Oct 30, 2015 ยท 4 minutes

Yesterday I brought you the curious story of InternD – an escort service apparently being run from inside Tony Hsieh’s Vegas Downtown Project.

As I explained, the service – which invited would-be escorts to upload “full length” photos – gave its office address as the DTP’s “Work In Progress” shared workspace, used by many of Hsieh’s portfolio companies, as well as the local branches of Uber and Postmates. Lawyers told me that it likely broke at least one of Nevada’s anti-sex-trafficking laws.

For their part, the Downtown Project and Work In Progress insisted they had no record of a company called InternD operating in their building. In fact, they later claimed that no one had even visited InternD.com from inside Work In Progress.

The company, however, insisted that it was “legal and ethical,” posting a barrage of tweets about how little they cared about criticism... (All of the tweets have now apparently been deleted)

Again the company confirmed that they are based out of Work In Progress, but said they were operating "under a shell"...

When asked, they declined to confirm the name of the "shell" company. They also claimed they are bringing escorts and dancers to Work In Progress...

Finally, after I contacted them for the second time via email, pointing out how exploitative -- not to mention illegal -- their service appeared to be, the founder – identified only as “Phil” – came clean…

Hey Paul,

Here to write you that this is not a real site. It is a marketing experiment between a few people. Please advise.

Problem solved, then: InternD isn’t an escort service at all. According to the founder, it is just a “marketing experiment” -- which is somehow supposed to make it less horrible. In fact, far more likely it was a fake site by a creepy dude (or several creepy dudes) who figured it might be a good way to trick women into sending them sexy selfies. Gross, exploitative, but probably not sex trafficking. ("Phil" denies this, as well he might.)

That should have been the end of it, but when I asked for more information about the experiment, things took another weird turn, as Phil tried to recruit me into his scam...

We are a group of marketers who are testing the intricacies of what it takes to go viral and we chose a controversial topic for that reason. We are also taking a look at how the public responds to this topic and whether or not they believe it to be a viable solution to an industry that is typically ignored, yet seems to have continuous growth.  The experiment is in its infancy and your silence will allow us to continue our research.

If you're willing to go along (or at least just don't mention our correspondence quite yet), we'd be happy to grant you and your publication first access when it's over. 

Naturally, I had no intention to “go along” with a plan that would make me complicit in “Phil”’s attempt to scam would-be sex workers. Instead I asked, again, if he could confirm that InternD was based in Vegas.

He responded with another offer:

“If you're willing to take down the article and tweets referring it we'd be happy to give you a phone call and answer your questions and share details about the project.”

That’s not really how it works, I explained, asking again for confirmation of where the “experiment” was based.

But our creepy webmaster still wasn’t done negotiating…

Then add to the title that it was a marketing experiment and we'll share details.

That last offer was particularly curious. The headline on the original piece read “Is the latest disruptive startup working out of Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project… an escort service?” Given it included no mention of Phil or InternD it’s not entirely clear who might benefit from my changing it but leaving the body intact.

Perhaps InternD’s founder was concerned that Vegas Metro PD might see the headline and come looking for the sex trafficker in their midst. (Anyone familiar with the link between the Downtown Project and Metro might find that possibility richly ironic.)  Or perhaps “Phil” does have some kind of connection with the Downtown Project and now regrets putting them in a bad light. (Again, the Downtown Project denies any knowledge of InternD and Work In Progress insists no such company is registered to operate out of their building.)

I sent yet another email to “Phil” in the hope of getting closer to an answer but, for some reason, he’s gone quiet again.

One thing I know for certain is that under no circumstances should you upload your photo to a Vegas-based "Internships for escorts" site run by a dude named Phil.  Another: There's almost no evil conceivable by man that can't be explained away as "a marketing experiment between some friends."