The 20-year-old’s phone buzzed over and over with texts and calls from unfamiliar numbers. Men started stopping in front of her home, some knocking at her door.
She answered none of it. She’d asked for none of the attention.
Rather, she’d been set up. Without her permission or knowledge, Lowery’s photo and personal information had been posted on an escort-service website that police say has been used for prostitution in other cities.
That explains all the calls, texts and knocks. These strangers wanted to know if she was available for business.
Who did this to Lowery? Peoria police are investigating. But she believes it was the nasty handiwork of a jealous rival.
“This stuff is just scary,” she told the Journal Star, which like USA TODAY is a part of the USA TODAY Network.
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Lowery lives in Central Peoria with her boyfriend. The unwanted attention began the second week in June, as she was suddenly slammed with 50-plus calls on her phone. The messages varied. The tamer texts included, “Are you available?” and “How much for your services, sugar?”
Lowery was flummoxed. But her boyfriend had heard about a website called Skip the Games.
The site states, “Skip the games. Get satisfaction.” It touts “top escort cities” and urges visitors to “find and meet service providers anywhere.”
That includes Peoria. There are clickable preferences, including men or women. Each category will bring up multiple photos.
Some offer simple smiles. Others push provocative poses. Many offer little to the imagination.
Click on a photo, and up pops a menu of services. Some are coy; many are explicit.
Few posts mention money. But, presumably, any haggling can be done after using a post’s contact info.
Posting is free: In fact, Skip the Games offers a step-by-step guide. But, as the site warns, none of the posts are screened or endorsed by Skip the Games.
Lowery looked over the women featured under the listings for Peoria. Her roving eyes slammed to a halt as she spotted her own face. These were shots taken from her accounts on Facebook, Snapchat and elsewhere.
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It got worse. Though her name wasn’t listed, the Skip the Games posting specified her phone number and address.
As the calls kept coming, cars started rolling by her home. Some stopped, with an occasional driver getting out to knock on her door — seemingly always when her boyfriend wasn’t home. Frightened, she didn’t answer.
“This has put me in danger,” she said. “I’m terrified.”
On June 12, Lowery contacted the Peoria police. She said she suspected a woman who had dated her boyfriend for four months.
The Skip the Games website states that it can take down fake posts, upon request. Lowery asked that it remove the post with her photos and info. But nothing happened.
The Journal Star emailed Skip the Games regarding Lowery’s situation. The website did not return that email.
This week, though, the post came down, thanks to Peoria police. The investigation continues, police spokeswoman Amy Dotson said.
There are several possible charges. One is deceptive practices, a misdemeanor that (as defined by state statute) can involve making “a false or deceptive statement addressed to the public for the purpose of promoting the sale of property or services.”
“This is the only Skip the Games investigation we are aware of in Peoria,” Dotson said
But investigators are aware of the site’s reputation elsewhere.
In 2019, police in Allentown, Pennsylvania, made eight prostitution arrests stemming from an investigation into Skip the Games, according to the Morning Call newspaper. Later that year, a police sting of the website ended with the arrest of two Milwaukee-area women on prostitution charges, according to Patch.com. In 2020, police in Medford, Oregon, arrested a man for promoting prostitution via the website, according to KTVL-TV.
“It’s a nationwide thing,” Dotson said. “It’s basically Backpage 2.0.”
Backpage.com, a classified-ad website, was seized and taken down in 2018 by the U.S. Department of Justice. In a 93-count indictment, seven former owners and executives were charted with facilitating prostitution and other charges, according to NPR.
Since the Skip the Games post came down, Lowery has received fewer calls. She is glad about that. But she remains amazed at how easily a person can be set up on the site.
Think about that. As a bad joke or worse, one of your loved ones — mom, grandma, whoever — could end up just like Lowery.
“This has been the biggest pain,” she said. “What the heck is going on?”