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How the Dark Lord of the Internet Made His Fortunes

timothy posted about 7 months ago | from the deserves-a-brick-through-the-window dept.

Crime 60

theodp writes "Over at The Atlantic, Taylor Clark's epic Jesse Willms, the Dark Lord of the Internet tells the tale of how one of the most notorious alleged hustlers in the history of e-commerce made a fortune on the Web. 'Accusing Willms of being a scammer,' Clark writes, 'does him a disservice; what he accomplished elicits something close to awe, even among his critics.' The classic themes Willms' company employed in 'sponsored' links for products that included colon cleansers, teeth whiteners, and acai supplements, Clark reports, included dubious scientific claims and fake articles ('farticles'); implied endorsements from celebrities and TV networks; incredible 'testimonials"; manipulative plays on insecurities ('You wouldn't have to worry about being the 'fat bridesmaid' at your sister's wedding!'); and 'iron-clad' guarantees that 'free trials' of the products were absolutely 'risk free.' But beneath his promises of a 'free trial,' the FTC alleged, Willms buried an assortment of charges in the fine print of his terms and conditions. After the 14-day trial period for each product, customers automatically became enrolled in monthly subscription plans, for up to $80 a month. 'The product was never the point,' explained an FTC attorney. 'The point was to get as many hits on each credit card as you could.' Despite a publicized $359 million settlement with the FTC, Jesse Willms is doing just fine financially-and he has a new yellow Lamborghini to prove it. After settling his tax debts, Willms surrendered his assets of just $991,000 to get the financial judgment suspended. Willms has left diet products behind and pivoted into information services. 'As of November,' Clark notes, 'if you searched vehicle history on Google, Yahoo, or Bing, ads for Willms's sites were among the first things you would see.'"

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60 comments

The only thing more reprehensible (5, Funny)

smitty_one_each (243267) | about 7 months ago | (#45807197)

. . .would have been a political career.

Re:The only thing more reprehensible (2)

slashmojo (818930) | about 7 months ago | (#45807295)

Don't go giving him any ideas like that! Also don't suggest banking..

Re:The only thing more reprehensible (1)

davester666 (731373) | about 7 months ago | (#45807629)

or investment services of any kind.

Re:The only thing more reprehensible (1)

mazak (3478197) | about 7 months ago | (#45807945)

maybe lawyer?

Re: The only thing more reprehensible (1)

Tablizer (95088) | about 7 months ago | (#45809367)

Politicians have to cater to low-info voters to survive. Likewise, sleazy marketers cater to low-info consumers.

Restated: (1)

smitty_one_each (243267) | about 7 months ago | (#45810711)

If you're going to live the life of a sheep,
Never pondering the wide or the deep,
We don't want to hear you, sad little creep,
When they come with the shears in your sleep.

Bitcoin (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#45807311)

I'm sure he's heavily involved with Bitcoin. No doubt about it. Like a bee to a flower.

Let me guess (3, Insightful)

ArchieBunker (132337) | about 7 months ago | (#45807321)

His fines are still less than what his income was? Oh and some probation will really punish him too!

Re:Let me guess (5, Insightful)

StikyPad (445176) | about 7 months ago | (#45807459)

The government doesn't so much want to eliminate corruption as much as they want a cut of it.

Re:Let me guess (1)

rmdingler (1955220) | about 7 months ago | (#45808843)

Ivan Boesky gave the SEC Drexel Burnham Lambert's prodigal son. Then, Michael Milkin paid a $600 million dollar fine in 1989 for 'irregularities' in the junk bond market, serving two years at Club Fed after a ten year sentence was reduced for his cooperative efforts. He was listed in the Forbes 2010 list at #488 with a net worth of about $two $billion.

So yeah, It's fair to say one receives a fair amount of justice relative to one's resources.

Do you really think an ability to pay egregious fines is not a sentencing factor?

Re:Let me guess (3, Insightful)

Connie_Lingus (317691) | about 7 months ago | (#45808913)

peanuts my dear man...and so unfashionably retro btw. the 80's??? please...

haven't you heard?..like a month ago JC Morgan Chase admitted to the wholesale rape of its customers during the mortgage rip-off of the 00's.

total confession...felonious activities by perhaps thousands of its employees, ripping-off people of untold billions. knowingly and ADMITTEDLY!

the result of this coordinated criminal actively that makes what organized crime does look like a church bingo game?

a $13 billion settlement where all the felons involved get to stay in their jobs and continue their lifestyles [businessweek.com] , without nary a blemish on any of their "permanent" records.

it's disgusting to me that these people are allowed to simply pay-off the government, USING OTHER PEOPLE'S (the shareholders of JP Morgan Chase) MONEY, and get to continue their high-flying lifestyles while other "criminals", who perhaps get caught with user-quantity level of recreational drugs, get charged as felons and watch their lives become utterly ruined.

this guy is another example of our "justice" system that allows wealthy people to purchase there way out of legal problems...it's all corrupt as hell.

