On February 28th, a mysterious figure logged on to Twitter and offered to send $35,000 to the first person who retweeted this post. Nearly every day on the internet, this same mysterious online presence claims to give away similarly large sums of cash to complete strangers.
Who the fuck would do that? And why?
On Twitter, where he has 364,000 followers, he calls himself @TheSugarDad1. On Instagram, he’s known as @thesugardad10, but there, he’s only posted seven poorly composed photos. (No one knows for sure if the online account called @TheSugarDad1 is a man. He could be a woman. He could be a collective of people. Maybe he’s a gender non-conforming #paypig. But since the account is called @TheSugarDad1, we’ll refer to him/her/them as “he.”)
Not much is known about this mysterious online figure, but he’s made one thing clear: winners of his free money giveaways “must reply with ‘Sugardad give me the cash’ to win.”
He likes to toy with the sexual implications of calling himself not just a sugar dad but the Sugar Dad. He playfully calls himself a slave to his followers, also known as his “masters” and “mistresses.” And though he started out as a #paypig who says giving strangers large chunks of money gives him pleasure, these days, as his popularity has grown, he uses that rough kinky language less and less.
Although not many confirmable facts are known about this enigmatic online presence, @TheSugarDad1 claims to be from the U.K. This shows up in his grammar and word choice, like how he asks his followers about their “favourite car.” But British spelling can be easily faked, as can pretty much everything else online. In order to confirm he’s real, he’s teased the idea of showing his face, but he never does.
The mysterious rich man has given inconsistent explanations for where his money comes from. In the past, he’s claimed he made it from drop shipping. He’s also vaguely alluded to making his fortune off of “something you use every day.” Rather recently, he referred to a “pharmaceutical invest.” In reality, the source of his money doesn’t really matter: It’s what he does with it. That’s why people online follow him.
But there’s a big problem growing right along with TheSugarDad1’s rising popularity: every day, more and more people say he’s total bullshit. There’s a chorus of critics who claim the entire account is a scam and the only person getting free money is him, most likely from app referrals and enrollment fees.
There are many red flags that should trigger your bullshit detector. In the rare instance that someone might give away money, why not to veterans groups, domestic violence shelters, children’s cancer treatments, food pantries for the homeless or to survivors of natural disasters or refugee resettlement programs? There are so many worthwhile places to donate money that would make the world a better place.
This is ultimately what TheSugarDad1 claims his motivation is when I reach out to him. Over the course of the last few weeks, I also gathered insights into scams like this one from Maria Konnikova, who writes about true crime, scammers, con artists and grifters for the New Yorker. To confirm that people do actually win, I contacted folks who posted evidence they’ve won TheSugarDad1’s free money giveaways as well. One winner even made a whole YouTube video about her experience. Finally, I spoke to a known friend of TheSugarDad1, a successful Vegas businessman who’s made real money off CBD in the green gold rush. (He’s who many people believe is secretly the mysterious money man.)
Taken together, they paint quite a picture. One that’s very online and even weirder than you’d expect (like, somehow, a Vegas octopus sex party is involved). And so, what follows is the true tale of how online con artists have found a new way to fleece the sheep.
Dot con, baby!
Okay, So What’s This Scam?
Online, there are the gullible, the naive and others who choose to believe that TheSugarDad1 is totally real. Much like kids with the Easter Bunny, it makes some adults feel good to believe in a generous stranger. So his Twitter followers cast their wishes and retweet his cash giveaways. Their numbers massively outweigh his critics, and they’re quick to defend TheSugarDad1 by pointing to evidence of his generosity. But there are a scant few who tweet screenshots of money they’ve won and received. — and usually only when TheSugarDad1’s fending off new accusations that he’s a scam.
For instance, this tweet from @xDmdz125 alleges to be one such piece of evidence:
“Free money!” TheSugarDad1 tweets. And the people come running — and retweeting. The genius of this scam isn’t just that it generates attention, it’s how he’s built a crazy-high follower count and leverages his army of eager followers.
