Search Engine Optimizer Admits Extorting Money from a Local Merger and Acquisitions Firm
DALLAS, TX—A man, who, along with his sister, was indicted last year on felony offenses stemming from their attempts to extort money from a business in Dallas, pleaded guilty in federal court today, announced John Parker, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas.
William Stanley, 53, a/k/a “William Laurence,” “Bill Stanley,” “William Davis,” “William Harris,” and “William L. Stanley,” pleaded guilty today to one count of Hobbs Act—Extortion. He faces a maximum statutory penalty of 20 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine. Sentencing is set for January 4, 2016, before U.S. District Judge David C. Godbey.
Stanley, a U.S. citizen, most recently resided in Romania with his wife, a Romanian national. In 2013, he traveled several times between Europe and the United States. On March 3, 2014, he was arrested on a related federal criminal complaint at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, where he arrived on a flight from Europe. He has been in custody since that time.
Stanley’s sister, Lynn Faust, a/k/a “Lynn Michaels,” 55, was arrested in Sweden in May 2014. Ms. Faust was extradited and appeared in court in the Northern District of Texas on October 16, 2014. On October 21, 2014, the government withdrew its motion to detain, and the Court released Faust on conditions of release. She pleaded guilty in July 2015 to a Superseding Information charging one count of receiving the proceeds of extortion and aiding and abetting. She faces a maximum statutory penalty of three years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine. Her sentencing is set for February 1, 2016, before Judge Godbey.
Faust assisted Stanley in operating his search engine optimization (SEO) company. A legitimate SEO business engages in standard practices such as optimizing the underlying HTML code on a website for certain keywords that a search engine indexer, (e.g., a web crawler for Google, Bing, etc.) would associate with a given search query. An illegitimate SEO business engages in deceptive tactics to affect search engine rankings and the volume of results. Such deceptive tactics include creating fraudulent reviews (good or bad), creating fictitious websites, or hiding text on websites.
While Stanley engaged in some legitimate SEO work, he also engaged in illegitimate and illegal SEO activities. Stanley also extorted individuals and companies by threatening to engage in the illegitimate SEO work, that being posting fraudulent comments and creating negative reviews online, if the victim did not pay him a certain sum of money.
In November 2009, a Dallas-based firm, GE, entered into a contract with Stanley for SEO services and reputation management. Stanley was hired because of his ability to improve a firm’s online reputation through search results. After approximately one year, however, GE sought to terminate its relationship with Stanley after it determined he had acted outside of his contracted duties. Stanley also created websites that had the ability to damage GE’s reputation by associating GE with a scam. Stanley demanded additional payments to end his contractual relationship with GE and to surrender the administrator rights to the websites to GE. From November 2010 through January 2011, GE paid Stanley a total of $80,000 to terminate the relationship.
Posing as “William Davis” and “William Laurence,” Stanley transmitted threatening communications, via e-mail and telephone, from foreign countries to GE in the Northern District of Texas. Those communications threatened to post comments on the Internet wrongfully disparaging GE’s reputation, if GE did not send money to Stanley.
Because of Stanley’s threats to harm GE’s reputation through negative Internet posts that would adversely affect GE’s ability to conduct business if it failed to send money, GE responded to the wrongful inducement by sending four payments totaling $29,556 by MoneyGram to Stanley in Brasov, Romania.
According to the stipulated facts outlined in the factual resume, the government can readily prove that Stanley’s extortive conduct caused GE to make the above payments and to lose revenue. The extortive conduct also affected interstate commerce. In addition, the government contends that as of May 2014, it could readily prove that Stanley engaged in similar extortionate conduct with approximately 40 to 45 victims (including GE). The government contends the loss attributed to Stanley was over $230,000.00.
The FBI is investigating. Assistant U.S. Attorney C.S. Heath is in charge of the prosecution.