Just as quickly as she burst onto the scene in the starring role of one of the most intriguing, stunning stories to hit the internet… Sarah Phillips disappeared back into the shadows. Last week, after Deadspin’s initial expose, Sarah Phillips became a household name for the way she conned ESPN into a writing job and several individuals on the internet out of thousands of dollars. We then did more research into her taking control of a popular Willy Wonka parody account from its owners in a shady deal and the restoration of the account in the frantic wake of the scandal. Phillips’ connection to her boyfriend/partner-in-crime Nilesh Prasad has also been well documented.
But what about now? In the 24/7 cycle, it seems like it has been an eternity since we’ve heard anything new about the great mystery regarding the former ESPN columnist. (In reality, it’s just been a handful of days.) For as captivated as the internet was in the hours the Sarah Phillips story broke, we’ve moved on to other things. The NBA & NHL Playoffs, concussions in the NFL, and Bryce Harper are what we’re talking about now. But, that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been developments in the case of Sarah Phillips. Here’s various updates from around the web on where her story has gone since she vanished from the headlines and where she is right now…
ESPN Responds (Larry Brown Sports)
During an online chat, ESPN Executive Editor John Walsh answered a question about Phillips’ hiring at the network with a lengthy response on the network’s actions:
We need to remember she was a freelance contributor, not an employee or full-time staffer, or part-time staffer, or contractual contributor. As such, she was properly vetted for the normal hiring standards for per-piece contributors, which is common not just at ESPN, but throughout the media industry. For those unaware, there is a big difference in these job descriptions. As the name implies, freelancers without contracts are free to work anywhere, for anybody. There is no obligation on the part of the individual or the company to continue the working relationship. When she first started, she provided the information necessary to contribute to us (obviously, since then we were aware only of the contributions she was making to ESPN). This week, when we became aware of other information, we promptly ended our per-piece relationship with her. We are continuing to review this instance and examining our process for potential changes.
As Larry Brown points out in his synopsis of Walsh’s comments, the defense of ESPN rings a little hollow. The differences between freelance columnist Sarah Phillips and multi-millionaire columnist Rick Reilly aren’t made clear when they both appear in the same manner on ESPN.com. In fact, Phillips even had her own column (Lies, Damned Lies, & Statistics) and her own mailbag feature. If ESPN had truly and properly vetted Phillips, they would have asked questions about her changing appearance at Covers and a lot more smoke around her questioned persona. Instead, that was evidently overpowered by the prospect of a smart, attractive, young, female columnist under the ESPN.com banner.
The Business of Buying Twitter Followers (WagerMinds)
Phillips used her job at ESPN to lure people into her schemes with Prasad. Honestly, it’s easy to see how most people would be willing to fall for her game. After all, here was a person that had been given legitimacy through her work at Covers.com and at ESPN. If ESPN hired her, she surely must have been the real deal to these unsuspecting victims around the internet. Another factor in her legitimacy was her Twitter account that had tens of thousands of followers as an added sign of legitimacy. The early history of her account has been chronicled, but the website WagerMinds did more research into @SarahPhilli and found that she had bought her way to that large following:
We analyzed her followers and found an enormous percentage of her followers are paid-for spam accounts. We noticed this in December 2011 when Phillips was regularly adding thousands of followers a day – a feat usually reserved for major celebrities. As we watched the follower count climb, we checked out the quality of the followers. And this is what you’ll generally find:
Lots of locked accounts that follow hundreds of people but have very few followers. That is the classic structure of a spam Twitter account that has been purchased. And Phillips has thousands of these accounts “following” her.
The business of popular Twitter accounts is still somewhat of an unkown frontier. The idea of actually buying followers could go a long way in explaining how all of those fake parody accounts seemingly get thousands of followers out of nowhere. The idea is fairly simple – the more followers someone has, the more likely other people are to follow. If you buy your way into establishing a following, real people are much more likely to come aboard, thereby increasing that number twofold. Once those accounts reach a high enough number, they become profitable ventures themselves. Honestly though, who knew you could actually “buy” Twitter followers? Darren Rovell has some explaining to do! (Just kidding… I hope.)
Could More Scams Have Been Prevented? (Beyond the Bets)
Beyond the Bets was one of the sites questionable of Sarah Phillips from the beginning. In a post yesterday, the site addresses many of the concerns surrounding Phillips before she got her job at ESPN, including another report of someone embroiled in the Phillips/Prasad facade. For every person that has publicly come out with a story of being conned by these two, there are likely several more that have remained silent. Phillips raised concerns with Covers editors, but by the time anything was properly investigated, she had resigned and left for ESPN:
Two Covers editors—including the managing editor—arranged to speak with Phillips the next day at around noontime. They planned to discuss the Facebook cell phone scam, among other things, and believed there was enough smoke to warrant questioning.
A day later, I was informed that Phillips resigned.
Even though they presumably never got the opportunity to ask them, it would have been a nice gesture if Covers had contacted Lynn Hoppes and made him aware of their concerns. That’s not to excuse Hoppes or ESPN, as they were equally egregious and clearly failed in their hiring efforts.
The BtB column also contains e-mails to Covers regarding concerns over Phillips. It’s a revealing look at Phillips being able to go from one venue to the next with the right people never digging deep enough to find the full scope of her activities and stop her in her tracks.
Where Is She Now? (The Daily Barometer)
But perhaps the most interesting news on Phillips is her current whereabouts. The Daily Barometer is Oregon State’s independent student newspaper. The university confirmed Sarah J. Phillips attended Oregon State from 2007-2011, but didn’t graduate. The story contains quotes from a few people that interacted with Phillips from high school classmates to rec league soccer teammates. It also finds Phillips currently working at an AT&T store in Corvallis:
Ray McGuinness, an OSU graduate student in the MBA program, and Jeremy Carter, a senior, heard via Twitter Wednesday morning that Phillips worked at the AT&T store in Corvallis.
McGuinness and Carter drove to the store around lunchtime and found Phillips working behind the counter.
“It was without a doubt her, the girl from the video and the pictures,” McGuinness said. “I introduced myself and said ‘You’re Sarah Phillips,’ and she nodded and came around the desk and was like, ‘Let’s go outside.’”
McGuinness asked to hear her side of the story, to which she said she couldn’t comment.
“She seemed stressed, which is what I’d imagine from someone in the national spotlight,” McGuinness said.
An AT&T spokesperson confirmed to the Barometer Wednesday that Phillips does indeed work at the Corvallis location. A T-Mobile spokesperson also confirmed to the Barometer that Phillips used to work at T-Mobile in Corvallis, but was terminated. The spokesperson would not indicate why, or when, Phillips was let go.
The T-Mobile story lines up with another Deadspin report that they were fired from the store, for, what a surprise, money scams. With all the twists and turns of the Sarah Phillips story, there’s something strangely right about her ending up as a non-descript AT&T employee in a Corvallis store just working behind the counter. Time will tell if anyone with any real legal authority begins to investigate her case as thoroughly as the internet has.