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Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer says he’ll testify against site’s founders

Source: Associated Press

The chief executive of a website that authorities have dubbed an “online brothel” pleaded guilty to reduced charges Thursday and agreed to cooperate in prosecuting the site’s creators.

Carl Ferrer will serve no more than five years in state prison under the plea agreement.

He pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and three counts of money laundering. He also agreed to cooperate in the ongoing California prosecution of Backpage.com founders Michael Lacey, and James Larkin. They have pleaded not guilty.

The founders also were among those indicted this month by a federal grand jury in Arizona. Ferrer was noticeably absent from the federal indictment, which referenced a “CF” who was heavily involved with the site.Ferrer also agreed to make the company’s data available to law enforcement.

The U.S. Justice Department shut down the website last week.

Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Larry Brown last year threw out pimping conspiracy and other state charges against Backpage’s operators. Brown ruled that the charges are barred by a federal law protecting free speech that grants immunity to websites posting content from others.

President Donald Trump this week signed a law making it easier to prosecute website operators in the future.

But Brown allowed the state to continue with money laundering charges. Prosecutors allege Backpage’s operators illegally funneled money through multiple companies and created websites to get around banks that refused to process their transactions.

“Human trafficking is modern-day slavery, and it is happening in our own backyard,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement announcing the plea deal.

“The shutdown of Backpage.com is a tremendous victory for the survivors and their families. And the conviction of CEO Ferrer is a game-changer in combatting human trafficking in California, indeed worldwide.”

Want more?

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Know Your Rights: With Police Officers

No Warrant No Problem (How the police are tracking you)

Snitches pictures and locations

Gorilla Seed Bank Review

Prison snitch claims police tried to make him fake evidence in the trial of rap boss Suge Knight over fatal car crash

By Chris Summer

A prolific jailhouse snitch has claimed he was offered a deal by a Los Angeles county sheriff – provide fake evidence to help convict rap boss Marion ‘Suge’ Knight and a relative would get a reduced sentence.

Knight’s lawyers have said he was acting in self-defense when he ran over Cle ‘Bone’ Sloan, who was punching Knight through the window of his pickup truck, and also ran over Terry Carter, who died from his injuries.

Knight founded the Death Row Records label, which once listed Dr Dre, Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg among its artists.

Knight lost control of the company after it was forced into bankruptcy.

The Huffington Post says Daniel Timms, a prolific informant, was ordered to come up with false testimony about Knight in order to bolster the prosecution’s case. 

Knight, 51, has pleaded not guilty to murder and attempted murder charges filed last year after he ran over two men outside a burger stand in Compton, California.

He faces potential life sentences if convicted because of prior convictions for armed robbery and assault with a gun. 

Knight was a key player in the gangster rap scene that flourished in the 1990s and has been kept under tight security since he turned himself in to authorities after the fatal altercation in January 2015. 

Knight’s lawyer, Thaddeus Culpepper, said Timms had told him two sheriff’s deputies urged him to lie about what Knight said when they were housed next to each other in jail and told him: ‘Knight intended to be violent and showed no remorse in injuring or taking the victim’s life.’ 

Mr Culpepper said that In exchange for false testimony, Timms was promised his wife’s nephew, Devin Gonzales, would receive a drastically reduced sentence in a murder case in which he faced 70 years to life. 

Knight’s defense attorneys are requesting a formal investigation into Timms’ claims by California Attorney General Kamala Harris and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. 

But California lawyer Csaba Palfi, who said he had had dealings with Timms in the past, told the Huffington Post: ‘If you ever shake hands with Danny Timms, count your fingers after. What can I tell you? He’s a snitch. That’s his occupation, that’s what he does for a living.’

Want more?

Criminal defenses

Know Your Rights: With Police Officers

No Warrant No Problem (How the police are tracking you)

Snitches pictures and locations

Gorilla Seed Bank Review

Feds Bring Down Prostitution Ring Running Brothels From ‘High-End Apartments’ in Three States

By

Human merchandise hawked on BostonAsianDolls.com promised “the Best!”

Its landing page was littered with pictures of women named “Scarlet Red,” “Jina” and “Ara”—each photographed performing submissive positions and in various states of undress. These “amazing beauties from Korea and Japan” mastered in “companionship between two adults” offered charms to deliver “your Geisha experience…an experience you will not forget.”

To spend time with the “models,” a customer was invited to make an “appointment” by calling or texting a number posted on the site.

If you passed the vetting process—confirming your job and reassuring you weren’t a cop or a convict—a one-, two- or three-hour meeting was arranged inside a posh apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Once arrived, a woman calling herself Amber interacted with the client in a series of text messages, giving strict instructions on everything from parking to paying. Amber insisted, “WHEN WE GIVE APT# MAKE SURE YOU ARE GOING TO CORRECT PLACE!” or “Do not walk past the leasing office.” Most important, under no circumstances should you ever make any noise alerting your escort that you’ve arrived: “PLEASE DO NOT KNOCK!”

The since-shuttered escort website was cloned using similar facades and nicknames at least twice: ExoticAsianAtlanta.com in Atlanta and RedHotFlowers69.com in Fairfax, Virginia. They were taken off the internet by the feds who bagged five people—two women and three men—and charged them back in March for running brothels for as long as five years from “high-end” apartments and funneling the cash through the U.S. Postal Service, according to court records reviewed by Newsweek.

On Wednesday, at Boston’s federal court, “Amber” was identified as Susan Bashir, 41, of Stone Mountain, Georgia. She pleaded guilty to committing interstate prostitution and money laundering conspiracy charges. Prosecutors say Bashir worked as a kind of interstate sex den mother and, because of her plea, she could be sent to prison for up to 20 years and pay fines tallying $750,000. She is scheduled to be sentenced on November 8.

