Warning: This article contains strong language and a reference to sexual assault.
When former glamour model Jess Davies started modelling at 18 she had no idea her images would be used to con money out of men all over the world.
Over the years Jess, now 27, has received hundreds, if not thousands, of messages from people telling her they’ve been speaking to someone using her pictures and until now she’s never understood why.
In a new BBC Three documentary When Nudes Are Stolen Jess traces where and how her pictures are being used – and explains the effect it’s had on her life.
I can barely remember the first time it happened.
I got a message on social media, telling me someone was using photos of me and pretending to be me online.
At first I thought it would be a one-off, but it’s nearly ten years since that first message and I’m still getting them on an almost weekly basis.
Either they rip off my whole identity or use photos of me under a false name, then they use those profiles to try to get money from unsuspecting men. They generally find out who I really am after doing a reverse image search and coming across my real-life social media profiles.
They can use any photos from my past: me sitting on my sofa at home, me as a baby, me at a baseball game. They’ve even used pictures of me and my dad on a bike ride.
But there’s a common theme: almost all of these fake profiles include pictures from when I was a teenager.
These days I work as a model and influencer but when I was 18 I decided to be a glamour model, modelling for magazines like Nuts, Zoo and FHM – which had a massive following among young men in the UK.
I’ve never posed fully nude, but I did appear topless in these magazines. None of the print versions of the magazines exist anymore, but the photos from that time never seem to go away.
It’s difficult to describe how it feels, knowing that someone, maybe even lots of people, are using photos of me from what feels like a lifetime ago to con men. It’s like being in an invisible battle and I have no idea who my opponent is.
I manage to get the fake profiles taken down, but more always pop back up. My identity is constantly and repeatedly robbed from me, and over time that does have an impact on how I feel about myself.
I’ve only recently found out why this keeps happening – and where my photos have ended up – with some help from private investigator Laura Lyons.
Laura and I met in a grey office in London where she showed me print outs of where my photos had been found online. It started with the kind of fake profiles I know about, like “Khira” on Tinder, “Andrea” on Instagram and “Jasmine” on Facebook.
But then Laura started to show me accounts I had no idea existed: a French escort website, sex chat and porn sites. There was a sea of photos looking back at me.
There was one profile on a sexting website with a picture of me at 19 years old under the heading: “Who’s down for a massive rape role-play now?”
If someone consents to do sex chat or porn then I don’t see anything wrong with that, but I’ve never done porn and I didn’t consent for my photographs to be used in this way.
Seeing them all in front of me was pretty devastating. The problem is so big, I don’t know if I’ll ever get a handle on it but I need to at least know why it keeps happening to me.
Laura suggested that part of the reason is because I have a mixture of relaxed, at-home pictures on my social media accounts that can be mixed in with the older glamour model pictures, which means it’s easier to build a fully-rounded persona with them.
“Your pictures are very, very realistic,” Laura told me. “A lot of people like yourself have their profiles open because of their work, but it makes it so much easier for these scammers because they can just go in and take content.”
It feels like those old topless photos literally haunt me. Every situation I go into where I meet new people leaves me wondering whether they’ve seen them. What will they think if they Google me?
When I first made the decision to have topless photos taken when I was a teenager, I had no appreciation of how the internet worked. When a photo of you gets put online then it’s out there forever, and people seem to be able to use it however they want with impunity.
‘My photos are everywhere and it’s happening repeatedly’
In the UK there are laws around how photographs can be shared or used online, but they don’t all fit into one neat set of rules.
There are copyright laws meaning if you took the photo and own the copyright then you can request that it is taken down.
The challenge I have is that a lot of the photos were taken of me but not by me, so I don’t own the copyright.
If someone is using your photos to catfish people then it could be covered by laws around fraud, however this depends on the circumstances.
There are also much newer laws relating to so-called “revenge porn” – also known as image-based sexual abuse.
“Revenge porn” – the sharing of private or sexual images or videos of a person without their consent – became an offence in England and Wales in April 2015. Similar laws were later introduced in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
But for this to be applicable you need to prove that there was intent to cause harm to the person whose photos are being shared and proving someone’s intention can be very difficult.
On top of that, the internet is global and laws only cover one country at a time. My photos are everywhere and it’s happening repeatedly.
‘It felt devastating. How often had my images been used?’
What I’d never understood is who the people using my photos might be and that’s when I came across the term “e-whoring,” which is a more extreme version of catfishing using nude images.
Pictures of people – mostly women – are traded and sold in packs between scammers. Then they impersonate those women to get money out of unsuspecting victims.
Looking at the sites where these images are sold is pretty grim. Peoples’ pictures are being traded and sold like Pokémon cards. There’s also a community built around it in forums and chat rooms where stolen pictures are traded.
Sometimes people in these groups ask for help identifying women so they can find more pictures of her. I decided to post my own picture there to find out if my photos had been used in this way.
Within two minutes, someone said they had a pack of my photos and were willing to sell it to me for a $15 (£11) Amazon Gift Card.
It felt devastating. Just how often have my photos been used for them to recognise me so quickly?
The community of people who trade pictures like this is an incredibly secretive one, and I only managed to find one person who was willing to talk to me openly.
Aku, whose name we have changed, is now in his 20s and lives in New York. He said he was recruited into it when he was 13 by older teenagers and explained how people involved in it would stalk peoples’ Instagram profiles then take their pictures.
Disturbingly, he told me that photos and pictures of “revenge porn” would be used, although he said he never used them himself.
“[With] e-whoring… you’re scamming people and you’re actually looking to exploit people for your own financial gain,” Aku told me. “And as I got older I saw that these people are actually going through something and I felt bad every single time I was doing it, so I just said ‘you know what, I’m just not doing this anymore’ and I just gave up on it.”
It was clear Aku felt remorse for the people he had exploited but I wondered whether he’d ever thought about the women in the images he used.
“These pictures were [from] cam girls,” he said. “I mean, you put yourself out there.
“Considering we know the risks of the Internet, it’s like, were you not expecting this to happen?”
Although I know there will be many people who agree with Aku, I don’t think I or anyone else should expect photos of themselves to be misused. I don’t think I should accept that my identity is being sold and traded online without my consent.
I hope that something can change in how consent is seen when it comes to photos that are shared online. To me, it’s simple: if you consent to a photo being taken in one context, it doesn’t mean it can be used however and wherever anyone chooses.
By: Jess Davies