Predictably, there are a lot of other accounts like TheSugarDad1 on Twitter. There are the obvious fake ones, like @SugarDadSteve, who’s been debunked. (In a funny twist, the user photo is of the guy who wrote that execrable New York Post opinion piece from 2017 titled, “Why I Won’t Date Hot Women Anymore.”) Then there are the more earnest sugar dad-adjacent accounts, like @KINGOFCASH, which often interacts with TheSugarDad1. KINGOFCASH is a relatively new account, but he already faces scrutiny and claims that he’s a scam, too. And finally, there are gender-swapped versions like @theeesugarmommy, which is now suspended, presumably for violating Twitter’s terms of service.
Some say there were previous TheSugarDad1 accounts, but we know for a fact that the current one started on February 26, 2018. It’s impossible to report a total of how much money TheSugarDad1 has allegedly transferred to his lucky followers, since his account regularly deletes old tweets. But a rough accounting –– mostly based on tweets to him that remain –– suggest he’s given away a sum in excess of a few million dollars. At least. For example, on February 20th, he offered four giveaways, totaling $72,500.
In troubled times such as these, we could all use some free cash, or at least benefit from any feel-good story we can find online. This is a compelling aspect of TheSugarDad1’s appeal. He offers a tiny ray of hope in a world gone mad. It’s also why TheSugarDad1 has become such a phenomenon and his cash giveaway posts generate massive traffic. Hope travels well. It’s also why his Twitter follower count leaps up, on average, by about 700 new followers a day, according to Socialblade.
The Fine Art of Conning People. Plus, Why Are There So Many Scammers These Days?
We call them con artists for good reason. They create an artistic presentation, a carefully arranged narrative, similar to how great artists can tell you a story that’s so believable it changes your worldview. But unlike those storytellers, con artists aren’t interested in you. Or people. They ply their art with a preacher’s lust for your money.
Maria Konnikova wrote a book called The Confidence Game where she lays out how to spot a con artist and examines the dynamic between the con artist, the scam and the victim. Typically, a con artist starts with an opening ploy to get you to like them. It’s a key first move. But how does this first step disarm our critical senses, and why are we such suckers to like and be liked?
“It’s pure ego, mixed with cognitive bias. All of us are egocentric, to various extents,” Konnikova explains to me over email. “We think we matter much more than others think we matter (note the old ‘leaving-the-party’ effect: we’re always sure everyone will notice, but generally no one does). And we see ourselves in a better light than others do. On surveys, we consistently rank ourselves higher on good traits and lower on bad traits than people who know us would rank us. It’s self-serving, but it’s healthy. Con artists simply feed our own view of ourselves, rather than reality, which makes us trust them more — because they ‘get’ us.”
Getting to the specific scam at hand, I ask Konnikova if she thinks the development of money giveaway cons on social media are due to all the new ways one can monetize a person’s attention online or sell them something they don’t understand — like a cryptocurrency or stock in a fraudulent biotech company. Is this part of the reason we’ve seen such a steep rise in scammer culture, lately?
Konnikova, however, rejects the idea that this scam is anything new. “I don’t think we’ve seen a steep rise. Just increased coverage and visibility. The technique is old, and con artists have always used it and always will.” And as far as TheSugarDad1 goes, his alleged scam isn’t novel either, according to Konnikova. “This is an old technique. Give something first, and then ask for something in return that doesn’t seem like that big of an ask. The Spanish Prisoner con is based on this.”
But she notes, “We always see an increase in scamming in moments of social transition, and I think the present day qualifies. With new technologies come new scam opportunities. Then there’s a new normal baseline. Also, when social transitions are happening, people feel more vulnerable and are thus more susceptible to cons.”
The tricky part with accounts like TheSugarDad1 is that they’re not exactly a fraud or even a crime. There’s no taking of a sucker’s money. By monetizing the number of followers they can draw in and keep active, it’s more like shepherding than old-fashioned con-artistry. It’s like harvesting wool, as opposed to fleecing the sheep. “Most con artists don’t actually break the law. Hence, con, as in, confidence, or trust. They don’t steal. You give,” Konnikova says. “So there’s no crime, just as in the majority of cons throughout history there’s no actual crime and it’s quite difficult to prosecute.”