Co-defendant and former promising college musician Jineok Kim, 38, of Watertown, Massachusetts, last month also changed his plea to guilty for participating in the human trafficking ring and money laundering scheme. And a 52-year-old man named Kyung Song of Lexington, Massachusetts, pled guilty earlier this month.

The only holdouts in the alleged crimes are veteran soldier Yoon Kim, 36, of Haymarket, Virginia, and his 46-year-old Korean-born wife, Taehee Kim, who continue to fight the charges. Yoon, the papers said, is South Korean, but “became a U.S. citizen in 2008 while serving in the U.S. Army.” Taehee Kim (born in South Korea as Hyunsook Kim) was convicted in Asia for fraud offenses stretching from 1993 to 2011. She was deported after trying to enter the U.S. illegally back in 2003 via Mexico, court documents state, but became a permanent U.S. resident after changing her name and marrying Yoon in 2016.

Newsweek’s attempts to reach attorneys for the defendants or the defendants themselves—who have been released pending their sentencing hearings or criminal trials—resulted in them either not responding or declining to comment

But Newsweek’s review of federal court documents, including a recently filed plea agreement and a 56-page affidavit, pulls the veil off the five defendants’ sophisticated prostitution and human trafficking network that operated for years out of pricy haunts stretching from Atlanta to Cambridge. The records show that beginning in 2013, the accused pimps and madams managed to stay afloat by shuttling the women from three different states, promoting them online like a virtual sex carnival coming to town.

The goal? Feds say it was to reel in johns.

And as investigators closed in, some of the clients participated in coordinated stings to help bring down the human trafficking enterprise.

The sell on BostonAsianDolls.com (after reviewing an archived version online) relied on spare, broken English text and featured each model’s body dimensions.

“Scarlet Red” appeared on the website as a 23-year-old delivering the “GFE” (or Girlfriend Experience) and was advertised as a “top-geisha service girl with amazing looks,” skin “like silk” and “her skills are unbelievable.”

The website also listed a “new” arrival to Cambridge: “Jina.”

Photos of Jina faded in and out on a black screen, where static, hot-pink-colored font invited strangers to learn that the 23-year-old was “visiting town for the first time” and possessed “all natural D cup… puts her as a top-notch glamour model in this business.” The last line: “Meet Jina today and let your stress go away all at once with her special treat!”

Multiple “girls” were labeled as “new” or “brand new” like “Miya,” who the site claimed “has a full package” or “beautiful girl Beka,” who “will become your favorite girl.” To distinguish johns from jokesters, a not-so-subtle “Gift” link displayed prices.

“Gift is proper etiquette,” the site read. “When arriving please leave gift out in plain view! Your appointment will not start until this is done!” Beyond a no-knock policy, there was also a no-money-talk policy.

For BostonAsianGirls.com, the gifts were arranged in descending order as “Donations.” Forty-five minutes cost $260. An hour, $300; two hours, $580. For “Double Donations”—likely meaning having sex more than once—rates jumped: A two-hour “double” was $1,160.

The rates in Cambridge were steeper than those on sister sites RedHotFlowers69.com, in Fairfax, Virginia, where two hours cost $500, and ExoticAsianAtlanta.com, where a john could get a 90-minute double with “Raina.. a MUST SEE type model” or “Anika” who wanted to “treat you like a king…” for $780.

To bring charges against the four men and one woman, feds tracked their IP addresses, mobile phone chatter and cased them as they replenished supplies or moved their roster to different cities, having rented units in “high-end apartment complexes.”

“Several women have been advertised on more than one of the above-described websites, as they traveled from city to city within the prostitution network,” according to the court records filed in Boston’s federal court beginning in March.

Some johns admitted during questioning that they met up with the same girls in multiple locations. “Men interviewed by law enforcement have confirmed that they have seen the same women in multiple cities within the prostitution network,” the papers say.

The sexual encounters apparently followed a routine: Customers arrived quietly. Shoes came off, and then the john was escorted to the bedroom, according to court documents. They adjourned to the apartment’s bathroom “to use mouthwash” and then, prosecutors allege, showered before returning to the bedroom to engage in intercourse “with that female using a condom that she provided.”

Among the ring’s characters was Jineok Kim, a promising musician who enrolled at the prestigious Berklee College of Music back in 2010. But he dropped out after three years in and started working the Cambridge, Massachusetts–based brothels.

He and Bashir were described in court records as “picking up proceeds from the prostitution business” and “transporting Asian women between brothels” between different states.

Jineok Kim would allegedly make repeated deposits of prostitution proceeds into ATMs in the names of Yoon Kim and Taehee Kim. He then allegedly “purchased tens of thousands of dollars in postal money orders with cash from the brothels” from multiple post office, court records show.

The postal money orders never went over $2,000 “in order to avoid reporting requirements,” according to court records.

Meanwhile, when Bashir wasn’t playing Amber, the alleged sex-trafficking matchmaker, she would also collect cash from the Atlanta-based brothels.

“Bashir picks up prostitution proceeds from two Atlanta area brothels…” court records show.

Bashir would then deposit the earnings into bank accounts in Yoon Kim’s name, according to the documents. A 2016 photograph of a woman (whom the feds say is Bashir) is part of the affidavit. She is standing at a bulletproof Wells Fargo bank teller window making a five-figure deposit, like the many others recorded from that year.

The arresting special agent wrote in the original affidavit, “I believe these deposits constitute prostitution proceeds.”

The husband-wife couple Yoon Kim and Taehee Kim appeared to be in charge of maintaining safe sex at the brothels and were said to purchase bulk orders of prophylactics.

