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Did you hear that Donald Trump recently left some Santa Monica waiter a $10,000 tip?!

Oh, yeah? Where did you hear it from?

Because if it was anywhere in the giant asteroid belt that is the celebrity blogosphere, or even at FoxNews.com, Defamer, E! Online or the Huffington Post, you might want to check your sources.

Everything about the story was false, such as the plausible-looking receipt showing the monster tip and Trump's signature, the existence of Billy D, a putative waiter at Santa Monica's Buffalo Club, as well as the fact that Trump had been in Los Angeles this week at all. (Trump told the New York Post's Page Six that he wasn't in California that day and that "this was done by the stupid restaurant to get publicity.")

Not quite. The story, it turns out, was fabricated, soup to nuts, by a 4-month-old snap-and-gab site called Derober.com. Derober is run by two brothers from Venice Beach -- both professional photographers -- and specializes in doing funny things with celebrity-related images.

Reached by phone, Derober's John Resig, 29, spilled the beans and laughingly marveled at the hoax's success. "How many people get on the front page of Fox News with a story that doesn't contain one single ounce of truth?" he wondered in amazement.

Resig supplied screen shots of the Fox News home page, where the story had been displayed for hours with a photo and the headline "Trump Change." A FoxNews.com representative did not deny that the story had been posted on the site for some time but noted that an update had also been added noting that the original story was false.

The Huffington Post was another high-profile patsy. Arianna Huffington explained her site's re-posting of the story as an unavoidable anti-perk of the Internet news flow. The Huffington Post fully vets its own original reporting, she explained in an e-mail, but this was the kind of third-party content that's not as easy to verify.

"Yes, things move very fast on the Internet," she wrote. "The downside of this: occasionally an inaccurate story can get a lot of quick pick up. Upside: the Internet corrects itself VERY quickly.

"And let's remember, this wasn't a phony story about aluminum tubes put on the front page of the New York Times, this was a fun, positive story" that passed the sniff test because it "fit the Trump MO of tireless self-promotion." And indeed, Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice," the glitzy new season of his reality TV franchise, is slated to premiere in early January.

How the hoax survived

Mark Lisanti of the Hollywood news site Defamer agreed that the generally upbeat nature of the story may have helped it slip under the disherati's hoax radar.

"It wasn't like they were accusing Donald Trump of shooting somebody and putting up pictures of a murder scene. It was something that was in the realm of possibility," Lisanti said, adding that "they mocked up some pretty decent evidence there."

On the other hand, said Derober's Resig, not a soul had contacted him or his site to verify any of the evidence -- let alone question it. "You could drive a Mack truck through the holes in this story," Resig said.

"There was no effort made at due diligence. Which would've taken, by the way, like two minutes and a cellphone. Like, really."

Most of the media contact he received, he said, was from organizations asking for permission to use the doctored receipt image.

The master plan

It was that very image that functioned as the story's visual keystone. Resig' brother Leo, 27, whipped it up using Photoshop in about 15 minutes, he said. After that, the Resig brothers' strategy was two-pronged: First, post the story on Derober and, second, create a phony sorority girl named "Leslie Matthews," a friend of the equally nonexistent waiter Billy D, who would use her ditsy wiles to spread the story through the blogosphere.

In an e-mail to What Would Tyler Durden Do, one of the first blogs to run with the canard, Leslie prefaced her e-mail tip with a gushing, "Love WWTDD . . . my sorority hearts u."

What went down at the Buffalo Club, Leslie continued, was that after Trump and a friend had lunch, the Donald asked Billy, "What's the biggest tip you ever got?"

"I guess Jerry Bruckheimer (sp?) comes in a lot," relayed Leslie, "and once tipped him $500 on a $1000 tab."

Not to be outdone, the fake Donald then tipped the fake Billy $10,000 on an $82 check -- a 12,000% gratuity for you math lovers.

Adding to the plausibility of Derober's account was a hyperlink to a blog post by Trump himself called "The Waiter Rule," in which he reminds readers that the way a person treats a waiter says a great deal about his character. "So think twice the next time you sit down at a table and get ready to order," Trump writes on his Trump Blog. "And don't forget to leave a big tip."

Resig was sure to note that, though this is the first time Derober has knowingly posted false information, there is a disclaimer at the bottom of its front page that reads, "The content that is published contains rumors, speculation, assumptions, opinions, and factual information. Postings may contain erroneous or inaccurate information."

For a fairly representative idea of Derober's style of photo alteration, see a recent post featuring an image of "The View's" cast members. Looks normal enough, but pass your mouse over the pic and, like magic, Barbara Walters turns into the Swedish Chef, Elisabeth Hasselbeck into Beaker and Joy Behar into Fozzie Bear (www.derober.com/category/muppets/).

"We're entertainers -- that's what we do," Resig said.

One can make one's own decision about whether fabricating stories, good news or bad, is a fair and legitimate way to generate publicity. But no one's going to tell you it doesn't work.

david.sarno@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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