Ars Technica on Dunning

It’s just looking worse and worse. Ars Technica discusses the Dunning widget to stuff cookies, and reveals something damning. It was coded to avoid planting cookies in computers in San Jose or Santa Barbara, where the eBay headquarters are located. If he considered this perfectly acceptable behavior in eBay’s eyes, why did he need to conceal his activity?

Bottom line is that he stole $5.2 million dollars over two years. I did my taxes last week, and realize that at my current salary I’ll have to work for the University of Minnesota for a century to earn that much money — that’s a colossal sum, wealth beyond my imagining, and I’m a fairly prosperous fellow. This was not a minor crime. There are kids robbing corner grocery stores for a handful of dollars who face greater penalties than this white collar criminal who slithered away with a small fortune at little risk.

What I also find dismaying is those members of the skeptical community who are closing their eyes and trying to pretend that their friend was a good guy. He was a thief. It’s that simple.

Comments

  1. theignored says

    You know: I think I hate “white-collar” thieves even worse than the guys who do “regular” hold-ups. It seems that they don’t get the kind of punishments they deserve.

    And yeah…if you support a criminal, you are a criminal, in my mind….skeptic or no skeptic.

  2. Jonathan Potter says

    I dropped him a few dollars a couple of years ago as I had been enjoying Skeptoid for a while, and ever since then I got regular emails from him about how this was now his full-time job and how he’d really appreciate more donations, etc, etc. If he was really making millions from the eBay scam then these pleas for donations seem particularly sleazy.

  3. great1american1satan says

    As someone with a comparable income to the average Estonian, I find the fact he was begging donations while scamming millions to be a little extra disgusting.

  4. gridironmonger says

    Knowing that the SGU and JREF forums (yeah, yeah, fora, I guess) are full of Dunning fans and libertarians I went over there to see what they had to say (I decided to avoid any Skeptoid or Brian Dunning-related sites, so SGU and JREF forums were the next best thing).

    Most were reserved or mildly disappointed, or complaining that it was ammunition for psychics, etc. to use for ad hominem arguments against whatever content he had used in his podcasts, rendering those arguments less effective for other skeptics. A couple of posters even said they just didn’t care about this kind of fraud no matter who had performed it. Real moral paragons, those. One called it “ingenious” and said “bravo.” There’s also some hyper-skepticism like “how can eBay be sure the users didn’t come through the websites the cookies say they did?”

    However, there is also push-back — people pointing out he took the legitimate commissions of other affiliates, and arguing that “allegedly” is an inappropriate caveat for a person who has pled guilty. Also someone who pointed out he gave someone a 10% commission to help him exploit the system. And a link to eBay’s civil complaint pdf, which is apparently pretty convincing (I didn’t read the whole thing myself).

  5. says

    I do have to admit that was pretty ingenious. He might be able to get a job as a white hat once he gets out of prison if his personality makes working that sort of thing possible.

  6. ck says

    It’s hard to say how he will be sentenced. Despite the fact it’s a “white collar” crime, they may seek to make an example of him since he stole from a large, powerful and influential corporation. Unless he has connections with powerful people outside of his ill-gotten gains, there is no reason to think that he will be treated all that gently. At maximum, they could put him away for 20 years.

    I’m not saying he wouldn’t deserve it, only that not all “white collar” crimes are sentenced to slaps on the wrist (i.e. like Aaron Swartz).

  7. ck says

    Delta Machine sounds vaguely familiar. Almost like someone else who went by the initials D.M.

  8. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    If he was really making millions from the eBay scam then these pleas for donations seem particularly sleazy.

    If he didn’t ask for money his site would have looked odd. I’d like to think he passed on donations to other bloggers or to charity.

    …but I doubt it.

    The other aspect is that greed did for him. He drew attention by grabbing a couble of million dollars a year. If he’d been happy with a quiet, steady $50,000 per annum or so he’d probably not have been noticed.