“Yoon Kim and Taehee Kim have purchased a staggering number of condoms over the last several years from the Condom Depot,” according to court documents.

Two separate orders in 2017 amounted to 1,008 condoms using their “respective bank accounts and in their own names” and “delivered to their home,” the papers said.

Only three years prior, the document adds, the Kims “placed many similar orders” for approximately 20,160 condoms, sent in different shipments to their “prior known residences.”

Beyond the texting and condom supply and routine moves from sex house to sex house, Bashir and her cohorts allegedly left a paper trail like breadcrumbs for the fuzz to peck at.

Ledgers pulled from Bashir’s home on February 7 supplied agents with sex workers’ call names like “Clio” and “Miso” and “Cherry.” Each corresponded to the advertisements on ExoticAsianAtlanta.com, and scribbled alongside was a list of vertical numbers and dates that the FBI agent declared “to be daily earnings” from their sex trade.

Similar ledgers in the form of white envelopes with a name of sex workers like “Tomi” and “Rachel” and similar financials and corresponding dates were also dug out of Kyung Song’s trash bags back on January 8.

Nine envelopes, in fact, “bearing a name, a single date, and a dollar amount” were salvaged as evidence, the court documents suggest.

Song, the document goes on, did “keep ledgers of prostitutes’ earnings and collects funds from the prostitutes.”

SNITCHES get STITCHES

On March 8, 2017, FBI agents set up a sting by coaching a john to “arrange an appointment with a prostitute” at a Cambridge sex lair.

“Hi Amber,” the man, referred to in Bashir’s plea agreement as “Client 1,” texted.

“Wondering about Amy’s availability today.”

Amber (Bashir’s alias) texted she hadn’t appraised “Amy” but offered “Scarlett” instead.

“I never met her, only Scarlett, so I can’t recommend her yet. I can Scarlett though. So would you TOFT,” the texted response read, possibly decoded as Take One For [the] Team.

An afternoon slot was set with Scarlett and Client 1 opted for “1 hour.” Amber then informed Client 1 to follow directions: “MAKE SURE YOU ARE GOING TO THE CORRECT PLACE!” She insisted in a final text: “please do not knock.”

The same setup was arranged by “Amber” a month later when investigators coached another john, “Client 2,” who set up a sex date.

The documents named Bashir (as Amber) communicating “with a brothel client [Client 2]” to “arrange an appointment with a prostitute at an Atlanta brothel…” located inside the upscale Tuscany at Lindbergh.

If clients were meet here and indulge in the shower portion of the date, the units feature “a garden tub in both bathrooms,” according to the website. Court documents also show that during the time the apartment was rented at Tuscany, it hiked from $1,485 per month to $1,686.

Bashir offered the john a date with either “Jina,” “Cherry” or “Clio,” according to court documents.

The terms are set and again, the discretion is pushed. “For our safety and yours PLEASE DO NO KNOCK!” Door will be open, let yourself in. If girl isn’t there please text me! Thnx”

But the john was actually in Massachusetts and left Bashir and Jina without consummating the date. “Client 2…did not attend the appointment,” court documents show.

On October 13, 2017, Bashir allegedly text messaged with a sex worker, named in court documents as “Woman 1” about a man who arrived for a midday appointment, but after mouthwash rinsing and a shower, he vanished.

“The guest went home after the shower,” Woman 1 texted Bashir, according to court documents.

They exchange “crying with laughter” emojis before Bashir texts: “Free money” and more “crying with laughter” plus “money bag” emojis.

In almost every instance documented by investigators, the ring allegedly ran their illicit sex operations from prime real estate.

On February 16 of this year, Bashir and a sex worker called “Venus” engaged in another text message exchange again disparaging a john for bailing on another date at the Fairfax, Virginia–based Edge apartment complex. The apartment was leased for $2,184.29 in Yoon Kim’s name, according to court documents.

The gated community offers “fine living and unsurpassed location” as well as a “gorgeous 3-tier resort-style pool,” according to its website.

In this case, the john is referred to in documents as “Client 3” and role-played as a returning customer who informs Bashir (who again goes by the alias “Amber”) that he has enjoyed services in Cambridge.

That was at the regal Kendall Square–based Axiom apartments (where potential visitors and hosts could shower together in its advertised “premium bathrooms”) and the monthly rent was $3,630, prosecutors allege.

A clueless former tenant of the same unit told Newsweek that the unit “wasn’t particularly” special, but it was “conveniently located” in town.

The other property the accused prostitution crew purportedly rented was the Fuse Cambridge community, with oversized balconies and 9-foot or higher ceilings.

Four minutes away was the Vox apartment complex, where authorities say Jineok Kim “ran former brothels” by replenishing the space with food and supplies and “transporting” women “to and from Logan Airport.” It was also at this location back in 2016 that FBI agents “installed a video camera in a common hallway” and, according to court documents, “observed a steady stream of men spending about an hour at a time at the apartment, consistent with its use as a brothel.”

The rent at this location was fronted by Taehee Kim’s bank accounts, court documents show.

“Client 3” in Fairfax feigned being “Mike Green from Boston” and called the number off RedHotFlowers69, referenced in court documents.

Bashir [Amber] texted him to ask if he wanted “regular or plus?” Based on an archived version of the three websites, “plus” likely means having the sex worker perform acts beyond the norm. In this case, oral sex with Venus would tack on an extra $40.

But Client 3 demures: “1 hr please reg,” the text likely meaning regular.

Bashir sends strict walking directions for the 5 p.m. meet: “Please be discreet at all times!”

Client 3, like some other johns, “was cooperating with law enforcement” was a no-show who “did not attend the appointment,” according to court documents.

After breaking the date with Venus, “Bashir allegedly sent Client 3 a door-slamming text.