Re:Let me guess (1)

cas2000 (148703) | about 7 months ago | (#45823665)

Libertarian propagandists and their useful idiots manage to twist any fact and every event so that everything is always the government's fault. Government can do no good, ever, and has no purpose other than to steal your property.

a conman rips off hundreds of millions? re-frame it as the "government wants their cut", so they're the ones to blame. then you can get on with that vile american habit of *admiring* successful con-men rather than hating and despising them.

do you american morons even realise that the rich, the 1%, the billionares and corporate CEOs are the modern day equivalents (and in many cases the descendants and heirs) of the aristocrats and kings that your revolutionary war was fought against? It wasn't "government" that they fought - your government is the thing your revolutionaries set up to protect themselves from a return of the kings and aristocrats, to limit and regulate their power.

(which is, of course, why you've had decades of well-funded anti-government and anti-regulation propaganda. the wealthy don't want to be limited or regulated)

and who is it that's calling for a return to monarchy, to aristocracy? why, it's the latest fad in libertarian thought.
American Libertarianism has always been about promoting the interests of the extremely wealthy over those of everyone else, and now they're pushing to have themselves raised to a new version of "nobility", but (in perfect accord with the libertarian principle - the libertarian prime directive, really - of "fuck everyone else") without even a hint of any "nobless oblige" baggage.

Re:Let me guess (1)

nobuddy (952985) | about 7 months ago | (#45859911)

There is a difference between prosecuting crime properly and taking a cut.

make $2B in fraud, fined $300M for it... that's taking a cut.

Fined $2.3B for it, as well as prosecuting every case? THAT'S justice as well as deterrence. So long as the profit exceeds the fines, the law will be merely calculated as a business cost and ignored.

Re:Let me guess (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#45814721)

His fines are still less than what his income was? Oh and some probation will really punish him too!

Yeah, it's become apparent the FTC doesn't care how much fraud happens. Sure they aren't allowed to press criminal charges, but refer this stuff to the FBI so they can. This is fraud. My dad got defrauded and the FTC sent him a check. Two years after he died. Fuck the check, which I can no longer cash, send the asshole who did it to jail, so he's stop defrauding other elderly.

virtual card numbers (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#45807323)

For any internet CC transaction.

Never Understood (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#45807891)

I've never understood how this could be a long term solution without turning credit card numbers into insane "hashes" like Bitcoin.

Re:Never Understood (4, Interesting)

TheRaven64 (641858) | about 7 months ago | (#45807971)

That's basically how cardholder-present transactions work. You enter your pin, the card produces a hash of the recipient, time, and amount, and a shared secret. The merchant then presents the hash, the time and the amount to your card issuer (via some layers of indirection) and they confirm that the transaction is valid. For Internet transactions, unlike in-person transactions, you can guarantee that the recipient has network connectivity, so it's even easier for them to communicate with the bank and verify the hash.

Some of the schemes for one-time CC numbers actually allow the CC number to be re-used, but it's only valid for one transaction of a specific amount per day. If you want to use it again, you have to correctly guess the amount that it's valid for that day, and put in your fake transaction after the next person to be issued with it requests it, but before they use it.

how to beat the gubment (2)

alen (225700) | about 7 months ago | (#45807333)

scam the public
make money
hire lawyers
throw some cash at the gubment
profit

Re:how to beat the gubment (1)

Frosty Piss (770223) | about 7 months ago | (#45807409)

scam the public
make money
hire lawyers
throw some cash at the gubment
profit

And don't forget a gushy story on Slashdot...

Re:how to beat the gubment (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#45809029)

scam the public
make money
hire lawyers
throw some cash at the gubment
profit

What would you do if you can't beat 'me ? JOIN 'EM !!

This guy definitely belongs in the White House !!

I'd wager he may even perform better than Obama.

Password: evasion

Re:how to beat the gubment (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#45812885)

Sounds like the oil and mining industries here in Canada.

