US Attorney John Parker of the Northern District of Texas announced an SEO named William Stanley has been sentenced to 37 months in federal prison and ordered to pay $174,888 in restitution to a dozen identified victims for attempting to extort money from a business in Dallas.
According to the announcement, Stanley extorted individuals and companies by threatening to engage in illegitimate SEO work: posting “fraudulent comments and creating negative reviews online, if the victim did not pay him a certain sum of money.”
The good thing is that the document does say not all SEOs are bad: “[A] legitimate SEO business engages in standard practices such as optimizing the underlying HTML code on a website for certain keywords that a search engine indexer, (e.g., a web crawler for Google, Bing, etc.) would associate with a given search query.” But then explains, “[A]n illegitimate SEO business engages in deceptive tactics to affect search engine rankings and the volume of results. Such deceptive tactics include creating fraudulent reviews (good or bad), creating fictitious websites, or hiding text on websites.”
Here is what the court said this SEO did and why he was sentenced to jail:
In November 2009, GE entered into a contract with Stanley for SEO services and reputation management. Stanley was hired because of his ability to improve a firm’s online reputation through search results. After approximately one year, however, GE sought to terminate its relationship with Stanley after it determined he had acted outside of his contracted duties. Stanley also created websites that had the ability to damage GE’s reputation by associating GE with a scam. Stanley demanded additional payments to end his contractual relationship with GE and to surrender the administrator rights to the websites to GE. From November 2010 through January 2011, GE paid Stanley a total of $80,000 to terminate the relationship.
Posing as “William Davis” and “William Laurence,” Stanley transmitted threatening communications, via email and telephone, from foreign countries to GE in the Northern District of Texas. Those communications threatened to post comments on the Internet wrongfully disparaging GE’s reputation, if GE did not send money to Stanley.
Because of Stanley’s threats to harm GE’s reputation through negative Internet posts that would adversely affect GE’s ability to conduct business if it failed to send money, GE responded to the wrongful inducement by sending four payments totaling $29,556 by MoneyGram to Stanley in Brasov, Romania.
According to the factual resume, the government could readily prove that Stanley’s extortive conduct caused GE to make the above payments and to lose revenue. The extortive conduct also affected interstate commerce. In addition, the government contended that it could readily prove that Stanley engaged in similar extortionate conduct with approximately 40 to 45 victims (including GE).
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