“They say you did this in Boston… cancel 15 [minutes] Before [appointment]… You are not nice.”

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Galveston County judge Christopher Dupuy arrested on outstanding warrants

Galveston County deputies arrested disgraced former Judge Christopher Dupuy near Austin on Monday morning on outstanding warrants from both Galveston and Harris County.

Dupuy, who served as a Galveston County judge from 2010 to 2013, faces two charges of online impersonation stemming from a 2015 arrest and was being held on a $400,000 in bond in Galveston County jail, Galveston County Sheriff Henry Trochesset said.

Harris County also issued a warrant for a stalking charge against Dupuy in May, which carries an $888,888 bond, after a woman filed a stalking complaint alleging Dupuy had followed and threatened to kill her.

Trochesset said deputies from the Galveston County Sheriff’s warrant division traveled to the Austin area to find Dupuy. With the help of U.S. Marshals and Austin Police Department officers, they executed a search warrant at a residence south of Austin on Monday morning.

“At the time when they walked in, (Dupuy) was pulling the attic door down like he was making an attempt to climb into the attic to hide,” Trochesset said.

Dupuy was arrested and booked in Hays County jail on Monday, where he appeared before a magistrate judge. He was then transferred to Galveston County jail on Tuesday.

Dupuy was arrested in League City in July 2015 on two felony counts of online impersonation.

Court records claim Dupuy created fake escort ads to take revenge on two of his ex-girlfriends. He allegedly took pictures from the women’s facebook’s accounts and one texted to him during a previous dating relationship and purchased fake escort ads on Backpage.com promising sex. The ads reportedly included the victims’ personal phone numbers.

Investigators were able to track down a fake name Dupuy allegedly used to purchase the ads: Don Tequila. And although software was used that masked his computer’s IP address, investigators obtained a search warrant and were reportedly able to locate evidence that showed Dupuy was the person behind the fake ads.

A visiting judge in the 405th District Court in June 2016 dismissed two counts of online harassment, arguing the state’s online impersonation statute was unconstitutional.  The 14th Court of Appeals reversed the judge’s decision.

The Harris County warrant for Dupuy was issued May 24 after a woman filed a complaint that Dupuy had called her about 200 times beginning at 11 p.m. the night before threatening to kill her.

The woman told Harris County deputies Dupuy had represented her former husband in their divorce.

Dupuy resigned from the bench in 2013 after being charged with multiple counts of lying under oath and abuse of office, including retaliation against the attorney representing his wife in a divorce case.

EDITORS NOTE: Next time you’re in court remember that judges are no better than you or anyone else. This idiot thought he was getting over on his ex girlfriends by posting them on Backpage, right? But how much you want to bet that his ex girlfriends had a better time with the guys calling from Backpage than this guy could ever show them?

The rise of fake Amazon reviews — and how to spot them

By David Pogue

Customer reviews were supposed to be one of the internet’s greatest breakthroughs. They let you know if a product was any good before you spent money on it. Sites like Amazon, Yelp, TripAdvisor, Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb built their successes on the trust created by those review systems.

But these days, that trust is getting shaky.

How bad is the problem?

Here’s the thing: The review system is essential to trust — and to Amazon’s business model. After all, if you’re an online-only store, your customers can’t touch and examine your wares. All they have to go on are reviews from other customers.

But here’s the other thing: If you’re a desperate, obscure company, those reviews are your only hope of generating sales. Highly rated products appear first in Amazon’s search results, so getting your product listed at the top means big money. Gaming the system becomes very appealing.

“Anyone with a brain can see that there are a lot of problems,” says Saoud Khalifah founder of FakeSpot.com. (FakeSpot is a site whose algorithms help you weed out fake reviews from Amazon — or Yelp, or TripAdvisor, or the Apple app store; more on this below.)

“I would estimate right now, across all categories, around 30% are fake reviews,” Khalifah says. “Of the Chinese no-name companies, I’d say 95% of them are fake reviews.”

For its part, Amazon says that figure is overblown. “Inauthentic reviews made up less than 1% of all reviews on Amazon last month,” a spokesperson told me by email.

But as Tommy Noonan, creator of another fake-review-spotting site called ReviewMeta, points out, that there are millions of reviews on Amazon. So if 1% of 200 million reviews are fake, he noted, “there are still 2 million fake reviews on Amazon.”

Besides, Noonan says, “How do they know there are 1% fake reviews? I mean, if they know a review is fake, they’re gonna delete it, right? It’s basically impossible for anybody to say what percentage are fake.”

Where fake reviews come from

Just how sneaky are those sellers? Here are some of their tactics:

  • The 100%-off coupon. In Facebook groups, the sellers offer you a juicy deal: Buy their product and leave it a five-star review. In exchange, you’ll get a coupon good for the entire purchase price, or even more. This way, your review will still say “Verified Purchase” (Amazon’s badge that indicates you genuinely bought the product from Amazon). “It’s almost impossible for Amazon to track — and they’re giving these reviews the Verified Purchase badge,” says Noonan. “It’s not some guy in Bangladesh sitting at a computer writing thousands of reviews a day, but it’s still misleading to the consumer.”
  • The bot armies. Sleazy sellers can buy blocks of fake Amazon customer accounts by the thousand. Then they use people or software bots to write fake five-star reviews for their own products. (They’re careful to make subtle changes to each review — varying the number of exclamation points, for example — so that Amazon’s algorithms won’t spot the duplicates.)
  • The bait-and-switch. Once a seller has earned a high rating for a product, he can swap in a different photo and description, and voila: Instant high ratings for a completely unrelated product. Check out the page for this flash drive, for example, where (at this writing, anyway), the various reviews refer to a paper calendar, a blanket, a tooth-pain medicine, and binoculars. This seller has switched its product on this page, in other words, multiple times.
  • The praise-your-enemies trick. Sometimes, sellers leave crude, obviously phony five-star reviews for competitors’ products. These reviews are engineered to trigger Amazon’s own algorithms, so that their competitors get suspended. (Alternatively, they click the “Helpful” button on negative reviews for rival products, so that those reviews rise to the top.)
  • Amazon, in an effort to foster growth, has been inviting more Chinese companies (and U.S. sellers selling Chinese goods) to list their wares on the company’s site. (Only about half of the items listed on Amazon are actually sold by Amazon. All the rest are shipped directly to you from “third-party sellers,” who may use Amazon packaging to make it feel more Amazon-ish.) As you can guess, that trend makes the fake-reviews problem even worse.

