If you've ever wondered who exactly is behind those obviously scammy flashing ads that pollute so many Internet pages, check out this lengthy, well-written, piece in the Atlantic profiling the career of “Jesse Willms, the Dark Lord of the Internet.”
Here's the super-short capsule summary: turns out it's very easy to get very rich very fast, if you combine cleverness with a complete lack of qualms about deceiving people. That said, as the Atlantic pointed out: though Willms has been successfully sued multiple times and forced to pay multiple massive fines, he's never been charged with any actual crime.
At first glance Willms appears to be an entrepreneurial genius; He dropped out of high school (with his mother's reluctant permission) because classes distracted him from his part-time online business selling used Microsoft software, which was netting him vastly more money than most successful adult professionals make.
Willms became a Lamborghini-driving multimillionaire before his former classmates even finished high school — and by the time he turned 18, Microsoft slapped him with a massive lawsuit, charging that the “used” software he sold was actually pirated.
So Willms lost his first fortune, but quickly made another via tacky Internet ads selling alleged “weight-loss pills” and the like. However, the bulk of his profits came not from the initial sale of various products, but through sleazy billing schemes.
According to a lawsuit the Federal Trade Commission eventually filed against him, between 2007 and 2011 Willms made over $460 million by offering “risk free” trials of various products — with massive charges hidden in the fine print. Customers who thought they were getting a free sample of something-or-other wound up paying hundreds of dollars in subscription fees, and the process to cancel them was so difficult, many customers had to resort to canceling their credit cards altogether.
So how in the world has Willms never been charged with any criminal violations? Basically, by revealing his true intentions in the fine print. As the Atlantic noted:
It’s hard to counter Willms’s attorneys when they point out that his terms were right there for consumers to peruse. Screen captures from the FTC’s files show that Willms often placed the details of his offers next to where customers entered their credit-card information. If people neglected to read up on what they were buying and simply clicked through—just as we all do every day, when Apple or Microsoft presents us with a new novel-length list of terms and conditions—was this Willms’s fault or the customers’?
So far, this argument has proven effective at protecting Willms fron criminal charges. Besides, criminal charges are rarely brought in consumer cases, which tend to be treated as civil matters.
Even if you never buy things advertised through Internet ads, it's worth reading the entire Atlantic piece in order to educate yourself about various tricks Willms used to keep his scams going as long as he did. For example, the secret subscription fees he added to customer's credit cards were usually in small, irregular and ever-changing amounts, the better to escape notice:
Adding to the challenge was Willms’s practice of charging random dollar amounts for the hidden extras—$7.22, $2.97, $3.34—that would look like legitimate purchases. According to the FTC, these irregularly denominated charges were some of Willms’s biggest moneymakers, because consumers either assumed they were genuine or didn’t know to be wary of them.
We know, you've heard this a thousand times already, but we're going to repeat it anyway: you have to be scrupulous every month when checking your credit card bill, and make sure every single line item listed is one you recognize as legitimate.