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Verizon subpoenas DirectNIC whistleblower

Kevin Murphy, January 21, 2011, Domain Registrars

Verizon has subpoenaed a former DirectNIC employee as part of its ongoing cybersquatting lawsuit against the domain name registrar.

Mark Deshong filed a “whistleblower” suit against his former employer – Keypath LLC, which he said shares ownership with DirectNIC – last August, but it was quickly settled out of court.

He alleged Keypath was engaged in a fraudulent domain arbitrage scheme using Yahoo Search Marketing and credit cards applied for in the name of bogus companies.

Keypath’s lawyers (who denied the links to DirectNIC) in turn accused Deshong of trying to extort the company for a larger severance package. The case was settled in October.

Now, in a Florida court filing (pdf), Verizon said it has subpoenaed Deshong for information related to its own case, which is currently tied up in pretrial discovery arguments.

He was scheduled to provide a deposition on Tuesday.

Verizon claims DirectNIC engaged in cybersquatting via shell companies such as Kenyatech/Kentech and Belize Domain WHOIS Service.

While there’s circumstantial evidence connecting the companies, CEO Sigmund Solares signed a sworn affidavit in a previous case denying Kenyatech and DirectNIC were affiliated.

Verizon’s interest in Deshong appears to be limited to information about DirectNIC’s ownership structure and its affiliations, rather than his allegations about domain arbitrage practices.

Whistleblower alleged shenanigans at DirectNIC

Kevin Murphy, December 18, 2010, Domain Registrars

A former employee of a company allegedly affiliated with domain name registrar DirectNIC claimed the company operated a fraudulent domain arbitrage scheme using Yahoo ads and Parked.com.

Mark Deshong filed a whistleblower lawsuit in August. It was settled in October, but its claims are quite interesting, and don’t appear to have been reported on elsewhere.

Until April this year, Deshong worked for a company called Keypath LLC, a domain registration and monetization company based in Tampa, Florida.

According to his lawsuit (pdf), Keypath is owned by the same bunch of people (notably Sigmund Solares and Michael Gardner) who run DirectNIC and Parked.com, as well as entities including Intercosmos Media Group and The Producers Inc.

Deshong said he was fired after blowing the whistle on a “fraudulent” scheme to bilk money out of Yahoo Search Marketing using the old practice of domain arbitrage.

The suit claimed Keypath bought ads on YSM to bring traffic to sites such as cameras.com that, in turn, displayed nothing but contextual ads generated automatically by YSM.

The company would pay Yahoo small amounts for the traffic it received, but would be paid larger amounts for the traffic it sent elsewhere.

That’s domain arbitrage in a nutshell. It was commonplace among domainers back in 2007 and earlier, and Keypath was far from the only company engaged in the practice.

Yahoo tried to put a stop to arbitrage on its ad network in February 2008, as Domain Name Wire reported at the time, but the lawsuit alleged that Keypath carried on regardless, using bogus identities.

This is when the “fraudulent” behavior is alleged to have commenced.

The suit claimed Keypath “created fictitious, unregistered DBA [Doing Business As] company names” in order to obtain up to 1,000 credit cards from Regions Bank.

The complaint, in an eyebrow-raising paragraph, goes on to list almost 100 of these alleged DBA companies’ names.

Each one of these companies would get a Gmail or Hotmail email address and a Skype phone number for the city where the “fictitious” company was supposedly based, the complaint alleged.

A proxy server would be obtained in each of these cities, which Keypath would use to access YSM and order ads pointing to parked pages, under the guise of one of the DBAs, the suit alleged.

The scheme covered about 50,000 domains and made about $375,000 during January 2010, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit was filed under Florida’s whistleblower act, so while it alleged multiple illegal acts (such as bank fraud and wire fraud) on Keypath’s part, it only attempted to prove wrongful termination.

Deshong basically claimed that he was canned after telling his superiors he could no longer carry out duties he believed to be illegal – he didn’t want to go to jail.

In its response (pdf) to the complaint, Keypath denied essentially all of Deshong’s claims.

It also denied that the company has ties to DirectNIC, Michael Gardner, Sigmund Solares, Intercosmos, Parked.com or The Producers.

(Probably a disingenuous claim. Florida company records show they’re all currently or recently linked to businesses located at 5505 West Gray Street in Tampa, Parked.com’s main US office. Keypath’s web site shows the same address).

5505 West Gray Street

Keypath also accused Deshong of a shakedown, attempting to “extort an unreasonable severance package”, and said that he had “improperly retained” a company laptop after he was fired.

The suit was settled out of court (pdf) on October 25th for an undisclosed sum.

The lawsuit is only tangentially related to the cybersquatting lawsuit Verizon filed against DirectNIC earlier this year. That case appears to be currently tied up in a pre-trial discovery/jurisdictional nightmare.