Why won’t you “skeptics” let Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning put his misdeeds into the memory hole!?


Brian Dunning issued a statement about his criminal acts and how everyone’s getting things wrong about him. However, people might find it difficult to copy and paste in order to rebut, or even to disseminate, because he included a little snippet of javascript that automatically kills your ability to select, copy or paste.

So, I’m going to paste the entire thing here where it’s more easily copiable by folks who might have a mind to do so who might not be technically inclined to be able to disable Javascript and/or edit from source.

A Message from Brian

August 6, 2014

Stovepipe

This is my family on Thanksgiving 2013, at the restaurant in Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley, California. A few hours earlier, we’d rescued three Chinese tourists who had spent the night in their car stuck in the snow, and we winched it out and got them back to safety.

Shortly thereafter, we ourselves suffered a single vehicle rollover, destroying the Jeep. Amazingly, none of us were seriously hurt. We were lucky to all make it back. These are the kinds of life events that matter most, and make other bumps in the road seem trivial by comparison.

My latest news is that I can now add to my resume the title "convicted felon." We make up about 2% of the population.

Before I became a science writer and podcaster in 2006, I had a small consulting business doing FileMaker Pro development. It provided a modest family income. In about 2003 my company partnered with another to form "Kessler’s Flying Circus" (a reference to The Great Waldo Pepper, a favorite movie), to give affiliate marketing a try. Affiliate marketing is where you place ads on the web, and if anyone clicks those ads and subsequently makes a purchase, you would get a sales commission of some kind. There are a whole variety of models for this: pay per ad impression, pay per click, pay per sale, etc. These were trailblazing years for fast-growing companies like Amazon, Google, and eBay. A perspective of what those days were like is offered here, from another defendant who was also convicted.

For our first few years we had very little success, making perhaps a few hundred dollars per month. But then, working in close association with eBay and with Commission Junction (the company that managed eBay’s affiliate program) we developed a pair of useful widgets: ProfileMaps, that showed a map of visitors to your MySpace page; and WhoLinked, a WordPress plugin that showed who has linked to your blog. These both included an eBay advertisement. Amazingly these both went viral, and through 2006 and 2007 our ads drove enough new customers to eBay US to earn KFC about $5.3 million dollars. Keep in mind that was the company’s gross revenue; we had overhead and employees and costs like every other company. I was the second highest paid employee, and I did earn over a million dollars personally over 2006 and 2007 before taxes. We put the money toward paying off our mortgage and opening college savings accounts for our kids. Then just as we were about to start saving, everything came to an abrupt end.

On June 18, 2007, our house was raided by armed FBI agents. They had a search warrant from the Treasury Department alleging racketeering, wire fraud, and a raft of other charges. The model we used, which is the same as that used by all other eBay affiliates I knew at the time, was to pass through eBay’s URL along with each advertisement, allowing eBay to read/write whatever affiliate cookie they choose. eBay filed both civil and criminal charges against the affiliates, claiming that this pass-through model was a violation of their Terms & Conditions. This is true, it was a clear violation, and we knew this. But the models of all top affiliates were clear violations. Mainly, you weren’t allowed to place ads on sites that you did not personally own. But we had worked carefully and openly with the eBay team assigned to us to form "interpretations" of the rules that permitted this. Obviously, this was a red flag (among many) and I should have gotten out of the business right away. I didn’t. I was making some money for the first time in my life, and I let myself believe that bending the rules was OK if other people were bending them too. Let’s be clear: what I did was wrong, and I knew it at the time. "Come on, everyone’s doing it!"

On that same day in 2007, I ceased my association with KFC and have had no involvement with affiliate marketing, or anything remotely related to it, ever since.

Although all the lawyers involved felt this should have been strictly a civil contract dispute, the government determined that it constituted wire fraud, a violation of 18 USC § 1343, and that eBay had been victimized by paying KFC commissions on sales that should have been house sales. I fully accept this determination, and fully accept and admit responsibility for every action I was involved in. eBay claimed a loss amount of $200-400K, and I agreed to stipulate to that amount. I was the only person criminally charged from KFC, though we have never been able to determine why I was singled out; we can only guess it was because of my notoriety.

I stress that from the first day to the last day, I offered full cooperation to authorities, and I did make eBay whole through a confidential settlement.

On August 4, 2014, the judge sentenced me to 15 months incarceration, beginning September 2, 2014. In the federal system you must serve a minimum 85% of that time. According to determinations made during your stay, you may be able to transfer to a halfway house near your home at some point during the sentence, which allows you to resume work and see your family. Most attorneys involved felt the sentence was unnecessarily harsh, and the judge stated in his pronouncement that it was based mainly on the deterrence criterion, particularly due to my "minor Internet celebrity" status.