All right. Now you know what you’re up against. But you have some tactics at your disposal, too. Here are a few ways to tell fake reviews from good ones:

  • Check the reviewer’s profile. When you click a reviewer’s name (which appears above every review), you get to see her profile page, which is often extremely enlightening. It shows all of this person’s reviews, for all products, all clumped together. If it looks like they’re all on the same day (or couple of days), or if they’re all variations of the same comments, you should smell a rat.
  • Look at the three- and four-star reviews. One aspect of a fake review you can count on: It’ll be a five-star review. (Or, when a seller is trying to attack a competitor, a one-star review.) A two-, three-, or four-star rating doesn’t accomplish much in moving a review’s search-results position. Therefore, the in-between ratings are more likely to be authentic — and therefore worth reading.
  • Watch out for one-worders. The name of the game is the star rating; the higher the average rating, the higher the product appears in Amazon’s search results. Therefore, fake reviews are often very short and non-specific (“Great!!”), because the actual prose of the review doesn’t affect its attractiveness to Amazon’s search algorithms.
  • Watch out for compensated reviews. Until October 2016, you were allowed to post a review you’d written in exchange for free stuff, as long as you revealed that you’d gotten a gift. It quickly became clear, though, that those reviewers were far more likely to leave positive reviews (shocker!) — and in October 2016, Amazon barred the practice. Those older reviews are still hanging around, though.
  • Beware the Vine. Incredibly, Amazon itself encourages a similar sort of compensated review to this day, in the form of Amazon Vine. That’s a program that sends you free products in exchange for reviews. You have to be invited to become a Vine reviewer (based on your history of leaving well-regarded reviews), and sellers have no direct contact with you. Still, it seems rife with bias. Sellers pay Amazon for the reviews (from $2,000 to $7,500, according to Khalifah), and send the free products for Amazon to pass along to the Vine reviewers. As noted above, it’s human nature to give a higher rating to something you got for free. At least Vine reviews are clearly marked.
  • Check the wish list. “You don’t even need to look at the reviews,” says FakeSpot’s Khalifah. “Look at the wish list! Nobody ever looks at the wish list.” At the left side of a seller’s profile page, you can click one of his Wish Lists. If you see the same items over and over again, even though you’re inspecting different reviewers’ profiles, you’ve found a cheat.

Trust older reviews. The widespread gaming of Amazon reviews is a relatively recent phenomenon. “Any review before 2013, you could put a lot of trust in,” says Khalifah. (The exception, of course, is if you spot an old review that describes a completely different product. In that case, the seller has swapped in a different product.)

Obviously, that list of traits that characterize good and bad reviews entails a lot of work on your part, especially if a product has hundreds of reviews. You’d be wise, therefore, to paste the page’s link into FakeSpot or ReviewMeta. These sites check out all of the reviews for the product at once.

“There are so many angles, so many variables,” says FakeSpot’s Khalifah. “We take a look at all the reviews for the product. Then we look at the all the reviewers themselves, all their historic reviews, all their wish lists, and try to find any patterns.”

FakeSpot shows you how many of the reviews it suspects are bogus, and clearly explains its reasoning. ReviewMeta actually recalculates the Amazon star rating for you, based only on the reviews it suspects to be valid.

Each site offers a web-browser extension (plug-in), so that you don’t even have to do the copy-and-paste thing. (FakeSpot’s extension is currently $2 a month, but Khalifah says that it will be free soon.)

What’s Amazon doing?

The fake-review problem is getting worse; Amazon says that it’s up for the challenge. “We know the value of reviews for customers, and even one inauthentic review is unacceptable,” the spokesperson told me. “Customers can report suspicious reviews 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and we investigate each claim. We take forceful action against both reviewers and sellers by suppressing reviews that violate our guidelines, and [we] suspend, ban, or pursue legal action against these bad actors.”

The company bans sellers and fake-review accounts by the thousands; each time, it uses machine learning to improve and anticipate the sellers’ ever-evolving tactics. Amazon also works with Facebook to shut down those “free stuff for five-star review” groups, and has filed over a thousand lawsuits against sellers and fake reviewers.

Both Khalifah and Noonan say that they can see Amazon’s efforts at work. “My data does show that Amazon is deleting tons of reviews — literally millions of reviews,” says ReviewMeta’s Tommy Noonan.

But it’s an arms race, a cat-and-mouse game, and it’s not clear that the good guys are winning. Amazon and other review-based companies are increasingly fighting the same kinds of trust battles that are hobbling every aspect of the internet these days. It’s no longer enough to be a good judge of value and quality when you shop; now, you’re expected to be a good judge of the reviews that are supposed to guide you.

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‘Pimp to the Stars’ Tells All

By Ale Russian

“Pimp to the stars” Scotty Bowers has stories to tell in the new documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood — and all of them are sure to leave your jaw on the floor.

