An online retailer who boasted that complaints about his business helped boost its standing in Google search results was arrested on Monday.
Vitaly Borker, 34, was arrested at his home in Brooklyn, New York, and charged with fraud, cyberstalking and harassment, the US Department of Justice said. He faces up to 20 years in prison.
According to the complaint against him and a profile that appeared in The New York Times last month, Borker made abusive customer service his signature style. Prosecutors say he shipped counterfeit or defective products and threatened customers with violence if they complained.
"When those customers tried to return or exchange the merchandise, Borker subjected them to a campaign of aggressive, obscene and intimidating conduct," the DOJ said.
The US Federal Trade Commission has logged more than 200 complaints against Borker's designer eyeware business, Decormyeyes.com, the DoJ said.
In one case, Borker allegedly botched an order, overbilled the customer and then, saying he knew where she lived, threatened her with sexual violence. The calls came again and again, continuing "well into the night," according to an affidavit signed by US Postal Inspector Douglas Veatch.
Borker told a second customer that he was "instructing his assistant to 'crush' the glasses and then 'take the pieces of what is left of his glasses and use the label he sent to ship the powder back to him," Veatch wrote.
It was all part of a scheme to boost his online presence by getting people to discuss and link to his online store. Even if the links came from people complaining about his business it still drove traffic to the website.
Borker went by several online aliases, prosecutors say, including Tony Russo and Stanley Bolds.
Responding in June 2008 to dozens of online complaints about Decormyeyes.com, Borker allegedly wrote: "the more replies you people post the more business and the more hits and sales I get. My goal is NEGATIVE advertisement. ... I never had the amount of traffic I have now since my 1st complaint. I am in heaven. Thanks so very much for your continued effort. I really appreciate it."
The system took advantage of Google's tendency to give higher search-result placement to websites that are mentioned and linked to more frequently - even if the context is negative.
After The New York Times broke the story of Borker's business practices - complete with surprisingly candid comments from Borker himself - Google changed its algorithm to prevent this type of negative advertisement from working.
Neither Borker nor his lawyer Bruce Kaye returned messages seeking comment.