Company CEO Pleads Guilty After Forging Judge's Signatures On Bogus Court Orders Sent To Google

from the SEO-suicide dept

Earlier this spring, a jewelry company CEO earned himself a federal indictment for his bespoke reputation management efforts. Realizing it was extremely difficult to erase negative reviews from the net, National Sapphire Company boss Michael Arnstein took one such reviewer to court. He was awarded an injunction after the defendant no-showed, resulting in the delisting of 54 URLs.

But the negative reviews kept coming. Rather than hire a lawyer and bring more defamation suits, Arnstein opted for the initially less-costly option: mocking up delisting orders and forging a judge's signature. This apparently worked well enough Arnstein felt comfortable sharing his fraudulent tactics with others. This swaggering, inculpatory statement was included in the federal complaint.

"No bullshit: if I could do it all over again I would have found another court order injunction for removal of links (probably something that can be found online pretty easily) made changes in photoshop to show the links that I wanted removed and then sent to 'removals@google.com' as a pdf — showing the court order docket number, the judges [sic] signature — but with the new links put in," Arnstein wrote in a July 2014 email, according to his criminal complaint. "Google isn't checking this stuff; that's the bottom line b/c I spent $30,000 fuckin thousand dollars and nearly 2 fuckin years to do what legit could have been done for about 6 hours of searching and photoshop by a guy for $200., all in ONE DAY".

The DOJ -- aided greatly by Arnstein generating plenty of evidence against himself -- pulled the trigger on a federal indictment. And, thanks to several other cases of rep management firms defrauding courts, Google is indeed "checking this stuff," limiting the effectiveness of impersonating judges and/or sliding bogus paperwork past them.

Arnstein has now pled guilty to a conspiracy charge, the DOJ reports.

ARNSTEIN, 40, of Kailua, Hawaii, pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to forge a judicial signature, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. The maximum potential sentence is prescribed by Congress and is provided here for informational purposes only, as any sentencing of the defendant will be determined by the judge.

And one more bit of schadenfreude:

Acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim said: "As he admitted today, Michael Arnstein exploited the authority of the federal judiciary in a blatantly criminal scheme. By forging court orders and the signature of a U.S. District Judge, Arnstein was able to effectively erase websites critical of Arnstein's business from its search results. Now Arnstein awaits sentencing in the same court he impersonated."

Some sympathy is warranted for those hoping to battle negative reviews. Even illegitimate negative reviews can be close to impossible to remove from the web. But if the system seems unfair, it has to be. Making it easier to remove bogus reviews would just make it easier for companies/individuals who've earned every acidic word in their negative reviews to scrub the web of bad things.

The internet may be a well-oiled hate machine, but it's also a handy source of reference for customers who want to emerge unscathed from interactions with providers of goods and services. Easy delistings would turn the web into a cheery place where every company appears to exceed expectations, even as they screw their customers over.


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  • icon
    afn29129 (profile), 22 Sep 2017 @ 4:26pm

    Name error

    That should be Natural Sapphire Company.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    orbitalinsertion (profile), 22 Sep 2017 @ 4:28pm

    I don't believe i have ever seen the merits of the defamation claims. The only case that was pursued ended in default.

    More generally, I would also be curious to know how much effect bullshit negative reviews actually have. And what is the efficacy of having them delisted? It always seems to me that is is just a way for control freaks and people who are easily (even if rightfully) upset to waste money.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Wendy Cockcroft, 26 Sep 2017 @ 4:53am

      Re: BS Negative Reviews

      @ orbitalinsertion I've been the target of a reputation-wrecker troll who not only wrote bogus reviews about a business I folded back in 2013, he tried to get me fired from my job by tweeting at and emailing them. He failed.

      Okay, so bearing in mind that this fool not only wrote bogus "reviews" about me, he accused me of committing a criminal offence and contacted my employers and demanded that they fire me, what do you think happened next?

      Well I went to my employers and discussed the matter with them. I had to get an official email from the police to affirm that I was not under investigation for committing extortion. I then contacted the review sites and advised them that the reviews about me committing the criminal offence of extortion were bogus and proved it by providing screenshots of this twerp claiming I had paid him to write the reviews (he was citing my joking about it with a friend on Twitter). The reputable ones removed the posts at source. The con-job site left the troll review up but at least allowed me to post a rebuttal, which I did.

      Result: my own online conduct doesn't indicate a tendency to make either threats or demands. I'm a bit snarky and very opinionated, and that's it. Therefore my bosses concluded that it was indeed a troll and dropped the matter. I was later promoted due to getting my head down and working my socks off. As I've often said here on TD all that any comments about you do is make people check you out. I see this over and over again as the results about me shuffle, moving the ROR post up and down the search results. This will often tie in with my blog posts; if I've been writing about CETA it'll bring up my 38 Degrees posts. If I write about copyright my Pirate Party and Falkvinge posts will move forward.