The film follows Bower, a former sex worker, as he describes his wild life running a brothel out of a gas station during Hollywood’s Golden Age from the late 1920s to the early 1960s. Over the course of Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary, the former Marine who fought at Iwo Jima, recounts his eye-opening sexual escapades with an endless list of household names. Bowers has told many of the same tales in his book Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars, on which the film is based.

From three-ways with two male Hollywood icons to a royal affair — read on for his most headline-worthy allegations.

A three-way with Cary Grant and Randolph Scott

Bowers details his alleged experiences with screen legends Grant and Scott, who were living together in a home at the Santa Monica beach. Bowers claims they were “lovers” even though the said at the time they were roommates.

“Back in those days, people knew they were lovers and together,” Bowers says in the film. “Then all those years go by they come say, ‘How dare you talk that way about them.’ And I say, ‘I’m not talking about them, I’m saying they’re great guys, both of them.’”

“I’ve been with them individually, and both of them, what you call a three-way,” he also claims. “And I’ve also brought another buddy for them where there were four of us. You know, two and two.”

Bedding Spencer Tracy after setting up wife Katherine Hepburn with a woman

Two of the most biggest names on the list are Tracy and Hepburn — the golden couple who captivated the hearts of audiences with their off-screen romance. But Bowers says that behind closed doors, both legends liked to have same-sex escapades.

Bowers claims he set up Hepburn with approximately 150 women through 39 years, and one time even fixed her up with a woman while he slept with Tracy in the room next door.

Bowers also claims Hepburn and Tracy never slept together throughout their 26 year relationship. Before Hepburn, Tracy was married to Louise Tracy.

A royal affair involving King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson

Two other famous figures who made the list? The Duke and Duchess of Windsor — formerly King Edward VIII — and Wallis Simpson, the American woman he infamously abdicated the throne for. The two were excommunicated from the British royal family for years and lived in exile in Paris.

Bowers claims he would hook them up when they came to Beverly Hills — a guy for him and a woman for her.

Sleeping with F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover in drag

Government officials aren’t safe from Bowers’ list either. The former Marine says he once slept with American law enforcement administrator and the first Director of the F.B.I. J. Edgar Hoover — and that Hoover was in drag at the time.

“I went to bed with J. Edgar Hoover. He was in drag,” Bowers says. “He was not a great beauty either, you know, but I was treating him just like he was a girl.”

Sex with Bette Davis during World War II

Bowers also claims he slept with Hollywood’s leading ladies during his tenure and lists a threesome with Ava Gardner and Lana Turner as an example. He also claims he slept with Vivien Leigh while she was with Laurence Olivier, who Bowers would set up with men.

The iconic Bette Davis also made his list.

“I f—ed Bette Davis in World War II when she was married to a guy. I used to fix her up with tricks, and we used to have three-way deals,” he says.

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood opens August 3 at the IFC Center in New York.

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Obama added more to national debt than the previous 43 presidents combined

By Bill Wichert,  PolitiFact

The debt held by the public refers to money borrowed from investors outside of the federal government. The total debt represents debt held by the public as well as money the federal government owes itself, including for programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

On Jan. 20, 2009, the date of Obama’s inauguration, the debt held by the public — as accrued by Obama’s predecessors — stood at roughly $6.307 trillion and the total debt was about $10.6 trillion, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s “Debt to the Penny” calculator.

By April 27, 2012, the debt held by the public was about $10.8 trillion and total debt had climbed to roughly $15.6 trillion.

So, that means that in the less-than-three-years under Obama’s watch, debt held by the public had increased by about $4.5 trillion, or roughly 72 percent. Total debt had increased by nearly $5 trillion, or about 47 percent.

The amount of debt held by the public that was added during Obama’s tenure would be about $6.329 trillion, surpassing the amount as of his inauguration by about $22 billion.

The national debt just keeps increasing.

By January 2009, the United States had accumulated $10.6 trillion in debt. That’s the net amount the country had borrowed from Washington through the Bush years.

The gross national debt now stands at $19.7 trillion (as of October 2016). That’s an increase of $9.1 trillion — not quite a doubling, but pretty close.

Keep in mind that Obama didn’t take any financial steps without Congress’ approval. And Republicans controlled the House for six years of his term and the Senate for two years.

Trump goes silent on national debt while racking up $1 trillion in 14 months – The Washington Times

It’s a major reversal for a president who during the campaign had said given eight years he could eliminate the debt entirely, but is instead looking at setting records for red ink.

“We are in for a rude awakening,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Her organization calculated that with December’s tax cuts and January’s budget-busting spending deal, Mr. Trump has already signed legislation that will add at least $2.4 trillion to the debt in the next decade and, should Congress make those policies permanent, could add as much as $6 trillion.

At that rate, the government will be paying $1 trillion a year in interest payments alone.

Mr. Trump at this time last year was crowing over the debt, which stood at $19.947 trillion and quickly dipped after his inauguration. He took to Twitter to demand credit.

“The media has not reported that the National Debt in my first month went down by $12 billion vs a $200 billion increase in Obama first mo.,” he wrote.

What the president will have to answer for, she and other analysts said, is December’s tax cuts and January’s budget deal, which will combine for a hole trillions of dollars deeper than it would have been otherwise.

Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, said the tax and spending bills will add about $3 trillion to the debt, in addition to $10 trillion already baked in from previous government spending patterns.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

 

Drowning in Debt By Shawn Tully, Fortune

The best-case scenario for the next few years is that America becomes a much riskier place to do business. A high debt load will limit our flexibility to keep the economy on an even course. “Countries with high debt don’t respond aggressively to downturns,” says Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff. If the U.S. slips into recession, we’ll lack the option of lowering taxes or increasing spending on infrastructure, for example, as tools to revive growth. And as the debt load grows, efforts by the Federal Reserve to stimulate the economy with lower rates would be more likely to feed runaway inflation. “Then, investors will dump Treasuries,” says John Cochrane, an economist at the Hoover Institution. “That will drive rates far higher, and make the budget picture even worse.”

