Serial harassment from a fake recruiter targets young female journalists

One Sunday night last fall, Courtney Mims was out with a friend when “No Caller ID” flashed across her phone. Mims, a senior in the journalism program at the University of Florida, Gainesville, doesn’t usually answer calls from unknown numbers, but she had recently distributed her resume and sports-reporting reels to media companies. Graduation was just three months away; she didn’t want to miss an interview. 

Mims answered the call. A man on the other end introduced himself as a recruiter from NBC Sports. He had a pleasant voice, Mims thought, and seemed to be in his late twenties or early thirties. He told her that he had reviewed her reporting work and was ready to offer her a job. Mims was surprised—she hadn’t sent an application to NBC. But the man responded that it wasn’t unusual for the company to reach out to up-and-coming reporters.

As the man started asking Mims more questions, excitement overtook her. “What qualities would you bring to the table?” he asked. She wanted to blurt out that she was the right person for the position, that in the past years she had worked every sporting event she could. She told him about her experience covering local high school and college sports. 

After a few minutes, the man told Mims that looks drive the TV landscape. He asked about her hair color, her height, her weight, and then her bra size. Mims answered his questions. She reasoned that she’d never gotten a call from a big company before, and that maybe a hiring manager needed to know details about her measurements.

Finally, the man asked if Mims would be willing to fly to New York City for an interview—and if she would take her dress off. Mims asked to speak to a supervisor. The unknown caller wished her luck on the job hunt. Then he hung up.

Mims’s heart fell. “You go from being professional, and then realizing that this was just some pervert,” she says. “It’s degrading, and it’s embarrassing. It’s a feeling I never want any woman to feel.”

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MIMS WAS MY CLASSMATE at the University of Florida. When she told me about her encounter, I wondered if this was happening to other students, maybe even beyond our campus. I found that dozens of women across the nation have received eerily similar calls from a fake recruiter. 

In the spring of 2016, Mims took a class for aspiring sports broadcasters and sideline reporters. A senior in the class, Ashlyn Sullivan, told her peers about an odd experience with a man who called her, claiming to work for NBC Sports. Like the man who contacted Mims, this person also called on a Sunday evening, and had no caller ID.

The man had a professional manner and seemed to know Sullivan’s work. He mentioned specific moments on her reporting reel, which she had posted on YouTube. “Being a senior in college, and being denied so many jobs, that was such good news to hear that someone liked my reel,” says Sullivan, who is now a digital reporter and a talk show host for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

As they talked, his questions became bolder. He asked how much Sullivan weighed, and if she would consider losing weight for the position. He asked if she would wear revealing clothing and if she would consider getting a boob job. If he flew her to New York for an interview, he asked, would she take her clothes off?

Sullivan hung up immediately, tears in her eyes. She wondered what she could do. There was no number listed, and she hadn’t caught the man’s name. Filing a complaint with NBC Sports didn’t seem like an option. “I felt so betrayed, and young, and dumb,” Sullivan says.

A spokesman at NBC Sports told me that the caller had not been one of their recruiters or otherwise employed at the company. “This is unacceptable behavior and would never be tolerated here,” the outlet said in a prepared statement. “When our recruiters speak to prospective employees, their interview questions are professional and of an appropriate nature.”

 

ELLEN MENY, a TV reporter and producer in Seattle, had already seen reports of a phony recruiter in a private Facebook group for women journalists when she received a suspicious call, in 2017.

Prepared, Meny responded to the caller’s initial questions with questions of her own: Had he called other women? Why was his number unknown? “He started getting angry; he did not like the fact that I was turning it around,” Meny says. “He ended up saying I was being too aggressive, and then he hung up.”

After Meny’s experience with the caller, she recounted the event on her blog. Soon, similar testimonies from other women started to come in. She has since heard from dozens of women. At least two Facebook groups for TV journalists have documented related accounts from dozens of women across the country, dating to 2015. The incidents all follow the same pattern: a woman receives a call from a man claiming to work in the hiring department of a large media company. The callers go by various names and claim to represent various companies, but all the women describe a friendly, confident voice that sounds like that of a young or middle-aged man. 

Heather Janssen, a TV reporter, was one of the women who contacted Meny. Janssen told her that she received a call in 2017 from a “normal-sounding” man who asked if she would cover the Winter Olympics for NBC Sports. At the time, Janssen was working for a small TV station in South Dakota. Confused, Janssen declined. “I was in Rapid City, South Dakota,” Janssen says. “There was no way someone is reaching out to me to be at network level. I don’t think I’m not talented, but I certainly don’t think I’m network level out of South Dakota.” The man told her she’d never receive an offer that exciting again.

Meny speculates that the calls are all coming from one man who is targeting young female journalists early in their careers. “I haven’t really heard a lot of guys talking about it in the industry, and I haven’t heard a lot of women in their thirties and forties talking about it,” she says. “He definitely has a target group.”

 

MENY AND A FEW OTHER WOMEN have considered taking legal action, but they haven’t been able to make much progress. Under the Federal Communications Act, the calls would be considered telephone harassment, but it is difficult to track their source. Law enforcement can’t identify unknown numbers, and anyone can hide a number from the recipient of a call by dialing *67. The calls usually offer in-person interviews, but none of the women I spoke to agreed to do this or heard of anyone else meeting in person. 

Mims had contacted University of Florida campus authorities after the harassment, but they told her that it’s incredibly difficult to conduct an effective investigation without a phone number. “Even if we get a subpoena to find phone records, many times [it] traces back to a landline or something that isn’t helpful,” says Lt. Trevor Henderson, of the University of Florida Police Department. “It could be someone across the country or across the world using different apps to hide their number.” He suggests creating separate email accounts and phone numbers for the purpose of talking with potential employers. “Even if we can’t do much here, we’re still tracking him,” Henderson says. “We’re adding to a database and documenting these activities.”

The women I spoke to had advice for young journalists who are concerned about phone harassment. Meny and Kevin Hull, a broadcasting professor at the University of South Carolina,  recommended against putting a personal phone number on a reel package, and Mims suggests doing a quick search on recruiters who call as soon as they give their name on the phone.

 

THREE MONTHS AFTER her disturbing call, Mims is still thinking about her conversation. After she’d hung up, she’d showered three times. “I felt like I was dirty,” Mims says. “I’ve never had an emotional turnaround like that in my life.” She tried to continue applying to jobs, but she felt nervous, to the point of having a friend log into her email and send out her resume for her. Eventually, she landed a position as sports director for a TV station in Panama City Beach. 

Mims remains concerned about the impact a call like this can have on women trying to break into the industry. “This can scare a lot of women.” But she adds, “This shouldn’t stop any woman’s drive or motivation to accomplish what they want in the field.”

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Sky Lebron is a senior at the University of Florida. He is also a reporting intern at WJCT News in Jacksonville. Sky has worked on stories for WUFT News, The Independent Florida Alligator, the Miami Herald, and WJCB TV20.