  9. imthegenieicandoanything says

    Thank you!

    It was, unless some bizarre sort of positive motive could be uncovered, very simply and clearly a crime from the description given in the first post, short of assuming his judicial innocence.

  10. carlie says

    I’m still discombobulated over the fact that enough people visited his web page and then within a week bought something off of ebay to total this kind of money. That’s a LOT of page visits and purchasing, there.

  11. says

    It wasn’t just his web page. He wrote these little widgets that people could put on their blogs to, for instance, display recent links to the site. These also carried the code to stuff cookies crediting Dunning’s site.

    That meant all the traffic to all these other blogs that had nothing to do with Skeptoid were obligingly giving referrals to Dunning. I suspect Skeptoid itself was a tiny fraction of the total cookie stuffing activity. Now I’m wondering if I ever installed one of his widgets — for all I know, he might have been tapping into Pharyngula’s traffic to do his stealing for him.

  12. gogreenranger says

    @gridironmonger

    A couple of posters even said they just didn’t care about this kind of fraud no matter who had performed it. Real moral paragons, those.

    And probably the same people who use Kent Hovind’s tax fraud conviction as a reason not to trust HIM. I hope the general community remembers that fact.

  13. gshelley says

    Based on what has come out, and his own words, it looks like he did something of a Hovind -thought he saw a loophole that he could exploit and got smacked down for it.
    Whether or not he was intentionally criminal, he was intentionally dishonest. I can just about see people arguing the legality based on some complex technicalities, but to excuse the dishonest and amoral behaviour is going to a whole different level.

  14. Sastra says

    What I also find dismaying is those members of the skeptical community who are closing their eyes and trying to pretend that their friend was a good guy. He was a thief. It’s that simple.

    Not quite that simple; people are complicated. Thieves can also be good guys — they can have admirable qualities which don’t completely disappear under the flaws and you can still like them in spite of whatever draws them down in your estimation. But you have to open your eyes all the way. Theft is theft. I expect better of skeptics … and I expected better of Dunning. This is just not good.

  15. says

    What this also shows, is that eBay’s affiliate program generates quite a bit of revenue. Same for Amazon, if I’m not mistaken. I haven’t bought anything from either, but a lot of people do.
    How about a couple of links in the sidebar, so people planning on buying anything from either can go through that link and generate a bit of revenue for Free Thought Blogs?

  16. says

    It’s in the works. We’re going to have a page of books and other stuff set up soon; it will use the Amazon affiliate program to add a little more cash flow to the network.

    We have realistic expectations, however. Not millions, hundreds. I’ve been in the affiliate program for a long time, and my occasional link to a book on Amazon does bring in a hundred to a few hundred dollars a month, which all gets poured into my book addiction (and has also bought a few books for the local library). With enough traffic, there are small sums you can earn from referrals, and they can add up.

    But then, I’m following the rules Amazon laid down, and am not spewing cookies everywhere. You don’t get rich off that stuff, you just get a very nice little supplement.

  17. says

    #23: I definitely don’t. We stripped down to the essentials when setting the site up, and then have gradually added a few things here and there. Nothing from Dunning.

  18. WharGarbl says

    @Sastra
    #20

    Thieves can also be good guys

    I don’t know, the fact that he proudly boast about how smart he is at defrauding eBay (plus other sites that use his widgets) tells me that he’s got some major character flaws.

  19. drxym says

    What I’d love to know is why Ebay was using cookies like this.

    The safe way to sell via affiliates is to stick the affiliate id in the url. i.e. random site puts a link to a book containing the affiliate id, user clicks on the link, the merchant knows where they came from and can credit the purchase to the affiliate.

    I suppose the merchant might need a short lived session cookie which is explicitly tied to the original link, the product (and related items) to cover cases where a user vacilates over buying something. It doesn’t have to cover the whole site, or last more than 5 minutes or persist when the browser is closed. If sites did this then they’re not going to be vulnerable to cookie stuffing.

