Well-liked & scandalous channel specializing in exposing & extorting Russian ‘escorts’ is taken down — RT Russia & Former Soviet Union
For years, the Skin Market telegram channel has been terrorizing Russian sex workers by posting public information in front of 240,000 viewers. Now it has finally been removed, bringing relief to many whose lives have been affected.
In the past few months, the Russian-made messaging app has grown as an alternative media source. For those reading personal blogs, looking for like-minded people, or just looking for news outside of the mainstream, it has become one of the market leaders. In Russia itself, the government banned the application until June 2020.
For almost half a decade, however, Telegram has also served as a powerful tool for extortion.
While the ability to run a channel anonymously was beneficial for many, including during the revolutions, it has the side effect that people can post without consequence. In particular, the ability to post private information has spawned a powerful industry some of which are paying thousands of dollars for channel administrators to remove posts.
What is “skin market”?
One of the most famous of these channels in Russian-speaking countries has been the skin market since at least 2017. The concept was simple. Almost daily, the anonymous administrator posted photos of girls who they claimed worked in the sex industry, usually as escorts. The images, sometimes straight from social media, often showed the target in a bikini or underwear. Often the victims were Instagram models, contestants of beauty queens, or even famous high society games in Moscow. Many of the girls were minors.
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The images were often accompanied by text about the victim, usually listing their alleged sex industry work and services, with evidence such as text message correspondence to support the claims. Links to social networks – usually Instagram – were also regularly attached. Sometimes, and perhaps most dangerous, the guards even had a photocopy of the victim’s passport that revealed their real full name, with only the number hidden.
Once put online, hundreds of thousands of people would see the photos and personal information, leaving the victim open to online trolling and bullying in real life. This regularly resulted in targets deleting their social media accounts and hiding from the spotlight while others had to grapple with the aftermath in their family and friend groups.
“For those who are on my channel for the first time: In my posts you will find out which popular girls escort from start to finish and the whole truth about their lives. Photos, correspondence, videos – all of this is waiting for you right here”, said the administrator in a post that was the first to be seen by all newcomers.
Although it has existed in multiple incarnations, the most recent channel, which had 240,000 followers when it was deleted in February 2021, was launched in 2017. According to the owner, the previous version was deleted after an exposé of a famous beauty pageant that went on to marry a very famous rap star.
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Moral Leadership or Just Blackmail?
While the channel seems like a way to doxing women in the sex industry, the channel’s administrator actually claims she’s making a positive, meaningful influence.
In 2018, the Russian television broadcaster 360 contacted the anonymous owner, who revealed herself to be a woman with the initials NG. Apparently, the Creator came up with “service” after becoming frustrated by the number of young women who she believes have forgotten about education and moral principles.
“I believe our channel is a ray of light in the predators’ dark realm,” she told the network. “We help people not to make mistakes and make the right choice for the companion.”
The mysterious administrators also claimed that all information was carefully checked for truth, and there have been no cases where a victim was found to have a squeaky clean reputation.
“Unfortunately, there have been no such cases. We feel sorry for a lot of girls, no matter how strange it sounds, but that’s the purest truth,” she said.
Although the owner poses as the moral “exposer” of suspected sex workers with a mission to warn those who want to join the industry, the channel has been widely used as a form of revenge. While some posts were tips from old friends or exes, many came from others in the sex industry. Speaking to RT, one of the victims said she was exposed after an argument with a client. Another girl said information about her came from her old agent – or pimp – who released her private information after she didn’t give him a cut.
To the owner, however, it seems that the broadcaster’s raison d’etre was simply blackmail. Once a girl’s personal information was released to hundreds of thousands of viewers, the administrator offered to remove the post for a price.
“You asked me for money,” one of the girls on the channel told RT on condition of anonymity. “They asked for 80,000 rubles ($ 1,000). I laughed.”
However, the experience of being publicly exposed was no laughing matter for many others. In 2019, Instagram star Natalia Sulyanova told REN-TV that she had also received a message asking for payment to save her reputation.
“They came up to me on Instagram and said, ‘If you don’t want dirt to come out on you, we can help you if you pay.’ I said: ‘People, what you say has nothing to do with me. There is nothing to write about me,’ “she told the broadcaster.
According to Sulyanova, the ransom was 150,000 rubles ($ 2,000). Immediately after she declined her offer, a story about her was published.
The skin market gained prominence in 2019 when TV presenter Andrey Malakhov focused an episode of his talk show on victims of the Telegram group. The program aired on Russia 1, the second most popular channel in the country. This episode’s YouTube video now has over 7 million views and generated much discussion after the payment for prostitution was shown openly on a federally owned network.
The episode went viral after the editors agreed to meet two girls who both thought they were on the show to discuss their lifestyle.
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During an interview, Malakhov played a pre-recorded clip of the show’s producers’ meeting with her for $ 1,500 while undercover. As part of the trick, a rented apartment was fitted with hidden cameras that recorded their conversation and even caught them moving out – without their consent.
Another, a reality TV star from the longtime show ‘House-2’, agreed to meet with an actor posing as a fake entrepreneur. They arranged a meal on a rented boat on the Moscow River, where it announced its price of $ 2,500 a night.
Why was it banned?
Despite this large-scale advertising, Telegram abandoned the channel and allowed Skin Market to blackmail and violate the privacy of hundreds of victims.
Then in February something changed. According to popular news agency Baza, known in Russia for breaking stories in front of the mainstream media, the station was shut down after a complaint.
Baza reported that Skin Market released private information and a photo of a suspected escort who subsequently received attacks and backlash from anonymous individuals. She then got a legal representative who sent a complaint to the company.
“The attorney immediately wrote directly to Apple and Telegram, stating that posting his client’s profile violated personal data and copyright laws in the US, Russia and the United Arab Emirates,” Baza wrote.
“Telegram sent a notice to the skin market demanding the removal of copyright infringing content,” Baza continued. “For some reason the admins didn’t do this and as a result the messenger was forced to shut down the channel completely.”
The latest complaint wasn’t the first telegram heard by Skin Market. In June 2020, a Ukrainian underage girl turned to law enforcement after the broadcaster alleged she sold her virginity to Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska for 2.5 million rubles ($ 34,000). The broadcaster reportedly requested 100,000 rubles ($ 1,300) as an erasure fee.
According to the young model, the post was likely the invention of someone with reason to be jealous. However, when the media reported that she had gone to law enforcement, the post was quickly deleted. She also urged other girls affected by the channel to contact the authorities and not be afraid.
“I appeal to all the girls who have suffered from this skin market telegram channel. If you want to get justice and punish the perpetrators, don’t be afraid to contact the police,” she said. “We’re going to close this telegram market to lying fraudsters.”
At the request of RT, another of the women featured on the channel refused to provide a detailed account of her experience, revealing that she is currently in talks with a lawyer.
What does the future hold in store?
Despite the skin market closing, this is certainly not the end of the issue. Immediately after the deletion, hundreds of imitators emerged, one of which already has 7,400 subscribers. Now the main animal is gone, others will certainly try to fill the void.
However, Telegram owners may begin to realize what has become of their app. In early February, St. Petersburg-born founder Pavel Durov promised that the messenger would block “problematic channels” that publish people’s personal information. In particular, Durov noted that the app had removed multiple channels that publicized protesters’ contact details, as well as others that published the home address of judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officers.
“Such use of Telegram directly contradicts our rules that forbid public calls to violence,” he noted. “For this reason we decided today to block problematic channels with personal data.”
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