Trump has championed, and Congress has enacted, two laws that go in the opposite direction of fiscal reform.

According to Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation, the Tax Cuts act, signed in December, will decrease expected revenues by a total of $1 trillion over the next 10 years, an average of $100 billion annually, even after any boost to growth and incomes from lower taxes. That number assumes that most of the personal income-tax reductions expire in eight years, and a break for expensing capital equipment starts phasing out in 2023. “Those breaks are extremely likely to be renewed,” says Brian Riedl of the conservative Manhattan Institute—and in that more likely scenario, he projects, the tax plan will lower revenues by $160 billion over the following decade.

The February federal budget deal, meanwhile, hikes outlays in both of the two categories of “discretionary” spending, defense and federal programs from foreign aid to housing subsidies, by an unprecedented 12%, or $150 billion a year in 2018 and 2019. It essentially obliterates bipartisan spending caps established in the Budget Control Act of 2011 that had kept recent deficits partially in check. These spending increases are so popular on both sides of the congressional aisle that they’re almost certain to establish a new floor for discretionary spending, from which future expenditures will rise.

All told, the tax cuts and increased spending will raise deficits by roughly $375 billion annually, by Riedl’s estimates, including additional interest.

Last June, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) forecast that deficits would reach $1 trillion in 2022. Because of the new laws, America will exceed the $1 trillion mark much earlier, in 2019, assuming current tax and spending policies are extended, according to the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB). Those probable shortfalls will keep ballooning even if the economy thrives. Under the CBO’s forecast, deficits would have reached roughly $1.6 trillion in 2028 without the new laws. Now, the CRFB predicts a shortfall of $2.4 trillion. Largely owing to the deficit-widening measures, the U.S. in a decade will borrow $1 in every $3 it spends, vs. $1 in $4 if outlays and revenues had remained on their prior path.

In the past, spending that modernized highways and mass-transit systems or enhanced higher education has boosted the productivity of America’s workers. That raises incomes, boosts savings rates, lifts consumer spending, and swells savings that fund private investment. The interest burden generated by the mushrooming debt threatens to turn this virtuous cycle into an unaffordable luxury.

Policymakers are showing no willingness to take the unpopular, potentially radical steps needed to restore America’s fiscal balance. A sign of just how far Congress has shifted away from fiscal caution is the Senate vote on Feb. 9 to raise discretionary spending: Opposition from Republican budget hawks such as Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah was overwhelmed by the 34 GOP Senators who joined 36 Democrats in the upper chamber to pass the deficit-swelling measure. Nor is Trump likely to fill the fiscal-responsibility vacuum: The President failed to even mention fiscal “deficits” or “debt” a single time in his 5,866-word State of the Union Address.

Perhaps more to the point: Even if GDP did wax at the 3% level that the Trump team seeks, the extra juice would lower total debt by only 10%, or $3 trillion, by 2028, according to the CRFB.

Prior to the Trump tax cuts, the CBO was projecting that federal tax revenues would grow robustly, from 17.7% of GDP in 2018 to around 18.4% a decade later. But because of the cuts, revenues in 2018 are projected to be just 17.2% of national income. Government spending, meanwhile, was set to expand from 20.5% of GDP in 2018 to 23.6% in 2027 (the CBO did not project the figure after that date). But the February deal will trigger a huge jump in discretionary spending starting in 2019, raising the overall 2027 figure to 24.8% of GDP.

Our fiscal plight is becoming so desperate that America may soon find itself embracing solutions it never before contemplated.

Government spending has ratcheted up anyway—now with the blessing of the Republican legislative majority and a populist President.

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Feds: Backpage plotted to be prostitution hub; founders face new charges

By , Arizona Republic

The federal government filed a new indictment Wednesday against the operators of the shuttered website Backpage, alleging that the website purposefully enacted a business plan to corner the national market for classified ads offering prostitution.

The supervening indictment charges the executives of Backpage with the same crimes, but brings up new evidence to do so.

The original indictment, unsealed in April, relied chiefly on emails that showed Backpage discussed moderating and editing ads to disguise prostitution-related activities.

The indictment filed Wednesday alleges that Backpage executives had a two-pronged strategy to corner the classified-advertising market for prostitution.

One strategy involved making a financial deal with a prostitution-review website.

Another, dubbed the “Dallas Plan,” involved Backpage employees searching other adult sites for prostitutes and luring them to advertise on Backpage by offering free ads. Successful employees were paid bonuses for the effort, the indictment says.

The indictment also describes a character named “Dollar Bill” who encouraged prostitutes to post ads and became a favorite client of the website.

Backpage was co-founded by Michael Lacey and James Larkin, the former editor and publisher, respectively, of New Times, the feisty alternative weekly started in Phoenix nearly 50 years ago.

The indictment had previously charged both Lacey and Larkin with knowingly facilitating prostitution through the website. The new indictment on Wednesday also charged John “Jed” Brunst, the former chief financial officer of Backpage, with that crime.

An attorney for Brunst, Gary Lincenberg of Los Angeles, said by email that his client was innocent and that the government’s charges of facilitating prostitution “unjustifiably damaged the reputation of a good man.”

Lincenberg said there was no evidence to support the facilitation claims against Brunst.

“We hope the community will withhold judgment until he has an opportunity to prove his innocence,” he said in the statement.

The new indictment also added new money-laundering charges against Lacey, alleging he tried to transfer millions of dollars to a bank in Hungary.