    Anyway most browsers have an option to not accept 3rd party cookies any more and some of them enable it by default. It might be a good idea to enable it

  20. WharGarbl says

    @drxym
    #28

    The safe way to sell via affiliates is to stick the affiliate id in the url. i.e. random site puts a link to a book containing the affiliate id, user clicks on the link, the merchant knows where they came from and can credit the purchase to the affiliate.

    Your strategy only works reliably for detecting new site viewers (the moment they enter the site, the affiliate is credited).
    Part of the activity eBay was looking for was making a purchase. An affiliation link might lose that if, say, a user browse out of the eBay site to look for more information on the stuff he’s buying before returning to buy it again. It’s a bit unfair for the affiliate to not get credit for said purchase.

    I suppose the merchant might need a short lived session cookie which is explicitly tied to the original link, the product (and related items) to cover cases where a user vacilates over buying something. It doesn’t have to cover the whole site, or last more than 5 minutes or persist when the browser is closed. If sites did this then they’re not going to be vulnerable to cookie stuffing.

    That might cause some honest affiliates to lose credits they should’ve earned (user taking more than 5 minutes to look for stuff, for example).

  21. says

    I never liked Dunning. Some of Skeptoid was fine, when it stuck to UFOs, mysterious lights and such.

    But the dude never addressed any criticism unless it was of the easily-mockable variety. He’d take many cheap pot-shots a those he didn’t like, just stayed silent when confronted with valid criticism of his incorrect or sloppy assertions, and let his (quite clear, if unstated) political perspective taint his analysis of some key skeptical topics. I never understood why he was treated like such a hero to so many skeptics.

    What’s more, this litigation has been an open secret in the skeptical community for years. I certainly knew about it, and I’m nobody. While I’m not saying anyone should have jumped the gun before his conviction, I was continually astounded when he was paraded out as a grade-A awesome skeptic by one person after another who must have known about this.

  22. gregbrouelette says

    Because I think Skeptoid is a worthy cause I’ve donated money via PayPal to help support it in the past. He specifically says in he request for support that if each subscriber would give X amount of money he could afford to do Skeptoid full time. And yet, he had millions of dollars.

    I feel conned and am very disappointed.

  23. Muz says

    johnradke 2 #26

    How delusional does someone have to be to think they wouldn’t get caught, especially at this magnitude?

    Judging by other things I’ve heard about similar cases, and to some extend BDs own statements as reported by the FBI, they don’t think they are doing anything wrong. They think they are gaming the system and winning, like an ace card counter at the casino. It’s not technically cheating. The worst that ought to happen is you get chucked out of the casino for life.
    Although it seems as though his methods had to creep to keep the ‘game’ going at various points and he just continued. Whether that qualifies as delusional or not I don’t know.
    It seems oddly similar to the mentality you find on Wall Street, in Enron and so forth though.

  24. gshelley says

    The wire act was pre-internet and it may be that he thought the language meant this kind of fraud was technically not covered, but I am not convinced
    http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/1343
    18 USC 1343

    Whoever, having devised or intending to devise any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises, transmits or causes to be transmitted by means of wire, radio, or television communication in interstate or foreign commerce, any writings, signs, signals, pictures, or sounds for the purpose of executing such scheme or artifice, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both. If the violation occurs in relation to, or involving any benefit authorized, transported, transmitted, transferred, disbursed, or paid in connection with, a presidentially declared major disaster or emergency (as those terms are defined in section 102 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. 5122)), or affects a financial institution, such person shall be fined not more than $1,000,000 or imprisoned not more than 30 years, or both.

    The radio and television don’t apply, but “transmit by wire” may be why he is guilty

  25. gogreenranger says

    #32 Yeah, the one that bugged me was where people in the UK complained that he called a place in Scotland part of “England,” and his only response was “Well, I was still right since the vernacular in the US is to call anything in the UK England.”