Reputation Management (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#45807413)

Willms handled this as, by now, you might expect he would: by hiring a search-engine-optimization company to create a bewildering array of interlinked Web sites with domain names like jessewillmsethics.com and jessewillmscharity.com in order to stack his search results with favorable material.

They call themselves "reputation management" companies now.

I call them paid liars.

Re:Reputation Management (1)

Rick Zeman (15628) | about 7 months ago | (#45807759)

Willms handled this as, by now, you might expect he would: by hiring a search-engine-optimization company to create a bewildering array of interlinked Web sites with domain names like jessewillmsethics.com and jessewillmscharity.com in order to stack his search results with favorable material.

They call themselves "reputation management" companies now.

I call them paid liars.

You're talking about his lawyers, too, right?

NOT a dark lord! (4, Insightful)

Spy Handler (822350) | about 7 months ago | (#45807423)

Dark Lord of the internet would mean he has immense powers, like being able to silence anyone by remotely rooting their computer and choking their network interface... while saying things like, "I find your lack of faith disturbing. And commanding a fleet of zombie botnets that can DDOS large corporate networks.

This guy is just a bait-and-switch con man like any other before him that have existed throughout history. He just scaled it up a notch by using internet spam techniques and getting people's credit cards.

Re:NOT a dark lord! (1)

Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) | about 7 months ago | (#45807817)

This guy is just a bait-and-switch con man like any other before him that have existed throughout history. He just scaled it up a notch by using internet spam techniques and getting people's credit cards.

So, more of a wet fart who used the internet to scale up to the level of a hershey squirt.

Internet Dark Lord (4, Funny)

Roger W Moore (538166) | about 7 months ago | (#45807927)

...while saying things like, "I find your lack of faith disturbing."

That's your generic Dark Lord, your internet Dark Lord would say "I find your lack of windows disturbing." or "I am altering the website's terms of service. Pray I don't alter them any further.".

Re:Internet Dark Lord (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#45808231)

lol that last one lmao

Not so bad. (3, Funny)

mindwanderer (1169521) | about 7 months ago | (#45807439)

Dark Lord of the internet? Please, it's not like he pirated music or anything.

Re:Not so bad. (1)

Rick Zeman (15628) | about 7 months ago | (#45807765)

Dark Lord of the internet? Please, it's not like he pirated music or anything.

Next time he's in the US they can bust him for downloading a song. That's clean out his fortune!

What I tell old people (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#45807469)

Or, put another way: You, as an online consumer, are on your own. You cannot trust the Web’s gatekeepers to protect you from suspicious operators,

All telemarketers, email offers and Internet Ads are scams.

No exceptions.

This is what a libertarian believes (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#45807475)

Blah blah blah. Just more big government regulation of the free market.

Re: This is what a libertarian believes (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#45807571)

this guy is a libertarian hero, really

Re: This is what a libertarian believes (0)

haruchai (17472) | about 7 months ago | (#45807637)

If that's really true, Libertarianism needs a re-think.

Re: This is what a libertarian believes (1)

RandomFactor (22447) | about 7 months ago | (#45809305)

Yeah. Not so much.

Libertarian view : If someone is committing murder, rape, robbery, theft, fraud, arson, trespass, etc. — then it is proper to call on the government.

There really should be a term for the common practice of creating a flawed statement, ascribing it to someone, and then using it to make them look bad.

Libertarian baiting too easy - wide range (1)

dbIII (701233) | about 7 months ago | (#45811525)

It applies to some Libertarians even if you are not of that kind. The word is meaningless now since so many people stick that label on themselves just because they like the sound of it. The outright Royalists (with the current wealthy as the seeds of a hereditary nobility) are some of the weirdest ones I've had the misfortune to meet. Others at the other extreme resemble the Russian anarchists before they were purged, when they were still "useful idiots". In the middle there's pretty well the majority of the political spectrum.
So IMHO if you throw just about anything at so wide a group it's going to hit somewhere, so people should just ignore such cheap shots.

Re:Libertarian baiting too easy - wide range (1)

RandomFactor (22447) | about 7 months ago | (#45812751)

I'm still irked about "hacker", now you're telling me "Libertarian" too?

Although i was addressing the response to the shot, which presented what might have been an actual lack of knowledge ("If that's really true....")

I don't define L (or R or D) by the loonies on the fringes.