      There have been so many well-documented incidents of people mobbing other people over comments on social media platforms, etc., that we tend to be a bit wary of outrage manufacturing, IMHO. Rule of thumb: the more outrageous and histrionic the claims, the less credible they are.

      I've lost zero credibility here on TD and online and have gained credibility at work for the level-headed, pragmatic way I dealt with the situation.

      As for getting the links de-listed, the content would remain in situ. Anyone with the link could easily get it re-listed just by sharing it around. It's a game of whack-a-mole exacerbated by the Streisand Effect if someone draws attention to attempts to get the link de-listed.

      Honestly, I think it does me more good to have a bogus review plus my rebuttal plus the story of how I dealt with it than to have all positive results. I believe people are more likely to respect a person who copes well with adversity than one who seems to never have to deal with problems, but that's just my opinion. What do others think?

      Serious question: does anyone believe the negative comments about me that have been repeated here on TD? If so, why? Or do you agree that it's one's own conduct that affects one's reputation the most?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 22 Sep 2017 @ 4:35pm

    Making it easier to remove bogus reviews would just make it easier for companies/individuals who've earned every acidic word in their negative reviews to scrub the web of bad things.

    Imagine what police unions could do with that power.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Sep 2017 @ 4:39pm

    C-suite employees are typically paid handsomely and receive generous benefit packages, supposedly because there is a need to keep highly qualified people. This dude is not qualified to be their janitor.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      JoeCool (profile), 23 Sep 2017 @ 9:12am

      Re:

      Unfortunately, this is how MOST upper management in all companies are. It's just that larger companies know to have their team of lawyers go over everything they do BEFORE it goes public and to burn all evidence before it leaks.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Christenson, 22 Sep 2017 @ 4:48pm

    Dear Judges
    THIS would have been impossible If all court docs were freely available online! Too bad PACER can't be charged as an accessory

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TechDescartes (profile), 22 Sep 2017 @ 5:21pm

    Certificate of Authenticity

    Now Arnstein awaits sentencing in the same court he impersonated.

    Where he will receive a 100% genuine order.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 23 Sep 2017 @ 2:10am

      Re: Certificate of Authenticity

      It would be rather unprofessional, but I can't help but think it would be funny if the judge snuck in a footnote along the lines of 'For the record, this is what a valid court order from this court looks like'.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Sep 2017 @ 6:12pm

    Excuse me techdirt faithfuls.. we need to go annihilate fatman in north 4korea and deal with this problem later. ARE YOU WITH ME?!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 22 Sep 2017 @ 8:31pm

    "exploited the authority of the federal judiciary in a blatantly criminal scheme"

    Boggle... I guess we're just not paying close enough attention. Lawyers on both sides are exploiting the judiciary, but if you have a DoJ hat on its not criminal to steal websites & screw with peoples lives based on no actual evidence for months, then quietly hand them back.

    There is TONS of extortion scheme pretending to be legal cases in courts across this country, this dumb ass just pissed off someone with enough pull to make something happen.

    ADA lawsuits.
    Copyright lawsuits.
    Patent shakedowns.

    The legal system is a joke, criminals get a pass because the DoJ lawyer doesn't feel its a slam dunk so they won't bring the case. Fake documents have been submitted in thousands of cases... they are still doing it and making bank. Glad schemes "that exploited the authority of the federal judiciary in a blatantly criminal scheme" are such a bad thing... pity your at least 8 years behind the times.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Roger Strong (profile), 22 Sep 2017 @ 10:25pm

    This is why you hire a professional reputation management consultant. You can watch each other's backs in prison.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Sep 2017 @ 3:22am

    Nice try. Google may be doing minimal cursory checks now that the lack of doing so made them look exceedingly bad, but they weren't doing it prior.. anymore more than they're checking certain types of pull-down requests, etc., You're not fooling anyone... at all.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 23 Sep 2017 @ 6:03am

    He'll be fine.
    He already has the judge's signature on file, all he needs is to paste it into a "case dismissed" picture and he's free to go.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    madasahatter (profile), 23 Sep 2017 @ 8:55am

    First, there are defamation, slander, and libel laws on the books. If one is stupid enough to post a bogus review that runs afoul of these laws they should be sued and their specific post removed.

    Second, the vast majority of these cases are real customers who have a horrible experience with company. So the review is an honest opinion with facts to back it. Thus not slander, libel, or defamation.

    Third, I think most people reading reviews try to look at couple of things. Which reviews seem to be outliers, good or bad. Is there a consist thread to the reviews which is probably more important than specific details in each review.

    Fourth, most people have the good sense to filter reviews based on business itself. What is the business's products/services and what should one reasonably expect from such a business.

