Panic spread among sex workers on social media earlier this week when word of an imminent story about OnlyFans and MyFreeCams owner Leo Radvinsky's finances started circulating on Twitter.
Many were worried that the story would cause two of the few internet platforms where sex workers can earn money with relative safety fall to the same fate as Pornhub, which has been blocked by VISA and Mastercard since late last year after a New York Times story claimed it hosts child sexual abuse material.
The story sex workers anticipated, which was published on Wednesday by Scott Stedman at Forensic News, is based on years old "Suspicious Activity Reports" (SARs), which banks give to the government when they discover what they deem to be suspicious and potentially criminal banking activity. For years, these sorts of documents have rarely surfaced publicly, even though they are often highly interesting. The unauthorized disclosure of suspicious activity reports—even just the information that one has been filed—is a serious federal crime. A 2020 Buzzfeed investigation, for example, was based on a trove of these reports.
The gist of the Forensic News story is that Radvinsky and his accounts are flagged in a number of SARs for suspicious transfers, but the reports don't include any concrete evidence of wrongdoing and, in most cases, there are not even clear accusations. The reports in the story examine activity from 2007-2017, and are from Wells Fargo and Barclays Bank.
Experts in these types of reports told Motherboard that SARs are essentially a way for banks to protect themselves from legal liability. If the bank reports any and all potentially suspicious activities, it can't be accused of knowingly aiding criminals or looking the other way. As the Forensic News notes, SARs are not proof of anything unscrupulous happening on the sites themselves, or even as evidence of money laundering at the owner's level. But because the adult industry is historically and constantly discriminated against by payment processors—and pushed to the margins of the internet and society itself—the existence and exposure of the Radvinsky SARs has created a ripple effect of confusion and worry among the community online.
In the scenario sex workers fear, news of the SARs would start a chain of events that could end with anything from them being locked out of funds they still have in the OnlyFans app to the shuttering of OnlyFans entirely and the elimination of an existential income stream. While there is currently no indication that the Forensic News story will result in these consequences, a long and sordid history of discrimination against sex workers justifies their fears.
Banks historically discriminate against the adult industry, from platforms to individual sex workers. Many payment processors, such as PayPal, refuse to do business with sex workers altogether, as they're considered too "high risk" to take on as customers. The SARs about Radvinsky's accounts show this discrimination in action.
"The pornography industry is high risk for money laundering, human exploitation, and illicit activities," one of the SARs Forensic News published states.
There are, of course, many types of criminality and abuse that happen in and around the adult industry (which we've covered extensively), but this is true about every industry. Children as young as six work in dangerous mines in order to extract the minerals that power our smartphones. As of at least last year, consumer goods from Apple, Microsoft, BMW, Gap, Huawei, Nike, Samsung, Sony, and others are being manufactured by re-education camp prisoners in China, according to an in-depth report by an Australian think tank. Chicken and meat packing plants are rife with abuse. Abuse and criminality are core features of consumer capitalism, but it's companies like Pornhub that are cut off from VISA and Mastercard. Not Apple.
The most incendiary portion of the Forensic News story focuses on one SAR from Wells Fargo which mentions minors (again, the same issue that finally made VISA and Mastercard cut ties with Pornhub) with little context. The SAR reads:
"Based on the inexplicable nature of the outgoing wires, for which the original sources of funding were not known, but appeared likely to be income from the customers' adult entertainment business, the information found regarding the customers' business, and the illicit nature of those businesses, which are international and may be operating in areas where underage children and other vulnerable individuals might be forced to provide services, AMLI [Anti-Money Laundering Initiative] has deemed the specified outgoing wire transfer activity suspicious."
This statement is couched in vague uncertainty from the bank, and is making a claim based on the assumed riskiness of a few countries where Radvinsky does business—Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria, and Colombia—to level an accusation it can't prove. But Wells Fargo will make note of it in the report, to cover its own reputation, just in case.
"That SAR is not indicative at all of sex trafficking. It sounds like they didn't have much to go on with this SAR, other than 'that country is very high risk for child sex trafficking' or something like that.”
Banks are required to file suspicious activity reports, or SARs, when they suspect something is amiss—wire transfers that aren't accounted for, money moving to and from countries where it doesn't make sense to do so, and anything that might look like money laundering. Financial institutions filed 2,503,205 SARs in 2020.
For banks, a SAR is a liability protection mechanism: the bank can say it flagged this activity, and it's up to law enforcement to step in at that point. Most importantly, a SAR doesn't prove, or even allege, that anything illegal is happening. These documents don't demonstrate any wrongdoing by OnlyFans, MyFreeCams, or even Radvinsky.
Moyara Ruehsen, who directs the Financial Crime Management program at the Middlebury Institute in California, told me that banks aren't motivated to create detailed or accurate SARs.
"There are a lot of perverse incentives in the way that our regulatory regime is currently set up. Banks are not punished for filing what we call defensive SARS—where they think, well, the examiner when they come to audit our anti-money laundering efforts is going to want us to flag anything that could possibly be suspicious, so we better cover our ass and file a SAR," Ruehsen said. "But when they do that, they're not taking the time to write up a narrative with real actionable intelligence. At the same time, these financial institutions are not getting rewarded for when they do write up a SAR narrative with actionable intelligence that leads to an arrest."
Ruehsen said that the SARs in question sounded poorly researched, and that law enforcement probably wouldn't shut Radvinsky's platforms down based on these reports; "That SAR is not indicative at all of sex trafficking," she said. "It sounds like they didn't have much to go on with this SAR, other than 'that country is very high risk for child sex trafficking' or something like that. What happens is that people complain to their congressional representatives, and then these congressional representatives blow it all out of proportion."
