MORE FRAUD AND DECEPTION IN ONLINE DIVORCE
By Ed West, NetDivorce, LLC
The uncontested no-fault divorce industry is definitely moving away from lawyers and now even away from main-street document preparers and towards online divorce preparation services, such as NetDivorce. This is substantially a price and convenience based movement that is driven by the consumer. The economies of the Internet, the ease of filing one"s own documents at court and advances in user-friendly software that can easily handle the huge volume of paperwork associated with modern divorce means that online divorce is a growth industry. There is money to be made in online divorce.
Unfortunately, this is a financial truism which has already been recognized by the usual sort of online con-man. While it is true that the industry is subject to laws concerning false advertising and criminal fraud, as a whole, it is largely unregulated. There is no effective licensing or bonding or regulation. There are no published industry standards of practice. There is no professional association of online divorce providers. And online divorce, having been an early entry in the world of e-commerce, has a 15-year head-start on accumulating low-quality hucksters and confidence tricksters
MyDivorcePapers.com (MDP) has been a prominent on-line divorce provider for several years. MDP claims to have been in the business since 2002, though for many years after that date, it only sold (for $25) packets of blank divorce papers that could have been downloaded free from court and Judicial Council websites. No doubt, that is from where MDP downloaded them for free. MDP basically took advantage of people who, in the eralier years of the Internet, did not know the blank forms were freely available. It is only in recent years (since approximately 2013) that MDP has actually offered an online divorce forms preparation service. MDP has been a part of NetDivorce"s matrix analysis of the top California on-line divorce sites for a few years. Notwithstanding its past, we have considered MDP a worthy current competitor and its CEO a stand-up businessman, as Jason himself constantly tells us.
As I mentioned above, online divorce is substantially driven by price and convenience, but a large part of the convenience aspect is trust. It would do the consumer no good to pay a small amount of money only to be cheated. The consumer not only wants to save money but also to be treated honestly. The sales psychology in online divorce is therefore primarily based upon both cost and trust – in similar quantities.
Pricing can always be misleading. There may be up-selling, cross-selling, a menu of prices, expensive installment payments, hidden fees, etc., but by and large a divorce is a divorce and there is not too much deception that can be brought to bear upon the price of a divorce if the consumer sticks to her guns.
Building trust in an online divorce provider is a completely different story. One does this by providing an honest cost-effective service over an extended period of time such that one"s clients are satisfied and spread the word. For some, such honesty and hard work just take too long. There are many short cuts available to the dishonest.
Does the following story constitute fraud by MDP? I will lay out what I found and let the reader decide. I define criminal fraud as obtaining a substantive advantage or gain by purposeful deception, namely by representing that some substantive fact is true when it is not or vice versa. In short, you lie for the purpose of tricking people into hiring you.
In July 2013, MDP began to display on the top page of its website a certified customer testimonials service called certifiedcomments.com. This purports to be a service that contacts a subscribing company"s customers, confirms that they were in fact customers of the company in question and obtains from them comments, presumably mostly positive, about the company"s performance. Such legitimate companies provide a potentially valuable service in telling future potential customers what to expect and what others have experienced – providing of course that the testimonials are legitimate and unpaid, are from real customers and that the certification company is independent and transparent. There are a number of such services around. NetDivorce subscribes to one.
MDP"s sister divorce sites, idivorceforms.com and divorceforher.com also began to display content from certifiedcomments.com. MDP"s sister bankruptcy site, bankruptcypapers.com followed suit, though that domain is obviously outside the scope of this article.
The registrar of the domain name, certifiedcomments.com is Wild West Domains. A WhoIs search there reveals this. Certifiedcomments.com has a private registration. The name of the person or company that owns the domain name is hidden from the public. The person or company paid the registrar extra for that privacy. There is nothing suspicious about a private registration itself. However, it might seem strange for the type of company Certified Comments purports to be – one that deals in public trust and transparency. What could possibly be the reason why the person or company behind the Certified Comments service pays extra to hide its name?
Of course, it could be mere coincidence that mydivorcepapers.com, idivorceforms.com and divorceforher.com ALL have Wild West Domains as their registrar, though none of them have private registrations. They probably want to build public confidence in their sites. So they do not conceal the name of their owner.