Re:Libertarian baiting too easy - wide range (1)

dbIII (701233) | about 7 months ago | (#45814925)

When the loonies are loud a lot of people don't think they on the fringe :(

Re: This is what a libertarian believes (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#45817737)

Libertarians make themselves look bad. They are all for the second amendment, but freedom of religion? No freedom to marry who you want? No freedom to assemble? No freedom to unionize? No. Libertarians are assholes. They just bitch about guns and taxes and offer nothing useful, but are more than happy to suckle on the teat of the government when it's convenient, just like their messiah, Ayn Rand. I read her books. They are garbage. A slog of false ideas anyone with any sense of intelligence left behind in junior high. It's eminent domain in a different name.

Re: This is what a libertarian believes (1)

RandomFactor (22447) | about 7 months ago | (#45828081)

Kvetch about guns - check Kvetch about taxes - check Assholes - sure, I'll grant that (but I'd grant that about the majority of people in politics of any stripe) But the Troll bits are so ludicrously invalid as to make it too implausible as anything except a troll.

Re: This is what a libertarian believes (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#45864867)

Sounds like you are confused... You are describing the Tea Partiers. And you are right to describe them as "assholes". You missed a couple of adjectives, though:

Intolerant
Bigoted
Self-Serving
Hypocritical
Self-Righteous

Just to name a few... If I had more time I'd add to the list.

Posting AC to an AC.

Re: This is what a libertarian believes (1)

Peter James Foote (3013239) | about 6 months ago | (#45919639)

There really should be a term for the common practice of creating a flawed statement, ascribing it to someone, and then using it to make them look bad. Foxnewsy?

Re: This is what a libertarian believes (1)

Peter James Foote (3013239) | about 6 months ago | (#45919663)

Foxnausea? Foxnaughtia?

Google Exec Governs Mayo Clinic Despite $500M Fine (3, Interesting)

theodp (442580) | about 7 months ago | (#45807497)

Willms isn't the only one to survive and thrive after the government imposed a huge Internet ad-related fine. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt even managed to get named to the Mayo Clinic Board of Trustees [mayoclinic.org] in November, after his company agreed to forfeit $500 million for allowing online Canadian pharmacies to place advertisements [justice.gov] through its AdWords program targeting consumers in the U.S., resulting in the unlawful importation of controlled and non-controlled prescription drugs. In December, the Mercury News reported on Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood's ongoing efforts to stop Google from making it too easy to buy drugs online [mercurynews.com] without a prescription (screenshot [searchengineland.com] ). In his 2011 Senate testimony [gpo.gov] (PDF), Schmidt said "we absolutely regret what happened. It [drug advertising] was a mistake," and replied "Absolutely" when asked if Google had "taken steps to make sure that that sort of thing never happens again."

Re:Google Exec Governs Mayo Clinic Despite $500M F (5, Interesting)

the eric conspiracy (20178) | about 7 months ago | (#45807657)

This is a very murky area of the law. In the US pharmaceutical prices are the highest in the world due to laws favoring favoring drug companies. For example one drug that I take (I have a prescription) costs nearly $700 a month, even with an insurance plan, while in Canada the cost is $160.

Prices are also rising significantly faster than inflation.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prescription_drug_prices_in_the_United_States [wikipedia.org]

There are other issues with prescription drugs in the US, including collusion between insurers (including kickbacks) to keep generics of the market after patents expire, and egregious manipulation of patent laws that keep some drugs on patent on the US when everywhere else in the world they are off-patent.

As any economist would predict this creates a black market, and other channels to satisfy demand for lower priced drugs. Legitimate Canadian pharmacies offer their services in filling US prescriptions at Canadian prices. As you might imagine this pisses of the US pharmaceutical companies to no end.

While I agree that some disreputable pharmacies were using Google Adwords to sell dangerous drugs without a prescription, I think that the more powerful motivation here was to choke off Canadian pharmacies from selling needed drugs to US patients with prescriptions at lower than US prices.

Re:Google Exec Governs Mayo Clinic Despite $500M F (1)

sribe (304414) | about 7 months ago | (#45808079)

While I agree that some disreputable pharmacies were using Google Adwords to sell dangerous drugs without a prescription...

Even worse than dangerous drugs, some were selling counterfeit drugs. Now, those were Indian outfits, not Canadian ones. But the FDA kind of views them the same, outside the U.S. dodging regulations so therefore no quality control.

Re:Google Exec Governs Mayo Clinic Despite $500M F (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#45812169)

This is why we need prescription drug patent reform with healthcare reform. We should also mandate that drug companies must provide for a generic version (for X years at reasonable rates) after the patent expires or face fines. Either the company could produce the generic themselves at not much above the cost to manufacture it, with no hidden costs to boost the cost, or have another company do it under the same regulations.