“There's nothing we can do to stop it, but maybe we can do something."
On Sunday evening and into Monday, sex workers on Twitter caught wind of the story in the works. Several influential sex work activists, including Alana Evans, president of the Adult Performance Artists' Guild, were sounding an alarm: Cash out now. On sites including OnlyFans and MyFreeCams, money earned sits in a user's account on the website until the user issues a bank transfer to move it off the platform and into their own account.
Evans tweeted a video of herself on Tuesday explaining why sex workers should cash out, in light of a forthcoming story that involved incriminating documents against Radvinsky.
Telling people to withdraw their funds from their platforms was relatively harmless advice out-of-context; if you're able, it's usually a good idea to cash out of third-party payment systems as often as possible. Some have cashout minimums—OnlyFans, for example, requires you to have at least $20 to withdraw to a direct bank transfer, and $100 to withdraw to an e-wallet. Even on mainstream sites like Venmo, it's good practice to never leave funds lying around.
But the implication behind "cash out" was scarier: many in the adult industry were concerned that OnlyFans or MyFreeCams were about to fall to the same fate as Pornhub in December, when a story about child porn on Pornhub from the New York Times helped spur forward the work of conservative anti-sex work activists, ultimately leading to payment processors stopping services to the site.
"Our community is always heavily charged, we're constantly under attack," Evans said. "This year specifically with all the legislation that we're seeing being put in front of the Senate and the House to deplatform us in the name of protecting children."
Performers were "completely blindsided" when payment processors stopped service to Pornhub, Evans said—a decision that materially hurt sex workers, that she didn't want to repeat. "And so, performers are naturally on edge, which is understandable," she said.
"I saw it as a scary blessing to be able to be notified, so that hopefully people could go get their money... Our fear is real, and our concern is real."
Keke, a sex worker who heard Evans and others urging performers to cash out, told me that she took that advice immediately and tried to transfer her OnlyFans balance to her bank. Her bank texted her almost immediately, and required her to call them and verify her identity before the funds could be released. In the four years she's used OnlyFans, this is the first time this has happened to her, she said. She heard from several other models with different banks that were also encountering issues with OnlyFans payouts this week, and suspects that it's related to the story—and the ensuing panic.
"I want people to understand that this is not isolated and it's not 'normal' behavior that happens with our payouts," she said.
When the Forensic News article came out, it was "a relief and shocking at the same time because we can talk about it now, because the community has been in an uproar about why we're telling people to cash out," Keke said. "So it was a relief to be able to finally let them know why."
Amberly Rothfield, a sex worker activist, told me that Stedman contacted her for comment while he was working on the story. She said that she advised him that making claims concerning what's in the reports without context could be particularly dangerous for the adult industry and the workers who depend on these sites for their livelihoods—especially claims about minors accessing the site.
"I actually advised him that maybe if there's no smoking gun, go back to the drawing board," she said. Rothfield said she talked to Stedman because she at least wanted to know what was coming, and that "maybe I could put something out there to sex workers, to give them the heads up that hey we might be losing a platform. There's nothing we can do to stop it, but maybe we can do something."
On Tuesday, Stedman tweeted that he was in fact working on something that would be revealed soon.
"I'm seeing some chatter about a possible story I'm working on," he wrote. "As always, I like to regularly remind people that rumors about what I'm going to publish are often incomplete, incorrect, or improperly framed."
Stedman told me that he was hurt by the negative reaction from sex workers to the story.
"Every indication from the community that I had while preparing the article was that they were eager for this piece to drop," Stedman said. "I’m 100% pro sex worker. I think it’s important to put forth information on Radvinsky in order to inform the public and try to seek some sort of justice for the people that have had money stolen from them from OF and MFC." In 2020, Stedman reported on allegations of fraud and theft against OnlyFans and MyFreeCams from performers who claimed the sites were freezing accounts and not issuing payouts correctly.
"That attack is real and it's happening”
If financial institutions suspect activity like terrorism or something that would endanger lives—including children's lives—they would normally contact law enforcement right away, sometimes even before filing a SAR, Ruehsen said. "Most of the time, they are just doing what the regulators require them to do which is 30 day or 60 day reviews, but they pretty much wash their hands of it."
When banks decide to drop a customer, they are sometimes doing it because of SARs and sometimes because of external political or public pressure.
That's exactly what happened with Exodus Cry's campaign to shut down Pornhub, and what's happened with the religious right throughout the history of online sex work: anti-porn lobbyist groups like Exodus Cry and NCOSE pressure politicians to carry their torch, in the form of legislation like FOSTA/SESTA and the EARN-IT act.
The Forensic News story does note multiple times that the SARs do not indicate evidence of wrongdoing or criminal behavior. "Many of these reports are not followed with charges and the documents themselves should not be considered conclusive," Stedman wrote.
Evans told me that the impact of insinuating child sexual abuse material exists on a site can't be understated. "If you don't have actual evidence, and actual cases or facts, and it's just something alluded to in a baking document, you don't understand the ramifications of just tossing that into the pool, and how it's going to affect the rest of us," she said.
The stigma sex workers face, and the abuses they endure from platforms, police, and society in general, make it even more difficult for them to criticize platforms they use to survive, as they're on such tenuous ground already. With every new exposé comes the fear that this will be the one to push them further off the internet.
"That attack is real and it's happening," Evans said. "And in a minute we're not going to be able to exist anywhere... [governments] have got to start recognizing that sex work is real work, and we deserve to exist."