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1 weird old trick that will make you 100s of $millions
January 2, 2014 2:28 PM   Subscribe

Jesse Willms, the Dark Lord of the Internet. How one of the most notorious alleged hustlers in the history of e-commerce made a fortune on the Web.
posted by gottabefunky (54 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
In May 2011, after a year-and-a-half-long investigation that tracked his cash streams all the way to England and Cyprus, the FTC filed a sprawling lawsuit against Willms. The agency’s allegations were enough to drive an icy spike of fear into the heart of anyone who has ever typed in a credit-card number online: between 2007 and 2011, the lawsuit claimed, Willms defrauded consumers of some $467 million by enticing them to sign up for “risk free” product trials and then billing their cards recurring fees for a litany of automatically enrolled services they hadn’t noticed in the fine print. In just a few months, Willms’s companies could charge a consumer hundreds of dollars like this, and making the flurry of debits stop was such a convoluted process for those ensnared by one of his schemes that some customers just canceled their credit cards and opened new ones.

Umm, I'm fairly confident that this "scam" is standard operating procedure. Its horrible, but it happens to tons of people everydamnday.

The FTC and other authorities are resting on their laurels by flaunting how they got this guy. But what about the thousand other MoFos who are doing this exact same thing, without getting busted.

Despite the publicized $359 million settlement with the FTC, Jesse Willms is doing just fine financially—and he has a new yellow Lamborghini to prove it. One reason for his quick return to prosperity is that he was never actually going to pay the advertised settlement amount; the financial judgment was suspended, as long as he surrendered his assets. In reality, Willms likely never had that much cash. Most of what he took in (that wasn’t spent in Vegas) went right back out to pay affiliates and distributors. After he settled his tax debts, Willms turned over a total of just $991,000 to the U.S. Treasury, according to the FTC’s enforcement division. “People like Jesse Willms, we’ve found, like to spend their money,” Decker told me. “That makes it very difficult to get enough money to make injured consumers whole.”

I mean hell...reading all this, I'm thinking "maybe I can do this to, stash all sorts of cash into walls like Pusha T, and even when I get "busted" (haha), I'm still rich. Anyone in?

AND we get to see Usher at Mandalay Bay.
posted by hal_c_on at 2:49 PM on January 2 [3 favorites]


I just watched "The Wolf of Wall Street" last night, so I've pretty much had it up to here with ethics-free douchebags.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 2:50 PM on January 2 [12 favorites]


When the Atlantic came in the mail last week and I saw this article, it made being poor feel less of a problem.
posted by jwhite1979 at 3:02 PM on January 2


Read this article the other day. The guy has no shame and deserves to have all his assets striped from him.

the office milieu at Just Think Media was so conventional that few employees said they suspected anything untoward. Actual products seldom appeared at the office; his employees generally just designed Web sites and handled customer service. Sure, a lot of people seemed to be complaining, but didn’t every company get complaints?

I'm always amazed at how many people see this stuff going on and fail to make the connection.
posted by arcticseal at 3:05 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]


I'm always amazed at how many people see this stuff going on and fail to make the connection.

Such is the banality of evil.
posted by The Michael The at 3:10 PM on January 2 [4 favorites]


I just watched "The Wolf of Wall Street" last night, so I've pretty much had it up to here with ethics-free douchebags.

Like the movie studios?
posted by pjern at 3:17 PM on January 2 [2 favorites]


It's really not that hard to start stepping over the line. At one point, a company I worked at wanted to make it impossible to unsubscribe to our subscription product. Like just disable the unsubscribe functionality and rely on the fact that it was really hard to find our contact information and keep taking money until the customer got wise to it and reversed the charges with their bank. This was the "logical" response from some of the execs to "We're losing a lot of subscriptions." Well, if we just make it hard to stop subscribing, problem solved! Brilliant! Several of us lower-downs did react with horror but it was only the company attorney having a meltdown screaming at them that stopped it.

Most evil things aren't of the mustache-twirling, tying a woman to the train tracks variety. You just do a little more and a little more and a little more and ease over the line and then keep going.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:17 PM on January 2 [42 favorites]


It's really not that hard to start stepping over the line.