Nobody shot the pr*ck ? (1)

noshellswill (598066) | about 7 months ago | (#45807537)

Bad as Bernie Madoff ... and noone shot him either. What is wrong with ol' fashion vigilante justice = rope + tree?  America slumbers  under cosmopolitan legalism .... way too feminized &  pussified a culture .

Re:Nobody shot the pr*ck ? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#45807757)

yep people need to harden the fuck up everyone expects everything handled for them

world is filled with pussies these days

I Tip My Glass... (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#45807929)

I tip my glass full of cement to you, ya cunt. 'Cause yer right, everybody needs to harden the fuck up.

Re:Nobody shot the pr*ck ? (1)

phrackthat (2602661) | about 7 months ago | (#45816065)

I don't know, pussies can be pretty tough. . .

“Why do people say "grow some balls"? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.”

Sheng Wang

Re:Nobody shot the pr*ck ? (1)

Dogtanian (588974) | about 7 months ago | (#45808323)

Bad as Bernie Madoff ... and noone shot him either. What is wrong with ol' fashion vigilante justice = rope + tree? America slumbers under cosmopolitan legalism .... way too feminized & pussified a culture .

I am intrigued by your ideas and would like to subscribe to your newsletter [flickr.com] .

Re:Nobody shot the pr*ck ? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#45809041)

My resolve is harder than all the ni99er d1cks in your ancestral tree. Also, muh dikkk iz big

No. (3, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#45807555)

'Accusing Willms of being a scammer,' Clark writes, 'does him a disservice; what he accomplished elicits something close to awe, even among his critics.'

No, scammer is quite apt, and the summary fails to mention anything that makes him deserving of any awe. Nothing but common scum, it seems; successful scum, but scum nonetheless.

People like this should be executed (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#45807731)

not celebrated for for how clever there evil is

Business as normal in the advertising world... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#45808065)

Um, doesn't this:

dubious scientific claims and fake articles ('farticles'); implied endorsements from celebrities and TV networks; incredible 'testimonials"; manipulative plays on insecurities ('You wouldn't have to worry about being the 'fat bridesmaid' at your sister's wedding!'); and 'iron-clad' guarantees that 'free trials' of the products were absolutely 'risk free.' But beneath his promises of a 'free trial,' the FTC alleged, Willms buried an assortment of charges in the fine print of his terms and conditions. After the 14-day trial period for each product, customers automatically became enrolled in monthly subscription plans

just describe advertising in general??

Reading the fine article... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#45808211)

...it's interesting to note that he had the backing and support of Bill.
So I'm less impressed at his "success" (paragraph 8).

fine print (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#45808219)

But beneath his promises of a 'free trial,' the FTC alleged, Willms buried an assortment of charges in the fine print of his terms and conditions.

Oh you mean like the NSA? Or Congress? Or Obama? or the FISA courts? Like that?

Re:fine print (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#45809091)

Usually fine print doesn't matter. In reality, a place can charge on a card if it wants to until the credit card processing agency yanks their merchant ID.

The fun part is when you report your card as compromised, and a month later the shitheads start siccing the debt collectors after you. Yes, legally the debt isn't viable, but hiring knee-crackers is a tactic that does work and generates income by the more criminally inclined sites. As soon as you give one of these firms your name and address, it gives them the ability to make up debts and "sell" them to bill collectors who will call up relatives, neighbors, and co-workers in order to tell them you owe money and are a deadbeat. Since the collectors are not in the US (using haxx0red voIP connections), the normal laws about fair debt collections are not enforced, and can't be.

farticles? (1)

davidwr (791652) | about 7 months ago | (#45809783)

That's spelled s-l-a-s-h-v-e-r-t-i-s-e-m-e-n-t you insensitive clod!

WTF? (1)

rmstar (114746) | about 7 months ago | (#45810361)

There are a couple of things I found quite disturbing about this story.

One was how easily he got off from prosecution. To mention just one episode,

"It was an out-and-out hijacking," LeFevre told me. "They counterfeited our product, they pirated our Web site, and they basically directed all of their customer service to us."

So how come this Jesse guy not in jail? Isn't that fraud, piracy, etc?

Another disturbing thing in this article is that it turns out people actually click on shady adds for colon cleansers, buy these things, and then use them!!!. What?!?

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