There are a lot of untruths being circulated by bloggers and reporters:

  • That I "stole millions of dollars". Completely false. The vast majority of KFC’s earnings, over 90%, were never in dispute. My share of the unearned commissions was about a third of the $200-400K, on which I paid taxes. That doesn’t make it any less of a crime, but absurd exaggerations serve nobody.
  • That any individuals were affected. Completely false. The only victim was eBay, and the nature of their loss was a reduced profit (due to paying unearned sales commissions) on new paying customers who had viewed one of our ads.
  • A conspiracy theory that my nonprofit Skeptoid Media, Inc. was set up as some kind of shield to hide stolen millions. First, I never had millions in my possession; second, you cannot shield money from the feds. The federal government can seize anything at any time; there is no protection like there is in state cases (e.g., moving to a state that allows you to keep your primary residence). Skeptoid Media exists only for its stated reasons: producing free educational materials and STEM-focused informational and entertainment content, made available to educators and individuals worldwide, concentrating on critical thinking and scientific skepticism.
  • That I’m a millionaire who has the gall to beg for donations. Please do not conflate the two. Donations that support the Skeptoid podcast go only to support Skeptoid Media, a good cause. See Skeptoid.org for all available disclosures. Separately, I am not a millionaire and my family is under a huge amount of debt and has no savings at all, but working that out is our problem, not yours, and not Skeptoid Media’s.

In the meantime, the Skeptoid podcast is going to continue uninterrupted, using a combination of banked episodes and guest hosts, so you can continue to expect the same high quality show every week.

My plan is to start production on Principia Curiositas, the long-awaited sequel to Here Be Dragons, as soon as I’m able to return to work. And of course, I plan to continue Skeptoid and other projects.

I am proud of who I am and what I have accomplished to date, and very much regret this stain on my past. But as we all must do with all our regrets, I will incorporate it into who I am, own it, and continue on as best I can.

In short, I’ll see you soon.

Brian Dunning
Brian
Dunning

I’ll pick this apart in a moment, because it’s full of sophistry and revisionist history that even the public parts of the lawsuit disprove directly, but first I have to point out something else I discovered this afternoon — something that really irritated me when I visited skeptoid.org to read an article someone linked me on Twitter.

Granted, the article itself was odious enough as it stood, wherein Brian argues on record that it’s okay to misrepresent what you’re selling to a customer as long as that customer is happy. The article is from 2006, so he’s on early record defending charlatanry orders of magnitude lesser in impact than his own crimes. One must be internally philosophically consistent if you’re going to bilk eBay and smaller affiliates out of earned income to the tune of millions — surely then psychics bilking customers out of hundreds a pop, earning just enough to make a living on their lies is not so big a deal.

But what really riled me was a mouseover that I discovered by accident. See, Skeptoid has a Twitter feed embedded in its pages, wherein I noticed part of a conversation I was just having on Twitter moments prior. Since none of us were addressing Dunning directly, I figured, “this must be an embedded search instead. I wonder what the search terms are.”

I moused over the “Tweets” link…

Screenshot of skeptoid.com with Twitter feed visible. Mouseover alt text of Tweets link reads: Search for skeptoid -cookie -ebay -fraud -cookies -criminal -jail -prison on Twitter

Screenshot of skeptoid.com with Twitter feed visible. Mouseover alt text of Tweets link reads: Search for skeptoid -cookie -ebay -fraud -cookies -criminal -jail -prison on Twitter

You missed a few search terms, Dunning. Now I know how to make sure that when I tweet things about you and your criminal acts, I can remind website readers exactly what you are: a fraudster and a criminal.

I’ll be fisking the statement in my next post. Rebecca Watson makes an excellent stab at it, but I have a few extra things I need to say, as I believe I’m the “conspiracy theorist” he’s referring to, and he’s significantly misrepresented me alongside his misrepresentation of his crimes.

I’m irritated that he’s taken two specific tactics to memory-hole his misdeeds, and that is enough to move me to post the full, unexpurgated, unguarded-by-Javascript statement so people can see and respond to it, and to point out that he’s already taken steps to cover up his misdeeds on the Skeptoid website itself.

Don’t let him cause the skeptical community to forget his crimes and continue to treat his derivative podcast as some sort of valuable resource that skeptics and others can’t also get from someone who ISN’T a felon convicted of defrauding a company AND the public. As a humanist, I cannot stand by idly, while a convicted fraudster who is going to jail for 15 months, who argues that it’s okay to defraud people, gets a pass by the entire goddamn skeptical community — a community ostensibly devoted to the social justice ideal of keeping people from being defrauded.

We deserve better than this. And we won’t GET better than this if we don’t stand against this nonsense.