    It seemed completely beyond him that apologizing for his American-centric vernacular would have been appropriate, since he was factually wrong. But nope, and a year or two later, when tweeting about an episode with a similar location, he made some smarmy comment about people complaining.

  26. says

    As some of his defenders have pointed out, affiliate fraud is common. However, Dunning was far more ambitious than most. With these numbers, I wouldn’t be surprised if he stole more than anyone else who the federal government was in a position to prosecute. It’s quite likely they’re looking to make an example of him.

  27. Moggie says

    theignored:

    And yeah…if you support a criminal, you are a criminal, in my mind….skeptic or no skeptic.

    I haven’t seen any response to this, so… really? This sounds like authoritarian nonsense to me. Dunning is a criminal. The most that we can say about anyone who supports him, in the absence of any evidence of specific crime on their part, is that their ethical standards are lacking. And since you’re speaking generally, I should confess that I have been known to speak in favour of someone who has broken the law in non-violent protest, or who has been jailed for possession of drugs, so by your standards I guess I need to be arrested for… well, something.

  28. says

    @38 – I think you bring up something important: this willingness to twist the facts so that one can still claim to be in the right instead of admitting an error to yourself or others, this tendency toward rationalization, seems like a factor enabling potentially ethical people to make their way slowly into unethical behavior.

    1. Scotland really is part of England because some people think England = UK ?

    2. Cookie stuffing is OK because eBay knows it happens and they haven’t stopped me? (or whatever)

  29. dahduh says

    Interesting.

    1. Porlob, I’d never heard of this. Followed Skeptoid podcast for years. Only now do I find Dunning posted “A Partial Explanation” on Skeptoid in 2011. I can easily believe it has been below the radar to a lot of people.

    2. For the curious, the third party cookies at freethoughtblogs:

    about.com
    reddit.com
    statcounter.com
    stumbleupon.com

    Nothing nefarious, but all of these sites could tag you as a Parynguloid. And pass it on. If you’re a Catholic priest… maybe you should disable third party cookies. But then there are much sneakier ways to track.

    3. Innocent until proven guilty. Only the USA v. Dunning indictment is pretty clear; and on 4/17/13 he posted as having pled guilty to writing “one cookie”. One or 100, it doesn’t matter: the indictment lists only 5 counts and there must have been millions. There seems little room for doubt that this wasn’t an accident and the intent was to defraud.

    4. Now for the really interesting bit: how will Dunning respond? Will he rationalise, distort, cherry-pick, weasel his way back to self-esteem – as his “Partial Explanation” seems to do? Or will he now be circumspect, discover his mistakes and try to fix them? The mark of a true skeptic is self-knowledge: let us see how well he does. Though I’m not holding my breath.

  30. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    You know, getting caught is not what’s wrong with his actions…
    I thought that went without saying, Skaptu.
    However, I found it psychologically interesting that it didn’t occur to Dunning that he might draw attention to himself by the magnitude of his crime.

  31. throwaway, extra beefy super queasy says

    However, I found it psychologically interesting that it didn’t occur to Dunning that he might draw attention to himself by the magnitude of his crime.

    If that is an accurate assumption on your part. He could have just as easily been reaffirming himself through an imagining of a sequence of events should he be caught. He might have thought he’d simply escape intact with his ill-gotten gains, or been acquitted by a jury as a modern-day Robin Hood. I don’t recall reading or hearing about him talking about how he’d never realized he’d be noticed.

  32. Moggie says

    gogreenranger:

    Yeah, the one that bugged me was where people in the UK complained that he called a place in Scotland part of “England,” and his only response was “Well, I was still right since the vernacular in the US is to call anything in the UK England.”

    My vernacular is to call everything north of Mexico “Canada”. For some reason, people in around 48 of the provinces get upset about this. They’re a grumpy lot, those Lower Canadians.

  33. says

    @11

    If he didn’t ask for money his site would have looked odd.