Still, she takes issue with my casual conclusion that scams like TheSugarDad1 are victimless. “Nothing is ever victimless,” she asserts. “It’s dangerous to start saying ‘victimless.’ What if people fall for false products that are pushed as a result of this? You can see possible downward consequences quite easily.”
TheSugarDad1’s Band of Merry Winners
One thing that certainly suggests that TheSugarDad1 is a scam is the evidence. Not the evidence against him, but the evidence for him. Just consider some of the proof you’ll find RT’d on his Twitter feed — e.g., Darren Carpenter who posted this on February 18th, after apparently winning $15,000 and receiving it on PayPal.
Then there’s It’sCurt-x. He claims he won $24,154 from TheSugarDad1. In his tweet, he’s appropriately stunned and thankful, saying that this gift of cash has “changed my life.” He also adds that TheSugarDad1 is “genuinely nicest man alive [crying emoji].”
Not to mention, @scar1jo, although she didn’t win as much as the guys did, she was equally effusive in her praise of TheSugarDad1 and glowed about how generous and kind he is.
The interesting thing about @scar1jo is how much she wants people to know about her new sugar daddy. She even made a video about him on YouTube. Why? As she explains, in her breathy British accent, she’s been getting soooo many DMs asking her about TheSugarDad1 she decided to answer them all at once via vlog.
In it, Scar1Jo recounts how last March, she “received a random DM from this new-looking Twitter account.” After a brief exchange, she checked her PayPal and saw two new transfers totaling more than $900. But her new mysterious benefactor wouldn’t respond to any of her DMs when she asked who he was and why he’d just bestowed her with such a windfall.
She decided it would still make “good tweet content, though.” So Scar1Jo took a screenshot of the PayPal transfers and posted the pic on Twitter, thanking her new sugar daddy. The tweet went viral after TheSugarDad1 retweeted it. But once again, she heard nothing from the man himself. Months passed without any contact, she says. Then, out of the blue, or as she recalls in the video, “about May time,” TheSugarDad1 asked for her phone number. They started chatting, “like you’d have with anyone you’re just getting to know. And he seemed like a real nice guy.” But she confesses in her vlog, she was “still very skeptical.” In August, though, he won her full affection. Right after she told him she was going away on a trip, he told her to check her PayPal and yet again, he’d sent her free money. “I was so shocked. I was like, ‘Bro, okay, whaaat? You’re real? I kinda knew you were –– I was kinda getting more convinced you were real.’ But this guy is real. He sent me more money.”
After I watched her video testimonial, I contacted Scar1Jo on Twitter. The 21-year-old part-time model took her time, but eventually, she DM’d me back and explained her relationship with TheSugarDad1. “He messaged me when he had only a few followers, roughly 50, I can’t remember. I thought it was fake, but I went along with it. Then he sent me the money,” Scar1Jo recalls. “I’ve been following him for over a year now, and we message frequently, almost every day.” As far as how she spent the money he’s allegedly sent her, she writes that she used it “to travel, as I’m away a lot.”
What, though, is it like texting “almost every day” with one of the internet’s most mysterious figures?
“It’s interesting engaging with him. He has a lot of incredible stories to tell. He’s had an amazing life,” Scar1Jo answers. She does admit, however, “We’ve never met in person. I’ve never seen him. I don’t even know his real name.”
Later, I send Scar1Jo a round of follow-up questions, such as:
- Can you confirm, for certain, that he’s a man?
- Has TheSugarDad1 ever told you his real name? Or any identifying details, like where he lives, where he was born and what business he’s in?
- Would it be possible to send me proof of your text interactions, like a screenshot of you two messaging?
She has yet to respond.
When The Conned Become Amateur Detectives
There are a few semi-pro online detectives who have been investigating TheSugarDad1. They check into his reported winners, inspect their Twitter timelines and look for patterns in their interactions. Some of the detectives have noted strange overlap among the winners, calling out fake giveaways. Case in point: Many of the “winners” who have posted proof seem to know each other and have interacted in the past, which would seem to defy random chance. In particular, @PapaThiv did a little digging and noticed strange coincidences, like:
Offline, @PapaThiv is Parthiv Pandya, a 27-year-old “responsible for implementing new systems” at a technology company. Over email, he writes, “I originally came across TheSugarDad1 account because a couple people on my timeline had followed him. I’m not sure if any of them retweeted him, but I believe I did twice.”