I once had a client that asked me to make a progress bar take "at least 30 minutes" to complete, to discourage uninstalls of the (shitty) software.
posted by pjern at 3:19 PM on January 2 [14 favorites]


Like just disable the unsubscribe functionality and rely on the fact that it was really hard to find our contact information and keep taking money until the customer got wise to it and reversed the charges with their bank. This was the "logical" response from some of the execs to "We're losing a lot of subscriptions." Well, if we just make it hard to stop subscribing, problem solved! Brilliant! Several of us lower-downs did react with horror but it was only the company attorney having a meltdown screaming at them that stopped it.

Not only evil, but super stupid then, because holy shit you do not want chargebacks. I once worked for a company that did a milder version of this (subscription with renewals) but we made it suuuuuuper easy to cancel because the absolute worst thing for us was a chargeback. Eventually Visa shut the company down anyway. (Last I heard the owner was trying to get one of the former employees to open a new company under the employee's name for some stupid amount of money.)

Still feel slimy (as I should) whenever I think about having worked for that company.
posted by kmz at 3:32 PM on January 2


You'd think with that much dough, dude could buy a few vowels.
posted by gwint at 3:36 PM on January 2 [9 favorites]


Ghostride The Whip: "It's really not that hard to start stepping over the line."

Thing about Willms seems to be that he has never acknowledged the existence of lines that he shouldn't cross.

I get it about people developing blind spots where their own self-interest is involved. I've seen examples of that that would be hilarious if they weren't true. This is different.
posted by adamrice at 3:42 PM on January 2


Yuck.
posted by Our Ship Of The Imagination! at 3:56 PM on January 2


In just a few months, Willms’s companies could charge a consumer hundreds of dollars like this, and making the flurry of debits stop was such a convoluted process for those ensnared by one of his schemes that some customers just canceled their credit cards and opened new ones.

This describes my experience with Gold's Gym down to the exact detail. Apparently it's a popular business model?
posted by Sternmeyer at 4:06 PM on January 2 [2 favorites]


Good to see The Atlantic has still got it. Great article.
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:18 PM on January 2


You would be shocked at the numbre of people who have brazenly approached my company over the years asking us to swap the dials between a 20 and 30 pound capacity dial scale so they could use one to buy and the other to sell. They are always astonished when we explain how illegal that is and very upset that we are so intent on crimping their brilliantly original plan.
posted by localroger at 4:29 PM on January 2 [10 favorites]


If this guy had lived 20 years earlier, he'd have been doing infomercials on television.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:38 PM on January 2


I've been caught a couple times by recurring charges I didn't expect (with Ancestry.com after registering for a free offer, for one). But I've always relied on a belief that Visa and Mastercard are the ultimate policing forces, who will quickly cut off anyone making fraudulent billings to their cards. (I've worried more about Russians and Romanians than guys from Edmonton.) Guess I've been wrong about that. Good to know.
posted by TimTypeZed at 4:44 PM on January 2


My bank has a credit card pressing machine on premises and doesn't charge a fee for new cards, so I change my CC number every six months or so.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:57 PM on January 2 [4 favorites]


In just a few months, Willms’s companies could charge a consumer hundreds of dollars like this, and making the flurry of debits stop was such a convoluted process for those ensnared by one of his schemes that some customers just canceled their credit cards and opened new ones.

This doesn't actually work. Even a cancelled credit card is keep active for about 6 months after cancellation in case other charges roll in. I learned this by apparently driving on Croatian tollways for about 6 months after a holiday there even though my wife and I cancelled our card right after the first fraud.

Credit Card companies are not at all on your side even if you ignore the sin of usury. Keep an eye on your bills.
posted by srboisvert at 5:08 PM on January 2 [2 favorites]



It is not hard to avoid "stepping over the line" and steal from people. The moment someone proposes "let's make it hard to unsubscribe!" you know it's wrong, there is no ambiguity.

People shit on Google all the time for the "don't be evil" unofficial motto, but it was a very useful simple way to put a stop to stupid or dangerous ideas. At least when I worked there it was enough for someone to say "that sounds evil" to force a long and careful discussion with executive decision making.

This sleazeball kid in the article is just a crook. In the old days he would have been tarred and feathered or had his hands broken. Not the subject of a half-admiring article about how he got to keep his Lambo.
posted by Nelson at 5:17 PM on January 2 [18 favorites]


Not to be a shill or anything, but American Express is on your side full stop if you have a traditional American Express charge card (and maybe other newer products, I don't know).