But public confidence must also be important to a service like certifiedcomments.com. In fact, certifiedcomments.com refers to public confidence on its remarkably simple 3-page website (top page, login page for “existing clients" and an email page to request an “invite"). They say, “Show your customers that you are real and that each of your testimonials has been validated by a third party as being 100% real." and “We offer a 100% guarantee that we have exercised best practices to validate the testimonials displayed on your website." And then the most impressive, “We will not display our seal of approval on any testimonial unless we are confident that it is real and passes our inspection. If we do not, we will pay you $250,000." Hmmm. “If we do not" do WHAT? Do not not display? Whatever promise they are trying to make, why would they make that promise to the subscribing business, which presumably provides the name and contact details of the alleged customer providing the testimonial, and not to a customer that is duped by the false testimonial? It is the website"s future customer that would be cheated by a false or fraudulent testimonial by Certified Comments, not the website itself. The website would be complicit in the fraud. Strange. Whoever wrote that $250,000 guarantee either didn"t think it through or thought that you wouldn"t.
In any event, certifiedcomments.com must have quite an extensive clientele – given their dedication to honesty and integrity, not to mention their apparent wealth re the $250,000 promise. Let"s take a look at how popular they are. They must have many corporate clients. Go ahead and search on “certifiedcomments.com." In Google Search, I found this on the top page of the search results. Of the 9 top entries, 3 of them are the 3 public pages on the certifiedcomments site and 4 of them are the pages for mydivorceforms.com and idivorcepapers.com on the certifiedcomments site. I went 5 pages deep in the search engine results and found not one other entry that referenced certifiedcomments.com and any other client, other than mydivorcepapers.com and idivorceforms.com. It appears that certifiedcomments.com has only those two subscribing customers (presumably divorceforher.com and bankruptcypapers.com are somewhere further down the search engine results). It"s just amazing that Jason McClain"s two top on-line divorce sites appear to be the only clients of certifiedcomments.com.
Perhaps, NetDivorce should sign up also, so that MDP won"t feel so alone. Perhaps certifiedcomments.com specializes in divorce sites only. Wait a minute. There"s no street or mailing address or phone number or email address exposed on certifiedcomments.com. How do their clients or potential clients contact them? Oh yeah, through that web mail contact form on their site. So the next thing I did was to send three requests across a 2 week period. But wait, it does say I"m requesting an invite. I guess they are so busy and selective (not to mention wealthy) that they don"t take just any old company. Well, we know that"s correct because so far, they"ve apparently only invited 2 companies – in fact, they have only invited Jason McClain"s companies. Imagine that.
In any event, as expected, I heard nothing back from certifiedcomments.com. Somehow, they did not find netdivorce.com worthy of an invite. After all, ownership by Jason McClain appears to be the primary cause of an invite.
I still wondered where certifiedcomments is located. Maybe I could find them in the yellow pages or somewhere on-line and give them a call. So I pinged their domain name server and lo and behold, it"s in Irvine, CA. It has a Cox Communications IP address. Nope. No listing in the Orange County yellow pages. Maybe I"m just going to have to call Jason and ask him to get certifiedcomments.com to give me a call. He must have their number – being their only apparent client. Wait another minute! All of Jason"s divorce companies are in the Irvine area.
I don"t suppose……no, that would be too much of a coincidence. Let"s take a look at all other domains on the same Cox Communications IP subnet as certifiedcomments.com. Well. here"s that list. What an incredible set of coincidences. The very same certifiedcomments.com service that Jason McClain uses to establish public confidence and trust in his divorce sites and gain an advantage over his competitors like,……oh, NetDivorce, by representing that MDP, for example, has 1512 certified comments providing a cumulative rating for MDP of 4.8 out of 5 stars, is hosted on the very same server as many Jason McClain websites, including the two sites on which alleged client testimonials are being certified by Certified Comments!
Well, at least Certified Comments didn"t give MDP a ranking of 5 stars. Now that would have appeared real suspicious, huh?
