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Brian Dunning

Leading Skeptic Brian Dunning Sentenced to 15 Months Prison for Fraud

Leading skeptic Brian Dunning, of the popular Skeptoid podcast, has this week been sentenced to 15 months in a Federal prison for defrauding eBay of hundreds of thousands of dollars. His incarceration will begin on September 2.

Dunning has now posted ‘a message‘ about his conviction and sentencing on his website, a move which some skeptics have applauded as taking ownership of his crime, while others aren’t as impressed. While I really don’t care to get too deep into this affair, I’d have to side with the latter. In particular, unless there are more details I’m not party to, Dunning’s description of how he earned his riches (through his company Kessler’s Flying Circus, or KFC) seems rather misleading:

[W]e developed a pair of useful widgets: ProfileMaps, that showed a map of visitors to your MySpace page; and WhoLinked, a WordPress plugin that showed who has linked to your blog. These both included an eBay advertisement. Amazingly these both went viral, and through 2006 and 2007 our ads drove enough new customers to eBay US to earn KFC about $5.3 million dollars. Keep in mind that was the company’s gross revenue; we had overhead and employees and costs like every other company. I was the second highest paid employee, and I did earn over a million dollars personally over 2006 and 2007 before taxes. [my emphasis]

The original indictment describes the crime, involving ‘cookie-stuffing’, in a very different way:

[T]he defendant provided free applications at two of his websites that users could download and use on their own websites: “ProfileMaps.info,” which showed the physical location of visitors to a MySpace profile, and “WhoLinked.com,” which showed who was linking to the user’s website or blog. Any visitor to those websites could download either or both applications. Both applications included code that operated as follows: when a user visited a website that had installed the Profilemaps or Wholinked applications, the code would cause the user unknowingly to receive an eBay and/or CJ cooke with KFC’s Affiliate ID without the user having clicked on an eBay ad or link, without the user knowing that his or her browser had been re-directed to the eBay and/or CJ affiliate tracking server, and without the user seeing any content of an eBay site. As a result, KFC would be paid if that user subsequently conducted an eBay revenue action within a certain period of time. [my emphasis)

I was also a little…skeptical…about Dunning’s final words, in which he says though he regrets “this stain”, he will “own it”. From what I have seen, apart from this ‘message’ that some others have linked to on social media, Dunning has assiduously avoided taking ownership…his Twitter feed does not mention his sentencing or link to the message, neither does his Facebook page. There is no link to the message, or mention of his conviction/sentencing, on the front page of his own website. And perhaps worst of all, there seems to be absolutely no mention of it anywhere on the Skeptoid site – a venture which regularly asks for financial donations from listeners (the most recent being an August 1 podcast release titled ‘Listeners Have Another Say’). Top left of the site does feature a link to ‘Support Skeptoid’ though.

In fact, Dunning’s done such a good job of ‘owning it’ that today, while browsing various skeptical websites discussing this topic, I’ve seen a number of comments posted by Skeptoid supporters who were totally unaware of not only his prison sentence, but the conviction (which was recorded more than a year ago) [Update: an example here].

But it’s not really my concern – I leave it to the real skeptics to dissect the case in more detail.

[Update: Skepchick have done a very good job of exactly that in this blog-post – it pretty much touches on everything I was thinking]

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  1. It’s human nature to take
    It’s human nature to take glee in your enemies’ infractions and crimes, but really- as we have discussed before on this forum – both sides of this coin are populated with some very unscrupulous and unsavory people. This latest blowup just tells us what we already knew – that a lot of people jumping on bandwagons are in it purely for the attention and not the content. There are circus barkers on both sides though it does indeed appear that the Skeptics may be winning that weighting.

  2. Thibeault

    I really wish the skeptical community had not repeatedly defended Dunning’s actions, as though some level of skeptical outreach excuses gross fraud. The Halo Effect has no place in our communities, and we should be especially leery of anyone who argues for this sort of con-artistry in a community that prides itself on teaching people about others’ fraudulent claims. All the shade you throw at someone like Uri Geller for lying and taking people’s money under false pretenses is suspect if you also support a skeptic who lies and takes people’s money under false pretenses. Skepticism is theoretically a social justice cause, and seeing it undermined by such self-interested, greedy, amoral and oftentimes IMmoral scumbags is disheartening.

    ~Jason Thibeault

    What he said.

    Although, truth be told, I can understand that friends of Dunning are trying to defend him, in spite of the fact that he committed a crime. But they should be mindful of the double standard, the next time they point their guns against the fraudsters on ‘the other side’ of the skeptical trenches.

    1. Fraud is fraud
      and he is an ass. plain and simple. I don’t listen to his show, but knowing many a person who has been the victim of fraud I have no sympathy for him or his crime.

      1. Yep
        His gimmick quite likely deprived many small sites & blogs from much needed eBay money.

        Also, he kept asking for donations to Skeptoid listeners. This from a man who had over a million dollars in the bank!

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