95% of the time I have a disagreement with a merchant over what he sold me, it ends with a capitulation when I say "Unfortunately, I cannot discuss this further -- please give me the accommodation I seek or I will dispute the charge with Amex." And in the 5% of cases, or the outright frauds -- Amex has backed me 100% of the time.
posted by MattD at 5:59 PM on January 2 [3 favorites]


I've been caught a couple times by recurring charges I didn't expect (with Ancestry.com after registering for a free offer, for one).


Stamps.com does this as well, and makes it difficult to cancel.

It seems like several "legitimate" companies have started doing business this way.
posted by louche mustachio at 6:14 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]


consumers hate him!
posted by gyc at 6:39 PM on January 2 [16 favorites]


I was with you right up until we get to see Usher at Mandalay Bay
posted by Mario Speedwagon at 7:02 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]


Heck, even Consumer Reports does this if you subscribe to their magazine online.
There's no option to subscribe without automatic renewal. These scumbags have made this practice so common that even supposedly pro-consumer organizations that should know better are doing it.
posted by eye of newt at 7:30 PM on January 2 [5 favorites]


Well, if we just make it hard to stop subscribing, problem solved! Brilliant!

I work with a guy who had me take the "receive updates form our company" check box off his web site for an event sign-up because less than 1% of people wanted their "words of wisdom". If it had been money, I wouldn't have complied, but seeing as he can only be hurting his own business by being the guy who won't unsubscribe people from his "wise words", whatever.

You know you are far down the rabbit-hole when you start trying to bend reality to fit your shitty business model. (Or when it turns out that outside of a convention of fellow "online marketing experts" no one is really interested in online marketing.
posted by maxwelton at 7:41 PM on January 2


Regardless of what you might think of Willms’s business ethics, no one could argue with his results.

Jesus fucking christ, atlantic, could you hungrily fellate this douchebag any more or do you need to stop for a breather? HIS RESULTS WERE THAT HE STOLE PEOPLE'S MONEY.
posted by elizardbits at 7:55 PM on January 2 [21 favorites]


...between 2007 and 2011, the lawsuit claimed, Willms defrauded consumers of some $467 million by enticing them to sign up for “risk free” product trials and then billing their cards recurring fees for a litany of automatically enrolled services they hadn’t noticed in the fine print.
Does he run Pimsleur language tapes? Because I am in the midst of siccing Discover Card on them: $650 in follow-on charges, EVEN AFTER I cancelled, that were fine-printed below a $10 offer.

As you might imagine, my sympathy for him does not extend far past "I hope there's some oxygen in his cell".

OK, he can have water and polysaccharides, too.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:59 PM on January 2


gwint: You'd think with that much dough, dude could buy a few vowels.
Maybe he's Welsh?

/Do not mock the Welsh. Your alphabetic privileges are like blinders to their suffering.

//Wtmrshdg!
posted by IAmBroom at 8:03 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]


Rich as this guy seems to be, nothing breaks my balls quite like the non-free "free" credit reports from freecreditreports.com.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:21 PM on January 2 [2 favorites]


"I hope there's some oxygen in his cell".

Oh, there will be, at least until we hit the "Open Airlock" button. No guarantees after that.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:40 PM on January 2 [2 favorites]


Regardless of what you might think of Willms’s business ethics, no one could argue with his results.

Jesus fucking christ, atlantic, could you hungrily fellate this douchebag any more or do you need to stop for a breather? HIS RESULTS WERE THAT HE STOLE PEOPLE'S MONEY.


Nothing matters but money.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:46 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]


I normally don't like it when the president orders one those extra-judicial drone strikes against foreign nationals, but for this guy I'd be willing to look the other way.
posted by seymourScagnetti at 9:07 PM on January 2


This makes me think of the incredibly sad article by the daughter of one of the people the Wolf of Wall Street worked his malfeasance with on. It's so easy to say they're writing these articles or filming these movies to show how terrible these guys are, but let's face it, all they're really doing, as I got the feeling this Atlantic piece did, is giving them more positive attention. And that just pisses me off so fucking much.
posted by emcat8 at 9:26 PM on January 2 [8 favorites]


