Brian Dunning, the voice behind the Skeptoid podcast, has pled guilty to wire fraud. In a clever scheme to essentially defraud eBay, visitors to his site had a cookie planted on their computers that did no harm to the visitors, but was recognized by eBay as a flag to credit Dunning as an affiliate referrer. When I’d first heard of this case, I thought it could be an innocent error — I have no idea about half the stuff this site is shuttling back and forth to you readers, for instance — but now it looks clear that this was intentionally programmed to game the system. The company in which Dunning was part owner, Kessler’s Flying Circus (KFC), was bringing in a rather noticeably large sum of money from this one little trick.
7. KFC was a member of the Affiliate Program. In 2006, KFC received approximately $2,000,000 in compensation from the eBay Affiliate Program in the United States. Between January and June 2007, KFC earned approximately $3,300,000 in compensation from the eBay Affiliate Program in the United States. As of approximately June 2007, KFC was the number-two producing account in the Affiliate Program. . . .
I’ve met Dunning, I’ve followed his podcast, and he’s a nice, personable fellow who actually has contributed useful information to the skeptical community…but this is a serious ethical lapse. It is criminal behavior. And now he faces possible penalties that include several years in prison.
Everyone seems to be regarding this as a great tragedy and the loss of a hero, and I agree that there is an element of that — it certainly is a personal tragedy for Dunning. But maybe we should also recognize it as a gain, the exposure of a criminal and the cessation of illegal activity. People aren’t one-dimensional heroes or villains, and Dunning, like everyone, is a bit of both.
Let’s hope he comes back from this with that little piece of a bad guy in him suitably chastised, and that he can resume his work as a better person for it all.
Whoa. I was directed to these documents by Melody Hensley: a summary of affiliate litigation which includes Dunning, and a legal motion to suppress evidence gained at the Dunning residence (pdf), which includes an interview in which Dunning admits that he split half the revenue from KFC with his brother, that he was making about $1.2 million/year, and that he was producing all kinds of apps and widgets to spread his criminal affiliate code everywhere.