An Exemplum – Top Skeptic Brian Dunning Federally Indicted for FRAUD…
Opinion by Consumer Advocate Tim Bolen
In classical rhetoric, the exemplum (which Aristotle called the paradigma) was considered one of the basic methods of argument. But as noted in the Rhetorica ad Herennium (c. 90 BC), “Exempla are not distinguished for their ability to give proof or witness to particular causes, but for their ability to expound these causes.
I have several “skeptic” stories coming up. Most of them involve charges being hurled around, and at, top skeptic leadership of rape and sexual harassment – none of which surprises me. They did what they did in Australia, didn’t they?
Every time I tell another skeptic story, it seems, another facet of their combined persona is revealed. This one on Brian Dunning is one of those.
Before this story though, if I had to pick one phrase to describe skeptics in general, I would have picked “filth encrusted.” But now I see they are much more than that. Silly of me to underrate them.
So who is Brian Dunning?
He is the guy who writes a skeptic blog, called “skeptoid” claiming that he gets an average 192,000 hits a week. He posts that brag right on his blog. Do I doubt that? Yes. Keep reading, and so will you.
More, he claims to have approval for his blog from several different groups – example: He supposedly got the award for “Outstanding contributions to science and skepticism” from a group calling itself “Independent Investigations Group.” However, simple investigation of that so-called group discovers they are just another “skeptic” front group.
But Brian Dunning forgets to mention something on his blog – He’s recently pled guilty to Fraud in Federal Court, and he is coming up on Sentencing. eBay claims he, and another man, Shawn Hogan, defrauded them out of 35 million dollars in it’s Affiliate program. And the US Prosecutor agreed.
Yup – 35 million bucks.
According to an article on Business Insider – Australia called “How eBay Worked With The FBI To Put Its Top Affiliate Marketers In Prison”
The cookie-stuffing scheme
Dunning eventually developed a software widget called WhoLinked that bloggers could install on their pages. It told them which other web pages had linked to theirs. Hogan created a similar widget, called Geo Visitors, which showed web page users where on a map their readers were coming from.
According to the FBI, both widgets engaged in “cookie stuffing.” Anyone who clicked on them received a tracking cookie — a small piece of code that keeps a record of the web sites a browser has been looking at. If, at a later date, those browsers went to eBay and generated revenue, then the cookie would signal to eBay that Hogan or Dunning’s affiliate marketing links were the cause — and eBay would owe them commission, according to the charges filed against both men.
The two widgets spread themselves far and wide, as amateur bloggers and web page creators installed them to look at where their traffic was coming from. Hogan’s widget stuffed 650,000 eBay cookies, according to eBay’s civil complaint against him. Dunning’s widget stuffed 20,000.
The obvious problem was that neither widget did anything overt to encourage people to buy stuff on eBay. Hogan and Dunning got paid by coincidence. So many random users were carrying their cookies that some of them inevitably ended up on eBay.
Also, according to eBay Hogan and Dunning’s 35 million dollar “take” represents HALF of EBay’s TOTAL 70 million dollar pay-out in Affiliate marketing.
It gets stranger and stranger…
Um – there seems to be a war going on within the “skeptic” ranks. I keep getting sent bits and pieces of an exploding story of what’s happening. I’ll be sending you some details. They explain the “skeptic” character even further.
The author of a good many of these stories is an atheist named PZ Meyers who writes a blog called Pharyngula. On the Brian Dunning situation he wrote an article called “Skeptoid Slapped Down.” In it he said:
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.
So, let’s get down to the bottom line…
What we have here is a guy, Brian Dunning, who is basically just another two-bit con artist – one who got caught. Read his history, and you will find that before he did this he made and sold t-shirts. Read the (interesting) FBI report here.
The US attorneys Press Release, click here to read the whole thing, says:
SAN JOSE—Brian Andrew Dunning pleaded guilty in federal court in San Jose on April 15, 2013, to wire fraud, United States Attorney Melinda Haag announced.
In pleading guilty, Dunning admitted that, between approximately May 2006 and June 2007, he engaged in a scheme to defraud eBay through so-called “cookie stuffing.” According to the plea agreement, commissions paid to Dunning’s company, Kessler’s Flying Circus (KFC), which Dunning owned jointly with his brother, totaled approximately $5.2 million during that period from eBay’s domestic Affiliate Program…
…An evidentiary hearing to determine the loss amount will be held on August 8, 2013, before United States District Judge Edward J. Davila, in San Jose. The maximum statutory penalty for a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1343 is 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine of $250,000, or twice the gross gain or gross loss from the offense, whichever is greater, plus restitution. However, any sentence following conviction would be imposed by the court after consideration of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and the federal statute governing the imposition of a sentence, 18 U.S.C. § 3553.
So, add a little humor here, now what we have is a t-shirt salesman, turned eBay Affiliate marketer, turned skeptic, who is now an expert on alternative medicine. He, Dunning, claims he has 192,000 weekly downloaders.
Next, I think, he will be making license plates. But not selling them.
Tim Bolen – Consumer Advocate