Comments

  1. says

    Some additional nuance that should be pointed out, which Bug Girl and Doubting Tom reminded me of on Twitter:

    1) He’s blocked Internet Archive from crawling his site
    2) He had posted a podcast wherein he defended the idea of cookie-stuffing, prior to anyone really even catching on that he’d done it himself
    3) He’s since purged the transcript of that podcast from his site
    4) He’d done a “partial explanation” of the crimes of which he’d been accused
    5) — which he was made to take down during the course of the trial (by the judge? By stipulation about public postings? I dunno)

    In each case, it’s an example of some attempt at either covering up the public record or throwing chaff to confuse onlookers. The statement is NOT how this went down. The statement is BULLSHIT. We skeptics FIGHT bullshit. Ergo…

  2. Konradius says

    I earlier offered the following analysis to Rebecca, perhaps you can use it as well:
    Having read all this, there’s actually a pretty simple reason how Dunning has been raking in millions and yet ebay ‘only’ complained about $200-400k.
    The only way ebay gets defrauded is if someone buys something from ebay without there being ANY party that would receive the commission.
    To ebay the loss of money when one commission taker defrauds another is ZERO.
    So what Dunning really is saying here is that while he ‘only’ defrauded ebay for a maximum of 400k, that means that the other additional income he received was defrauded from other commission takers. Because people tend to visit similar websites that roughly $4 million was taken disproportionally from our skeptical community and from us, the visitors.
    A visitor to skeptoid did not personally lose money buying from ebay, true.
    But if he/she bought from ebay specifically with a referral from a website they wished to support, then Dunning stole their contribution to that website!
    How much of a dupe must someone be to defend Dunning while he has actually pled guilty to defrauding exactly the people defending him!

  3. gog says

    I have an acquaintance that tried to defend Dunning by making the “other people do it, too” argument. I had taken it at face value, but now I see that I was being propagandized.

    Shameful tactics.

  4. Stacy says

    I’m so glad you’re not letting this slide by, Jason.

    Skeptics. Standing against fraud unless it’s committed by one of our own,

  5. Stacy says

    Excellent point, Konradius.

    How much of a dupe must someone be to defend Dunning while he has actually pled guilty to defrauding exactly the people defending him!

    A pretty big dupe. Apparently there are quite a few of them in this community.

  6. Alex says

    Konradius,

    There has been speculation about the damage done to third parties (with whom one may or may not empathize more than with big corp inc.), and if your calculation is correct (mainly the reason for the reduced claim), this is very striking!

  7. says

    His explanation isn’t even true. The affiliate program was supposed for clicks, not seeing ads. He makes it sound like this was a technicality, when it was really blatant fraud.

  8. Anthony K says

    Separately, I am not a millionaire and my family is under a huge amount of debt and has no savings at all, but working that out is our problem, not yours, and not Skeptoid Media’s.

    Jeffrey Lebowski, is that you? Something sounds familiar…

    I hope that my wife will someday learn to live on her allowance, which is ample, but if she doesn’t, sir, that will be her problem, not mine, just as your rug is your problem, just as every bum’s lot in life is his own responsibility regardless of whom he chooses to blame.

    I keep telling you, it’s the Foundation’s money. Brian doesn’t have any.

  9. gog says

    It was Mrs. Lebowski’s favorite 1×1 pixel iframe that simulated clicking an ad without actually having clicked it.

    This is also a really shitty thing to do from a performance sense because a naiive engine would still be downloading linked content in the iframe’s HTML, still be processing scripts, still run them through the layout engine to decide if the page should be rendered and ultimately discard all of that work since there isn’t space to render any of it.

  10. says

    I unsubscribed from Skeptoid’s mailing list a couple of years ago, in large part due to some lazy coding — specifically, if I followed a link on the mailing list to an article on the site, I shouldn’t have to close a pop-up every time nagging me to subscribe (again) to the mailing list. It’s a little thing, but a minor annoyance every time I visit the site can become quite a deterrant after a while, especially when there are plenty of other blogs and podcasts providing similar content to follow instead. So I find it kind of funny that he’s put so much effort into protecting this statement of his from being copied or pasted but couldn’t be bothered to add a single line of code to his actual website as a convenience to his followers. Priorities, huh?

  11. says

    Jason, thanks for the update. I added your link to my piece. I had never attempted to copy text and so I didn’t notice he was being a douche with Javascript.

    I do know that what he said was heavily lawyered up and very carefully worded.

    And, if there’s a “conspiracy theorist,” it’s Shane Brady, who’s some sort of buds with him and thinks that this whole thing is wrong and Dunning never did anything really wrong and eBay set him up and yada yada.

  12. pneumo says

    Is today (2 Sep) the day he goes to minimum security holiday resort? I ask, since there is no way he will tell us himself.

  13. spingus says

    pneumo, yes it is, the date is public knowledge and actually he did tell ‘us’. He sent out a note to his mailing list regarding the near future of Skeptoid and an ‘au revoir’.

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