What clued him in that it might be a scam?
“I thought it was fishy that he was giving away that much money that often, seemingly for no reason,” Pandya recalls. “I went to [winner] @DarrenC92’s page and just scrolled through the replies and mentions sections for a little bit until I saw a name I remembered seeing before: @Scar1Jo. Then I went back to confirm that this person also claimed to have won.”
Boom, there she was.
To be fair, the fact that two of TheSugarDad1’s winners happened to be friendly before they won, could be random chance. But when I first saw her Instagram account (where she’s clearly attempting to be a budding influencer), something in it looked familiar. That is, the splotchy pattern of the mural in this photo at London’s Kensington Market seemed a lot like a screenshot that was posted on Twitter by xDmdz125, a different winner of TheSugarDad1’s big money giveaways.
Look at the two photos, side by side. Do you see the top of Scar1Jo’s hat? It’s there in the lower right of the other picture. What are the chances of that?
When we DM’d, I had asked Scar1Jo if she and xDmdz125 (aka xDualModz) are IRL friends. She wrote back, “No, I’m not friends with xdmdz125. I just know him through Sugardad as I know he’s another winner.”
There’s another amateur online detective, though, who dug deep into this mystery and thinks she’s uncovered the truth. Her handle is @Phenomelicious (real name: Anna), and the 19-year-old documented her findings in a Twitter thread:
“TheSugarDad1 was one of the first ‘sugardad’ accounts I came across on my timeline, which I think was around August/September 2018. I’ve always been pretty sure that such accounts are fake, but I thought that it wouldn’t hurt to press the follow and RT button and see what would happen. You never know right?”
But soon thereafter, a Twitter user spotted what seemed to be a flagrant inaccuracy in a screenshot of a PayPal money transfer one of his “winners” posted — i.e., in the two screenshots of the PayPal transfer, the time stamps and account activity didn’t line up. The transaction was out of order. When Anna pointed this out as being suspicious, TheSugarDad1 promptly blocked her. Next, he slid into her DMs — not to offer her money, but to berate her. He threatened to have her account reported for spreading fake information. She says he grew heated after she mentioned contacting PayPal.
“He kept denying everything, even though it just didn’t make any sense,” she says. “At some point, he decided to tweet about me, telling his followers to block and report me. I immediately put the thread I made about him as my pinned tweet, so it would be quite ironic when people would see my profile.”
She also was contacted by two of TheSugarDad1’s best-known “winners.” “I was in touch with Scar1Jo, and someone named xDmz125. Let me tell you how those conversations went,” Anna says. “I screenshotted their ‘proof tweets’ in my thread. I didn’t tag them yet or anything, but somehow they found me and confronted me. They were both quite rude, which I didn’t expect at all. Since they’re the ‘winners,’ I expected them to react like, ‘Oh hey! You don’t need to worry about TheSugarDad1. I seriously got money from him!’ Instead, they were pretty much bullying and harassing me.”
I ask Anna if she’s 100 percent certain that TheSugarDad1 is a scam. That is, is there a tiny chance that he actually does give out free money to his followers, as he insists he does?
“The moment that I got 110 percent sure of the fact that TheSugarDad1 is fake, was when PayPal Support confirmed to me that one of the screenshots that was being used as proof was fake. They told me that the screenshot was edited.”
“There are so many sugar dad or even sugar mom accounts on Twitter, and all they want is to profit from you,” Anna continues. “It’s quite logical that people would try being a sugar dad or sugar mom, because you get a lot of followers from it and the audience is active. There are also those accounts that try to make money from people in such harsh ways. Twitter doesn’t seem to do anything about it, and they can trick people easily online. Some ask you to pay some kind of fee in order to receive a large amount of money. They ask you to buy a gift card, send them the codes so they can put more money on the gift card. Please do not believe this. If you’re being told that you’re going to get money, they should be giving you the gift card codes. Not the other way around!”