Imagine seeing the Internet for the first time in your life, and thinking, man, I bet you could scam money off a lot of people using this.
posted by thelonius at 10:11 PM on January 2 [2 favorites]


the Dark Lord of the Internet

Every schmuck has to be Sauron these days.
posted by Segundus at 10:59 PM on January 2 [4 favorites]


Ironic that the article was written in the Atlantic, which also has forced me into the evil loop of automatic-renewals.
posted by Guernsey Halleck at 11:26 PM on January 2 [2 favorites]


Asshole is stuck living in Edmonton, though. Serves him right.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:42 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]


Jesse Willms’s

or

Jesse Willms’ ?
posted by Mario Speedwagon at 12:06 AM on January 3 [1 favorite]


Jesus fucking christ, atlantic, could you hungrily fellate this douchebag any more or do you need to stop for a breather? HIS RESULTS WERE THAT HE STOLE PEOPLE'S MONEY.

Steely-eyed Missile Man: Nothing matters but money.


No, money has been well-established as mattering not at all or very much or something in between depending on your perspective.

It's the STEALING that richly deserves the caps-lock of mattering.
posted by desuetude at 12:15 AM on January 3 [1 favorite]


"Jesse Willms’ ?"

It's a stylebook thing, not a "there's one right way" thing.

My personal rule is that I write it like I'd say it.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:39 AM on January 3


So it's a hyphenated name? Jesse Willms-Asshole?
posted by five fresh fish at 12:45 AM on January 3 [3 favorites]


I've worried more about Russians and Romanians than guys from Edmonton.

Alberta is filled with people just like this. Shitty mansions in DeWinton or St. Albert with Shitty warehouses in the pseudo-industrial, uh, Parks of Calgary, Edmonton, or Red Deer. And they, as the article says, and I can confirm, are admired because they have money and create shitty jobs. I know one that currently sells both car lifts and high thread count blankets for a four figure profit.

An anecdote, of the same group of Albertans: a Quebecois acquaintance's (who was, and is, concurrently a steroid taking, banking industry cliched twat) falsely titted wife made six figures one year by importing, Christ, I can't believe this is true:

Toddler Thongs.
posted by converge at 1:23 AM on January 3 [6 favorites]


I should clarify, the four figure statement above was per item. The Quebecois was living in Calgary with his Calgary wife. Fit right in at those parties. I imagine parties in Quebec to be better. Still a twat though.
posted by converge at 1:49 AM on January 3


I hate that there is a segment of the population looking at his story like a play book.

I'm always amazed at how many people see this stuff going on and fail to make the connection.

Such is the banality of evil
.

A publishing company with some household names is headquartered in my home town. Many of my colleagues have at one time or another worked there. Some for extended stays, some a few months. I didn't know much about it other than the word on the street was that they weren't as wholesome ad their brands seemed.

Then a close friend went to work there. And she's telling me one day how she was testing their email sign ups, which promises free newsletters of various subject matter, which the company sells advertising space in. Only it also asks for a home address, because it will send you something or other free by mail. She signs up and is confused when 5 days later, she receives a book, and a bill for that book. She thinks she must have done something wrong during the sign up or the company made a mistake. She tells her new boss, who is being really dodgy about the whole thing, andjust tells her to leave it with him.

So, as someone who's job it is to work on the email sign up process, she does it again, but is really careful about reading EVERYTHING to make sure she didn't sign up for the book by mistake and to see if it's an error in the system she can fix. In the meantime, she also suggests to her boss that cuttin the home address from the sign up form would get a higher conversion rate. He again gets evasive but insists they need that info for their advertisers.

A few days go by, and she gets the same book, and the same bill for the book. But now she gets a threatening letter about the bill for the first book being due.

It was at this point she tells me the sroey. She never heard of this scam before. I assured her she didn't have to pay for something she didn't order, and it's all a big scam, because many people end up paying out of fear or just not understanding. And I tell her it is especially hard on seniors. She's livid, and goes back to her boss upset about how she's been lied to, how they were being dishonest (while they can't make you pay, rarely does the ftc actually stop companies from doing this.) and she can't believe how she was tricked into coming to work there even though they knew full well what was going on.