An attorney for Lacey said his client was not guilty. “It is our firm position that these charges are in no way justified,” read the email from Paul Cambria, a Buffalo, New York, attorney.

Backpage was seized by federal authorities and shut down in March after prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix first charged the executives involved.

Days after the arrest of Backpage executives, including Lacey and Larkin, prosecutors revealed that the website’s former CEO, Carl Ferrer, had agreed to cooperate with prosecutors looking into Backpage’s operations.

Lacey and Larkin each were ordered released on $1 million bond and fitted with a tracking device. Each man put up property as security against their release. The other executives were released on their own recognizance.

The Backpage website took its name from the literal back page of classified ads that appeared in each issue of the tabloid weekly New Times.

That publication was founded by Lacey in 1970 as a response to the shootings of student protesters of the Vietnam War by National Guard troops at Kent State University. Lacey was himself a student at Arizona State University at the time.

The weekly became known for both hard-hitting journalism and arts coverage, all delivered with an irreverent attitude.

Lacey soon was joined by James Larkin, who handled business operations. The pair grew the tabloid into a national chain. It rivaled, and eventually swallowed, the Village Voice chain, the venerable alternative weekly based in New York.

Ferrer prodded Lacey and Larkin to start Backpage in 2004, moving the classified ads in the tabloid onto the internet. By 2010, it was dominated by adult advertising.

New details in the indictment suggest that executives plotted to garner that business.

According to the indictment, it started with an April 10, 2007, email that described a successful strategy devised in Dallas to get women advertising on other sites to move to Backpage.

The email described the strategy, devised, according to the indictment, by Dan Hyer, who would become Backpage’s marketing director.

Backpage employees in Dallas would use Google searches to identify potential prostitutes who had posted ads on other websites. Employees would then engage in a three-part strategy to lure them to post ads on Backpage, according to the indictment.

“Call clients. Ask them if they have tried backpage.com. If not, post a free ad with an auto repost for free for six weeks,” reads the indictment, quoting the blueprint.

On June 15, 2007, a group of Backpage principals met in Oregon to discuss several topics. There, Hyer was set to tell the executives how the Dallas Backpage grew to “$40K+ per month,” the document read.

The strategy, according to the indictment, rolled out in other cities the next month.

By August, according to the indictment, it had been deployed in San Francisco, Nashville, Kansas City and Orange County.

A November 2008 email sent to Backpage executives reported the website had just had its best-ever month in terms of revenue. Credit was given in the email to the aggregation strategy, the indictment says.

The indictment also details another strategy that involved posting ads on a site, the Erotic Review, where customers purportedly reviewed their interactions with prostitutes.

The reviews, the indictment alleges, included discussions of prices and explicit descriptions of acts.

In July 2007, Ferrer sent an email to Scott Spear, an executive vice president at Backpage, explaining how many people came to Backpage through the Erotic Review website. Ferrer suggested creating a business arrangement in which each website would post ads on the other, the indictment says.

In July 2007, Ferrer sent an email to Scott Spear, an executive vice president at Backpage, explaining how many people came to Backpage through the Erotic Review website. Ferrer suggested creating a business arrangement in which each website would post ads on the other, the indictment says.

By the end of that year, a document quoted in the indictment declared the program a success. “It created huge brand awareness in this niche industry,” read the document, as quoted in the indictment.

The email quoted in the indictment said Backpage received 1 million additional page views through its relationship with the Erotic Review. “The internet makes strange bed fellows,” read the email, as quoted in the indictment.

The indictment also contains new pieces of evidence that prosecutors included to bolster their claim that Backpage’s operators knew they were facilitating prostitution.

The indictment alleges that in April 2011, Backpage executives were warned that the phrase “new in town” was a coded phrase used by “pimps who shuttle children to locations where they do not know anyone and cannot get help.”

The warning came from a company hired by Backpage to address “internet safety” issues, according to the indictment.

The firm also recommended that Backpage attempt to determine whether credit-card numbers used on the website were of the prepaid variety and whether a single phone number was being used in several ads. Both, the firm suggested, were indicators of a sex trafficker. According to the indictment, Backpage disregarded the suggestions.

The indictment also describes a character known as “Dollar Bill” who earned a commission for getting pimps and prostitutes to advertise on Backpage.

In March 2010, according to the indictment, Dollar Bill complained to Andrew Padilla, who would become the website’s chief operating officer, that more than 4,000 of his ads had been deleted.

Padilla ordered the ads restored in an email to Backpage programmers that is quoted in the indictment. “This is one of our largest adult accounts and the restoration of these ads is a high priority for us,” read the email, as quoted in the indictment.

In October 2010, Dollar Bill sent an email asking for a reduction in the rates that Backpage was charging him to post ads, according to the indictment. He suggested he deserved the reduced rate, according to his email quoted in the indictment, because “I was so instrumental in building New York, where you’re making a bloody fortune …”

The indictment adds seven more counts of “transactional money laundering” against Lacey.

The new charges allege that on Dec. 29, 2016, Lacey made five transfers, each of $3.3 million, from one bank to another. And that, on Jan. 3, 2017, he transferred $16.5 million to a bank in Hungary. The final transaction triggered a charge that he attempted to conceal those funds by moving them overseas.

The indictment also lists several new bank accounts the government wishes to seize, including several accounts holding bitcoin.

The indictment also alleges that Larkin continued to meet regularly with Ferrer to discuss and direct the operation of the website, despite its purported sale to Ferrer in April 2015.

Through these meetings, Larkin and others discussed such moves as relocating some Backpage operations to the Philippines.

The indictment also alleges that, in 2018, Larkin and others took steps to sell Backpage to a new buyer.

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