    For a long time, Dunning billed Skeptoid as the only podcast that didn’t ask for donations. You can still hear that ending on a lot of episodes from before the “If just two percent of listeners donated, I could make this my full-time job” started replacing it.

  34. says

    The way I usually use my browser disables cookies like these. I do not like cookies being shared between websites; it’s a risk of letting the wrong site read your cookie and then they have access to whatever you were just doing. It’s bad design.

    Then again, I also run click-to-flash and click-to-plugin. Which is default behavior on my phone, even. I don’t know how anyone could stand to have those things auto-run with the way people use them these days.

  35. rossthompson says

    #32 Yeah, the one that bugged me was where people in the UK complained that he called a place in Scotland part of “England,” and his only response was “Well, I was still right since the vernacular in the US is to call anything in the UK England.”

    It seemed completely beyond him that apologizing for his American-centric vernacular would have been appropriate, since he was factually wrong. But nope, and a year or two later, when tweeting about an episode with a similar location, he made some smarmy comment about people complaining.

    I remember, early on, he included Prince Charles as one of the most influential peddlers of alt-med nonsense. Lots of Brits contacted him to say that no, no-one takes Charles seriously, and his response was “no, I’m right because shut up”.

  36. Rick Pikul says

    Moggie:

    My vernacular is to call everything north of Mexico “Canada”. For some reason, people in around 48 of the provinces get upset about this. They’re a grumpy lot, those Lower Canadians.

    ITYM “Lowest Canadians”, Lower Canadians live along the St. Lawrence.

  37. says

    I think this shows that skeptics, which I count myself as, are human. Skeptics can fool themselves and be fooled. Brain fooled many skeptics, and maybe on some level fooled himself into thinking that what he did really wasn’t wrong.

    Too many skeptics think that reading a few books and attending a few speeches will make you immune from being tricked. It will help, but you can still be tricked. It’s more important to acknowledge your limitations, and try to learn from your mistakes.

    I feel sorry for his family, but now that Brian has plead guilty, he needs to do time or pay the fine. Skeptoid had its good moments, but that work doesn’t absolve him of responsibility for what he did.

  38. Mark Heil says

    This is very disappointing. Destroys the credibility of Skeptoid, even though we know most of the content is reliable (despite some problems with a few specific episodes). But because of this I can no longer refer people to his site when discussing skeptical topics with them. Thats disappointing because they are generally well written and concise.

  39. erik333 says

    34 Muz

    Except that card counting (if done by an individual player) is not even close to cheating by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just playing well.

  40. Steve Sirhan says

    Let’s not forget that he was stealing from fellow eBay affiliates, not just “big bad eBay.”

    And, per @Kathy, No. 3 … no, he had groupies paying $27.95 for Skeptoid T-shirts, $15 (really) for a “Bullshit” rubber stamp you can get online for $5 and worse. (Sorry @Jonathan #4 but …. you were overpaying for schlock.)

    http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2013/04/briandunning-guilty-and-not-sad-day.html

    (And, note to all, per Crissa @47 …. at least install Ghostery or something similar on your browsers. Oh, and use Ixquick or something like that as your search engine, so your searches aren’t tracked.)

  41. Steve Sirhan says

    Let’s not forget that he was stealing from fellow eBay affiliates, not just “big bad eBay.”

    And, per @Kathy, No. 3 … no, he had groupies paying $27.95 for Skeptoid T-shirts, $15 (really) for a “Bullshit” rubber stamp you can get online for $5 and worse. (Sorry @Jonathan #4 but …. you were overpaying for schlock.)

    socraticgadfly.blogspot DOT com/2013/04/briandunning-guilty-and-not-sad-day.html

    (And, note to all, per Crissa @47 …. at least install Ghostery or something similar on your browsers. Oh, and use Ixquick or something like that as your search engine, so your searches aren’t tracked.)

    And, besides Ars Technica, this is worth a read:

    http://www.revenews DOT com/affiliate-marketing/affiliates-indicted-for-cookie-stuffing/