In the video below, Adam Coles, aka Colesy, a 25-year-old British gamer and YouTuber/Streamer, demonstrates how someone like TheSugarDad1 can fake a PayPal money transfer. As Coles explains, you just hit F12 to open the designer toolkit in Chrome and you’re halfway there. It’s so easy, in fact, even a Baby Boomer could do it. Once you’ve changed the look of PayPal’s website, you screenshot it, and voila, you have solid proof that shows you have a million dollars in your account.
“I have a tiny amount of experience in web design and coding, but I’m sure even someone with zero experience could manage it,” Coles writes over email. “However, many people who aren’t as internet or tech savvy would have no idea this was even possible and so they blindly believe these faked PayPal images.”
Coles does admit that he’d tried to win the free money giveaways. But over time, he grew bothered by the whole thing. “I did RT some of the giveaway tweets initially. I was very much of the mind most people are, ‘It’s just a RT, it doesn’t cost me anything and it does no harm.’ But you don’t realize by doing that, that you’re making the situation worse,” Coles explains.
Moreover, TheSugarDad1’s money transfers –– faked or not –– exceed PayPal’s limits for personal transfers of $10,000. (You can easily confirm this on their website.) If you have a verified account, PayPal may allow you to transfer more than $10,000 in a single transaction, but then the SEC and/or IRS would have to get involved since that’s beyond the federal limit for a single money transfer. Basically, according to federal law, any transfer of cash exceeding more than $10,000 is viewed as suspicious by the U.S. Treasury and possible evidence of money-laundering.
Meanwhile, everyone knows the IRS isn’t gonna miss a trick, even if it’s just a wire transfer on PayPal. That’s why the federal tax collectors warn taxpayers that for any transfer of an amount larger than five figures: “The general rule is that you must file Form 8300, Report of Cash Payments Over $10,000 Received in a Trade or Business, if your business receives more than $10,000 in cash from one buyer as a result of a single transaction or two or more related transactions.”
As TheSugarDad1 claims his PayPal transfers are conducted from his business account, let’s just hope he informs his winners they need to file the appropriate paperwork come April 15th.
The Prime Suspect: Meet Joe Vargas
There’s a popular theory about who is behind TheSugarDad1, as the account often claims to be friends with a guy named Joe Vargas. They often tweet to each other, RT each other and then delete the evidence of their interactions. (You can still find lots of replies to now-deleted tweets that mentioned both accounts.) And since December, TheSugarDad1 has been driving massive amounts of his online traffic to BuyLegalMeds.com, a url Vargas recently bought for $500,000. He also urges his followers to check the CBD dispensaries owned by Vargas, and asks them to follow Vargas on Instagram and Twitter.
Here’s what else we know about Vargas: He likes guns and going out into the desert and shooting them. He also enjoys posting videos on Instagram of him driving around in an expensive car. Sometimes, though, he simply chills at home, smoking a joint, while mentioning the fact he’s high. He’s a DJ Khaled-paraphrasing good-time guy from Vegas who rents private planes to fly to San Diego so he and his entourage can go live that good life. This is him. Yes, the one in the dark coat:
That screenshot is a two-fer. It’s a tweet from TheSugarDad1 hyping Joe Vargas. But it also features a screenshot from an Instagram account called hustler. And yes, of course it belongs to Vargas.
Here, too, is a story Vargas told in 2015, from an article with the title: “Meet the Man Who Takes Care of the World’s Elite in Las Vegas: “One of the craziest [stories] would have to be when a celebrity client had a bachelor party and requested a ‘show’ in their hotel room. Doesn’t sound too crazy, does it? I had to make a few phone calls to people with that sort of license that would provide this type of service, and well, let’s just say it involved three ‘little people’ (women): one white, one black and one Asian. And a live octopus. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.”
After cannabis became a legal business in Nevada, however, Vargas graduated from throwing octopus-filled bachelor parties. He realized he “needed to be someone people looked up to and wanted to be, a good businessman with values and someone that can be trusted.” That’s when he moved on to CBD. He hasn’t looked back since.