1512 certified comments for MDP in just over 15 months. Hmmm. That"s 100 per month or 3 a day. That"s phenomenal! What a company MDF must be. If you figure out the url pagination on certifiedcomments.com, it"s easy enough to navigate to http://www.certifiedcomments.com/review/mydivorcepapers.php?view=209#pagination where you will see that the oldest certified comment about MDP is dated June 7, 2012 and is from someone in Bethesda, Maryland. Uuuuh? But the certifiedcomments domain name was only registered for the very first time on July 3 2013. So it looks like certifiedcomments.com was validating customer testimonials for MDP over a year before it even came into existence. Certifiedcomments.com is so good, I sure wish NetDivorce had been invited to join. We"d have requested some 10 year old certified comments, which I"m confident they would have had.
Fraud is the obtaining of some advantage or gain by intentionally representing that a substantive fact is true when it is not and you know, or should know, that it is not. If you obtain business, i.e. gain, by the intentional representation that you have earned over 1500 legitimate client testimonials, as verified and certified by an independent certification company in the business of performing such functions, when you know that said representation is false, or should have known it is false (it is not a defense to criminal fraud to claim that you were ignorant when such ignorance would be reckless – you cannot purposefully hold yourself in ignorance of what appears on a website for which you are responsible), then you are guilty of criminal fraud.
Do the facts detailed above constitute fraud by Jason McClain and/or one or more of his associates? I cannot say, because I cannot get into the minds of such people. These facts certainly, in my opinion, amount to a prima facie case of criminal fraud. I can say with some certainty that deception is occuring and that there is a consequent gain.
However, I cannot speak to intent. Perhaps Jason McCalin will say that he always intended to set up a legitimate certifiedcomments.com company and just never got around to it. It"s not a bad business idea and he is clearly an enterprising person. However, that claim cannot be a defense to fraud because at some point in that scenario, he inherently admits to knowing that such had not happened and that he was in fact, from that point in time, making false statements for the obvious and undeniable purpose of obtaining an unfair advantage over others.
Perhaps Jason McClain will say that he actually has over 1500 legitimate testimonials accumulated across some 27 (not 15) months, but that"s not a defense either because his substantive claim on his website is NOT simply that 1500 testimonials exist, but that those testimonials were certified by an independent company, when it seems they were not.
I suspect that Jason will claim that certifiedcomments.com is in fact an independent company, owned by a friend, neighbor or an associate and that he has no control over it. That story won"t work either as he, Jason McClain, is responsible for the statements on his website and he would know, under those circumstances, that Certified Comments would not be functionally independent in the sense he is representing. Why would a truly independent and functioning Certified Comments have a private domain registration, two apparent clients, hide its points of contact and permit its website to be on the same server grouping as its only 2 clients? Such would merely give rise to a conspiracy to defraud.
I noticed also that around October, 2014, MDP began to display an eKomi verification badge as well as that of Certified Comments. Jason had somehow convinced eKomi, a legitimate and real testimonial verrification company, to accept his “existing" testimonials, as verified by Certified Comments. I suspect that within a few months, after Jason had laundered those 1500 allleged testimonials through eKomi, he would have quietly dropped the bogus Certified Comments service. Yet in December 2014, eKomi clearly did their homework, discovered the alleged fraud, and dropped Jason and MDP.
As I said above, we in the on-line divorce industry are substantially unregulated. That has some legitimate advantages, not the least of which is cost-reduction. We in the industry ought to self-regulate in order to avoid costly government regulation as long as possible. It would help us if we didn"t have low-level questionable business practices like this, but we do. This article, like my earlier articles, is an attempt to self-regulate.
Don"t be fooled by Jason McClain, mydivorcepapers.com or idivorceforms.com. They do NOT have 1500 independently verified client testimonials. You can draw your own conclusions as to where those 1500 “testimonials" likely came from. Wherever they came from, they are not verified. Therefore, they are as valuable as if Jason"s mom or staff wrote them.
While I hope that this has been entertaining, please do realize that it is the unsuspecting divorce consumer who is the target of any deception. Before hiring mydivorcepapers.com or idivorceforms.com, any divorce consumer should ask herself why those 2 sites would use an apparently non-existent testimonial verification service to convince you that they have received an average of 3 verified testimonials per day across the last 2 years IF they are honest divorce preparation sites that provide a quality service?
Stay tuned for my next article on fraud in the on-line divorce industry. It is about….Jason McClain and mydivorcepapers.com – the gift that just keeps on giving.
More Fraud and Deception in On-line Divorce