And yet she stayed for close to a year after that. She had bills to pay. And once she had that row with her boss, it just became something she ignored. She didn't like it, but she had too much other work to do. And she thought, naively, she could help them move on to more honest forms of revenue generation. Eventually it got to be too much; that wasn't the only shady practice, so she found new work

When she told me that story, I spoke to a few other people that worked there. All good people, all knew the same thing. One worked there for close to a decade. In her mind, she wasn't the one deciding the policy, she was, just following orders.

And I get that. I worked at a place with different ethical/legal problems. I was only there for 11 months. It was bad, and the corruption was to the core, and they were doing unethical and illegal things. But they didn't hold a sheet in front of me the day I was hired and say "these are the laws we'll be violating, and the shady dealings we'll be engaging in." it creeps up on you. Before you know it, it's normal. Or its not normal, but it's so dysfunctional that you forget that it should not be that way. Everyone else is doing it, and you're not the one directly doing it. Stooping it is out of the question. No one listens and it's always someone else's problem.

It grinds you down, making it harder to do the right thing. In my case, it wasn't until after I was out of the company that I really realized the extent of how bad and wrong things were. And then, even if I had the energy etc complain, could I deal with the fallout? I don't think I could.

The banality of evil, indeed.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 2:20 AM on January 3 [22 favorites]


pjern: "It's really not that hard to start stepping over the line.

I once had a client that asked me to make a progress bar take "at least 30 minutes" to complete, to discourage uninstalls of the (shitty) software.
"

Holy shit, you wrote Windows NT 4.0?
posted by Sphinx at 2:22 AM on January 3 [5 favorites]


There's no option to subscribe without automatic renewal.

True, but with any magazine where you get auto-renewal I've found that a quick call where you basically say you didn't authorize the renewal and want it cancelled with a refund generally works. It happened to me with a few magazines, including Sports Illustrated which gets you in with a low-ball offer and then starts full price auto-renewals.
posted by graymouser at 2:40 AM on January 3


Consumer tip: My otherwise large, evil credit card bank offers something called ShopSafe. You can go to their website and generate a one-time credit card number that you can set a dollar and time limit on. This is good for subscriptions that you don't want to automatically recur, and definitely good for any online purchase from a merchant you haven't dealt with before.

Unfortunately, they don't make it very easy to find on their website. And while it takes a couple of minutes to navigate through the menus to generate a number, it's worth it for the piece of mind.
posted by SteveInMaine at 3:30 AM on January 3


I work with a guy who had me take the "receive updates form our company" check box off his web site for an event sign-up because less than 1% of people wanted their "words of wisdom".

Did he know it was illegal, at the very least in the EU?

Did he care?
posted by MartinWisse at 4:53 AM on January 3


The whole recurring charges thing is nothing new; I know some of you remember the Columbia House Record Club, as well as its literary counterpart, the Book of the Month Club. They were making money off the opt-out model a half century ago. Its just that now the internet allows a smaller group of people to reach a larger number of potential marks, while offering less of tangible value.
posted by TedW at 5:04 AM on January 3 [5 favorites]


money has been well-established as mattering not at all or very much or something in between depending on your perspective.

It's the STEALING that richly deserves the caps-lock of mattering


I think if you take a good look around you will find that no matter how much you and I may wish otherwise, if you have money, nothing else matters as long as you do not murder someone with your own two hands in front of a crowd of witnesses. Look at this guy. He's a liar and a cheat and a scammer--an obvious sociopath--and he's still rich (anyone with a new Lamborghini is more than "doing fine") and free to do as he pleases, having laudatory articles about him published in the Atlantic.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:50 AM on January 3 [1 favorite]


laudatory articles about him published in the Atlantic.

I don't think the Atlantic was exactly praising him as a role model to emulate.
posted by arcticseal at 11:07 AM on January 3


I don't care what they are praising him as, the line quoted by elizardbits above (along with several other equally nauseating examples from the article) is hardly condemnatory. By the sick rules of our society, this man is a winner, and the Atlantic's verbiage reflects that.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 11:41 AM on January 3 [2 favorites]


> It's really not that hard to start stepping over the line.

Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
Once outside the law you're all the way outside. You think he's just a gambler. I think he's a pornographer, a blackmailer, a hot car broker, a killer by remote control, and a suborner of crooked cops. He's whatever looks good to him, whatever has the cabbage pinned to it.
Thanks to asavage, I was reading this right after this post & it struck me. Read in Bogart's voice if you like.
posted by morganw at 4:43 PM on January 3


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