Curious about what he’d say about TheSugarDad1, I reached out to Vargas and asked him for an interview. While we DM’d back and forth, he was wary to answer any questions. Eventually, he agreed to an interview, and I emailed him my questions, the last of which was, “Are you TheSugarDad1?”
He has yet to reply. Instead, he spent the subsequent weekend on Twitter strenuously denying that he is TheSugarDad1, posting a string of bizarre tweets, starting with this one:
(“A magazine” refers to me and that’s a screenshot of one of the questions I sent him.)
All weekend long the two accounts stepped up their campaign of evidence to prove that they’re both real, separate and not a scam. They even teased their followers and haters with the idea that they might take a picture together. The problem is that no one has ever seen TheSugarDad1’s face. How then would a photo of someone claiming to be TheSugarDad1 standing next to Joe Vargas prove anything?
To be fair, Vargas does seem to hand-out real free money, too. Not huge pay days, but I did find one woman on Twitter (Laurenlove_x0) who claimed she received some actual coin from Vargas. “I can vouch that he did actually send me $20,” she DMs me. However, she adds, “TheSugarDad1 is definitely fake. He made a mistake when announcing one of the ‘winners’ of one of his fake giveaways. The way to win was to retweet the tweet. But the account that won hadn’t retweeted it. It only did so 20 minutes later, after people started calling out TheSugarDad1.”
Naturally, any evidence of this sort of slip-up by TheSugarDad1 has been deleted.
The Roman orator Cicero once asked, “Cui bono?” It means, “Who benefits?” Centuries later, Vladimir Lenin paraphrased him when he said that if you wish to make sense of a crime you must ask, “Who stands to gain?” In this alleged TheSugarDad1 scam, the person who seems to benefit the most lately is Joe Vargas.
Does that mean the Vegas hype man is secretly TheSugarDad1?
Nope. There’s no hard evidence of that. In fact, TheSugarDad1 could be more than one person. He could be a collective of people.
Ultimately, though, that mystery doesn’t really matter — it’s all just show. It’s his effect that matters. TheSugarDad1 is a publicity stunt. He’s a thin riddle obscuring a viral guerilla marketing campaign based on an elaborate social media scam with one goal: attention.
And how does he monetize this valuable attention?
His followers are very active accounts, most of them are young; he asks them to keep his notifications turned on and his constant requests for RTs keeps people tweeting about him daily. As a result, his account and its engagement could be worth a lot if he sold it. He also could earn money from promoting apps and then getting paid for app enrollment numbers. Plus, there’s just good ol’ fashion advertising. After all, whenever TheSugarDad1 tweets to his 364,000 followers instructing them to follow Joe Vargas on Instagram for a chance to win tens of thousands of dollars, that tweet is tremendous advertising for Joe Vargas’ online CBD business.
As Maria Konnikova explained, you come for the chance at free money, but all you get is ads for CBD. It’s not much different than television commercials. You may think of a broadcast or basic cable TV channel as a stream of shows, which it is. But to TV people and the advertisers who pay their bills, they see it as a stream of ads with TV shows stuck in between them to get you to watch. Same deal here.
Yet with TheSugarDad1’s chance to win free money, people still wonder: What if it is real? And you can’t win, if you don’t play.
To give TheSugarDad1 a chance to defend himself, I pressed him about the idea he’s just an elaborate social media scam. He dismissed the allegation out-of-hand:
I also asked him about his PayPal business account and the fact his best evidence could so easily be faked, as Coles showed in his video. His response on that count:
Lastly, I inquired whether he and Vargas have any business connections together. Unsurprisingly, TheSugarDad1 denied any connection:
Regardless of any proof that Joe Vargas is secretly TheSugarDad1, or that TheSugarDad1 even exists at all, there is one thing that remains evident: They both use the same approach. They like to generate positive attention by giving away free stuff. They like to get strangers online to like them, to trust them, to see them as generous. They then leverage this generosity (whether real or fake) to generate buzz, and to gather up young eyes and show them a stream of online advertisements. In that way, they each work with an understanding that if you can generate attention, you can generate money.
There’s no mystery to that.