishop

      Thanks — yes, absolutely, you’re right, as we make clear in the post. We screwed this one up. We thought the story was solid, but we didn’t do as much digging as we should have. This follow-up is part of our effort to set the record straight. We aren’t perfect, but when we make mistakes, we correct them.

      • kibbles

        doing the basic components of a journalist’s job is a far cry being being “perfect”. you only had to do your job…which, you know, you didn’t.

  • http://twitter.com/upright Brent

    It’s too bad you didn’t do things journalists used to do. You know, like verify the story and then publish it.

    • http://geekwire.com Todd Bishop

      Yes, you’re right, we screwed this one up and learned from the experience. We need to be better than this, and we’re not mincing words about that. It was a learning experience for the entire editorial team at GeekWire.

      Of course, journalists have always made mistakes. In the ‘good old days,’ this issue would have been put to rest with a couple sentences in the corrections section on page A2. Instead, we published a full follow-up, telling you what we know, and acknowledging our mistakes. That’s actually the biggest difference here from what journalists “used to do.”

      • CorrectionsGuy

        In the “good old days” that I remember (news printed on dead trees), the corrections would be a couple sentences on A2, because they only needed to correct minor aspects of a story. I’m sure if my local newspaper ever had an “Oops the entire premise of our cover story was wrong”, it’d warrant a bigger headline. “Dewey Defeats Truman”, for example, certainly got more than a sentence on A2.

        I’m not criticizing you. I’m just saying, there’s a good reason for the differences, and it’s not because there was anything wrong with classic journalism.

        • Another Seattlite

          “In the old days”, William Randolph Hearst not only published questionable stories, he often just made stuff up! The reporter did a good solid report on what was carefully fabricated to look like a really good story. When it turned sour, he also took responsibility for that and published what he knew and what he didn’t. That kind if integrity is very scarce on the internet.

      • http://twitter.com/GlennF Glenn Fleishman

        It’s very tricky when a source lies about something that’s fairly mundane and there’s no ostensible benefit. I’m used to running down things that smell bad, but that’s typically when someone has an outcome that comes out of the lie that you can figure out.

        Here, it seems like a sociopath, and they are hard to guard against as compared to say, self-promoters. Glad you were open about what happened here.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=561246797 Sarah Jeanne Lombardo

          This isn’t Dewey “defeating” Truman.

          But hey, hyperbole is fun.

  • MikeBell2000

    “But soon after publishing, we became suspicious.”

    This is precisely why blogs are usually associated with nonsense, lies and misinformation and why no one trust blogs.

  • http://adamgering.com/ Adam Gering

    I didn’t want to declare hoax but it looked like one. I brought up the lack of Internet Presence in the comments of the previous article, especially no Angel List profile (which she claims to have used… you cannot use Angel List to “email” investors, you must have investors follow your profile). I also emailed Sarah through SeniorLivingMap and got no response.

    Shame on Venture Beat for not doing verification on the story. But why is GeekWire generally a stale rehash of other tech blogs? You’d think this story (if it were true) would be worth an original article and not a 4-day-old copy of a Venture Beat article.

    • http://geekwire.com Todd Bishop

      Thanks, Adam. Appreciate the comment. Since you read GeekWire regularly, I’m sure you know that we do a significant amount of original reporting, with our own perspective and sourcing. Of course, we can’t get to every story first, as much as we’d like to, but even in this case, we conducted our own interview with the person we thought was Sarah, and wrote our own story.

  • samus

    Why would you post links to the profiles/various online accounts of poor other Sarah Hansons who have nothing to do with this? That’s obnoxious.

    • Khan

      I completely agree with samus. It is just as irresponsible to link to people whom you have no evidence has anything to do with this hoax. Why paint them with even a semblance of the same brush, just because they happen to share the same name?

      Hey look, I found a Jeffrey Todd Bishop that was involved in a DUI. http://mugshots.com/US-Counties/Florida/Collier-County-FL/Jeffrey-Todd-Bishop.2447858/details/

      I don’t know why I posted that random information, seemed relevant?

      C’mon guys, get it together.

  • http://www.facebook.com/smithkl42 Ken Smith

    It’s hard to be both accurate and timely, especially when someone is trying to fool you. Maybe the best option is to do what you just did: dig into it when you smell a rat. Thanks for the follow-up.

    • nimbusthegreat

      it is difficult to be accurate and timely. unfortunately, they chose timely over accurate. in the future, i hope they reconsider. also, what gives with linking to random people’s profiles. that right there is beyond irresponsible.

  • Graham

    So did someone end up paying $125,000 to a fictitious person or was that part of the ruse as well?

  • http://twitter.com/SaurusTechno TechnosaurusEvents

    Kudos to Taylor and Geekwire for the admission and the follow-up work. The story certainly got my attention when it initially came out.

  • Squarely

    My mama always said -do not trust anyone who sweet talk you and looks so pretty.

  • http://www.facebook.com/scottmoore.seattle Scott Moore

    I’m sure CNN is enjoying this.

  • orenfalkowitz

    Seems like a case for @NevSchulman

  • John Beezer

    The reaction seems a little harsh here. In the “old days” there were only a few media outlets, newspapers cost money, and news had a built-in lag of several hours, just due to the mechanics of the process. If you’re reading Internet news without your filters on, you’re the one who isn’t doing it right. I prefer a world where there are daily (hourly …) publications dedicated to niche topics like Seattle start-ups — nothing close to that ever existed before. The trade-off is that things happen fast and sometimes accuracy is lost. As long as a publication owns up to its errors honestly, I don’t see any problem. I hope the Geekwire staff is enjoying the beautiful weather this weekend and not agonizing over this. Keep it up.

    • http://twitter.com/questionsall Carl Setzer

      Trolls need love, too.

    • Respectfully

      Good job w/follow-up. You could have just kept quiet & really, who would have known of your mistake? It wasn’t so sensational as to really gather those that would do deep digging. I admire anyone that admits to a mistake & tries to make it right. People like Khan & Brent are special people that must have not ever made hasty decisions, or mistakes, to know it happens & what to do to make it right.

      Geekwire & you have the renewed respect of many. Keep up the good work.

  • lucascott

    Well yes they very likely did screw the pooch on this, at least they made their mea culpas. Unlike how many sites out there that hit whore off the most insane rumors about what this or that tech company (mainly Apple) is about to do never once vetting it or pointing out how offbase the rumor sounds, even labeling them as ‘reports’ not ‘rumors’. And then saying ‘we’re a blog, not journalists, we don’t have to verify what we post’

  • Dingothedentdog

    Shes HOT anyhow!

    • pandemon

      Yes

  • AR

    Good work Taylor ! Definitely a lesson learned for the journalists.

  • http://profiles.google.com/bryans.adventure Bryan Jacobson

    Thanks for owning up to a mistake. That’s good for everyone.

  • Sarah

    At this point, I’m pretty convinced that this research should have been completed before publishing the original story.

  • jsjsks

    hey

  • David

    seniorlivingmap looks like a very scraped database – lots of sites use the same one – and each result ends up going to bing search results eventually, so I wonder if this might be something owned by bing?

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