COLUMBIA, Mo. - Young women and men, either struggling to pay bills or trying to launch careers, are turning to social media sites.
ModelMayhem.com is not new. In fact, it has more then 760,000 active users. Hundreds of those are in Jefferson City, Columbia and across Mid-Missouri.
However, the website that promises to connect aspiring models with the people who can help rocket them to fame is now being investigated for its role in the disappearance, rape and trafficking of more than a dozen women across the country.
The site is not on the radar of most investigators and it's certainly not the only website being accused of fostering phony and dangerous relationships. There have been numerous reports on the dangers of sites like Craigslist and even Facebook, but there is something inherently vulnerable about a setting up a photo shoot sight unseen.
"I was doing a senior photo and talking about how, like, I really liked taking photos and wanted to do it to make money and I think my photographer mentioned it," said site user Kristen Baier. "He's like, you should try Model Mayhem."
With just a few keystrokes, Baier was fielding offers from local photographers on Model Mayhem. It didn't take long to realize she was getting more than she bargained for.
"I've had hundreds of messages come and go, mostly like, 'We want you to do nudes, we want you to do lingerie,'" said Baier.
"It's really an easy trick, an easy trap," Creative Photo photographer Carl Neitzert said. "And you really don't have to be a professional or even know how to use a camera. If you're a sweet talker, it's easy to [make people] fall for it and these girls are in an industry where the further you push the boundaries, the more successful you are, seemingly."
Neitzert remembers when Model Mayhem launched years ago. He was the ideal guy for the site to attract – an up-and-coming photographer trying to find his footing.
"I never joined Model Mayhem because it wasn't professional enough and that was even back when I was not necessarily rolling in the dough," said Neitzert. "I wasn't necessarily a full-time professional anyways but still, I could not see how I could potentially make money on it."
For many of the aspiring models and photographers, especially in a college town, money is what it's all about.
"They try to like manipulate you, like, 'We know you're a student, we know you're poor' and so they're like, 'We'll pay you $500 for one nude photo, that's all we're asking,'" Baier told ABC 17 News. "But it only takes one nude photo for you to be completely exposed and completely all over the Internet."
Model Mayhem has a dangerous history. The National Women's Coalition Against Violence and Exploitation said it can connect a dozen missing girls nationwide to the website.
One of them, Kara Nichols, is from Colorado Springs, Colo. She has been missing since last October when she told a friend she was heading two hours to Denver for a modeling gig.
Nichols' family told our sister station in Colorado they believe she may be a victim of a human trafficking scheme.
Trafficking and rape are at the heart of a federal lawsuit against the site's owners, Internet Brands.
A woman said she was drugged, raped and trafficked during a supposed photo shoot she set up through Model Mayhem.
The plaintiff, Jane Doe, alleged she was drugged and raped on video then trafficked by two men, Emerson Callum and Lavont Flanders. The lawsuit states that Model Mayhem knew the two men had been committing these crimes to other women across the country and did not stop them or warn users on the site.
A judge on the trial threw out the suit in 2012, but an appeal is working its way through the judicial system in California.
"I'm not shocked," said Baier. "That is not art. That is not photography. That is a guy trying to get perverted pictures and have a naked girl in the room with him. That is not art. That is not photography. That is what turns me off about it."
"If it's a site where you're seeking a modeling career or employment or dating or any of those kinds of sites, then use special precautions when you meet someone," advised Boone County Internet Crimes Task Force Detective Andy Anderson.
Anderson said Model Mayhem reminds him of sites like Craigslist.
"I think on all of these sites, what we have to be, or whoever using them, what they have to be aware of is No. 1, be mindful of everything that you post on the site," Anderson said. "Anybody else has access to, anybody else can download. If you're going to meet, do anything, take people with you, public places, don't send out pictures."
"We all started out never having taken a pic before so I can't say that no photo that isn't successful, isn't legitimate, but I'd say insist on it being public," Neitzert said.
Neitzert doesn't have to worry about struggling anymore now that he is the primary photographer at Creative Photo in Columbia.
"Model Mayhem isn't out to make you rich, they're out to make themselves rich when you click on their banners and their ads," he said.
Baier isn't looking to get rich since she considers photography a hobby. Her safe sense on Model Mayhem brought her success.
"I'll do everything my possible mind to get to know [photographers] as much as possible before I go alone with them," Baier said.
Model Mayhem's owners told ABC 17 News they always cooperate when police ask for information.
In a statement from Internet Brands, a spokesperson said, "Model Mayhem strongly believes that safety should be top of mind when doing anything online."
Because there are scams on the internet, Model Mayhem tries to educate users about scams and how to avoid them. The site offers detailed safety advice to help members understand what to look for when they are contacted by others.
As another safety precaution, Model Mayhem requires three professional-style photos before a profile can be activated.
Internet Brands also told us it has a "Contact a Moderator" feature on each page to report suspicious activity or abuse.
We also checked with the Better Business Bureau. Model Mayhem has an F rating from the agency.