    So if your business is consistently getting poor reviews you need to look internally for the problems. People are telling you what to fix in their reviews. If you are consistently getting good reviews, keep up the good work.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Sep 2017 @ 10:02am

      Re:

      >So if your business is consistently getting poor reviews you need to look internally for the problems.

      Unless you are a monopoly like the ISP's, when you just shrug...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Wendy Cockcroft, 26 Sep 2017 @ 4:58am

      Re: Reputation

      So if your business is consistently getting poor reviews you need to look internally for the problems. People are telling you what to fix in their reviews. If you are consistently getting good reviews, keep up the good work.

      This. Every business has a bad hair day. It happens: one delivery company earned my ire for forgetting to deliver a parcel until after Christmas when I chased it up. Unless they have a habit of doing that the one snarky post I wrote about them on my blog won't do them any harm.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    GEMont, 23 Sep 2017 @ 9:29am

    thump thump oooooooo

    "Easy delistings would turn the web into a cheery place where every company appears to exceed expectations, even as they screw their customers over."

    Wow. Did you hear that?

    20 million businessmen just had an orgasm reading those words. A commercial capitalist's wet dream indeed.

    ---

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Sep 2017 @ 10:47am

    If companies are really worried about this, they should verify that these reviewers actually bought their product/service in some way. Deny all others the ability to comment on the website. Works pretty well for Steam, because their review bombs only count for the review score if the games were bought on the site/client, not from any third-party (really super cheap) resellers.

    There are things one can do to limit collateral damage in these cases. But if you're really an ass company/service, you are *legitimately* screwed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 23 Sep 2017 @ 11:35am

      Re:

      Which works fine for a site run by the same company that sold the product/service, but how exactly is a third party supposed to check that sort of thing? Require each poster to use their real name and call/email every company to double-check?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        orbitalinsertion (profile), 23 Sep 2017 @ 6:46pm

        Re: Re:

        Send the UPC where applicable and a copy of the receipt along with a SASE if you would like them returned.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Wendy Cockcroft, 26 Sep 2017 @ 5:05am

        Re: Re:

        You're assuming a review site that cares about the accuracy of the results. I got the negative "reviews" about me down by proving they were troll posts.

        All review sites (correct me if I'm wrong) permit the vendor to argue back. In case of a bogus review a vendor could demand that the poster provide details proving they had availed themselves of the disputed service. Failure to do so means the post is bogus and can therefore be dismissed as a fake review. Vendors who believe they're being unfairly targeted can use this to set the record straight.

        As I've learned on TD, it's the way you handle things like this that make your reputation. If you've fouled up you can apologise and if you're being trolled you can point this out.

        Third party sites that want to be taken seriously ought to take down false posts on production of evidence. If they don't, we shouldn't take them seriously and certainly shouldn't worry about them. I don't.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Sep 2017 @ 12:07pm

    Jimp! Off to the cubes with this perp?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jim, 23 Sep 2017 @ 7:43pm

    unearned negative review generally solve themselve

    Reviews that are unfair, unreasonable, sometimes outright lies, they do suck, they are very draining emotionally. But. But! I've learned along the way, and in a fairly short period of time, not to worry so much: Offering quality products, and solid customer service, it would take an extraordinary amount of such reviews to dent a solid average, and most people that bother reading reviews to begin with seem savvy enough to browse through a few more if the most recent is negative but average is high.

    It still sucks when it happens, it's still a bit demoralizing, but solid quality & service makes it all pretty trivial after a while.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 24 Sep 2017 @ 1:46am

      Re: unearned negative review generally solve themselve

      Makes sense. If you generally offer solid, quality service/products then the reviews will for the most part reflect this, such that a bogus 'review' is likely to be seen as a one-off, an exception or so outside the others that it's suspicious and not very trustworthy.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Sep 2017 @ 3:11pm

    Googleshill.com

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Wendy Cockcroft, 26 Sep 2017 @ 2:42am

    Easy de-listings

    The internet may be a well-oiled hate machine, but it's also a handy source of reference for customers who want to emerge unscathed from interactions with providers of goods and services. Easy delistings would turn the web into a cheery place where every company appears to exceed expectations, even as they screw their customers over.

    If you can prove the reviews are bogus, i.e. the work of a troll, it shouldn't be hard to get a negative review delisted. The trouble is, as has been pointed out here before, the underlying content would still exist, and that can easily be re-indexed by people sharing the links.

    My personal take is that one's own conduct is the biggest influence on one's reputation so I'm not really bothered by that ROR troll review that sits somewhere in the middle of the first page on Google search results of my name. The reason is, there's nothing else anywhere else to indicate that I behave that way, particularly on my own e-spaces.

    Honestly, I think people worry too much about bad reviews. I believe that if you behave according to the reputation you desire, troll reviews won't make you look bad.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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