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Broken Writing Sites: Scam or Simple Business Failure?

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Introduction

Alleged Scam

One particular writer has been keen to raise allegations that various sites around the Internet as being scams and have been operated as a rip-off showing much anger in their allegations, but unable to identify little actionable evidence to support such claims. In law a rip-off or scam may be actionable as the criminal offenses of fraud or deception, but there may be an action in civil law as a deceit. Legally these concepts are very complex and require proof of specific wrongdoing in order to obtain any remedy whether criminal or civil.

This article has been provided for educational purposes and the reader must understand that none of its contents may be construed as provision of legal advice.

Crime Scene Tape by Peter Giblett
Credit: Crime Scene Tape by Peter Giblett

A Crime?

Law enforcement agencies take on-line fraud very seriously, indeed the FBI estimates the value of online fraud to exceed $100 million with more than 100,000 victims and of course their figures are only limited to the United States of America, not other international jurisdictions, but this relates to the following categories:

  • The dark web
  • Various on-line auction irregularities
  • Non-delivery of produce purchased through the Internet
  • Credit/debit card fraud
  • Identity theft
  • Securities fraud
  • MLM and digital pyramid schemes

But little or no effort is spent investigating so-call scams because one or another site failed. While as the FBI states "fraudsters... migrate from one fraudulent scheme to another", it is important to recognise that just because an entrepreneur creates one internet site that fails then they set-up another which also fails does not necessarily mean there is a scam or fraud involved, it is simply an idea that fails.

Since the crash of the economy in 2008 no high-level executives been prosecuted for their part in the financial crisis that has plagued the world. There have been many allegations that the problems resulted from an "intentional fraud" that was perpetrated on the world economy. The criminal burden is very high indeed and the amount of evidence necessary to prove a fraud is tough even in cases where there is a substantial pile of evidence where jurors fail to comprehend the minutiae of the case it is difficult to attain a guilty verdict.

Criminal Web

The FBI Cyber Crime division is focused on investigation high-tech crimes, including "cyber-based terrorism, espionage, computer intrusions, and major cyber fraud" and a look at their most wanted cyber criminals reveals that are seeking individuals involved in computer fraud, racketeering, wire fraud, money laundering, computer intrusion, identity theft, hacking, securities fraud, intercepting private communications, damaging computers through malicious code. Many of these alleged criminal masterminds do not live in the United States.
 
The Federal Trade Commission has a method for reporting suspected web based scams.
Scam Word Cloud
Credit: by Peter Giblett

Evidence of Criminal Activity

How can criminal intent for fraud be proved? This is best proven by documentary evidence, for example emails from a site owner showing the intent not to pay contributors, such evidence can be hard to obtain. Truth is this can be difficult to obtain because it is not possible to look inside the mind of the individual who is alleged to have committed the crime, but it may be inferred by the course of conduct, however running multiple failed businesses is not proof of fraud.

The type of evidence required to prove such an allegation requires both relevance and weight. For evidence to be relevant it must tend to prove (or of-course disprove) a fact at issue in the case and for it to carry weight the source must be reliable and carry persuasive power. What the police would be looking for here (in the case of an alleged scam for a site like Bubblews) is emails between company directors of an intention to fraudulently withhold payments from content creators or an admission of this by the owner or company officials. Truth is most writers who have complained about not being paid also confess to breaking the site's terms and conditions, clearly not adding any weight to their individual allegations.

Proof for the crime of fraud can be very difficult, it requires that each alleged event occurred and be factually proven. Each allegation requires proof that an intentional fraud was committed, normally documentary evidence of specific facts is necessary in any court of law. Making an allegation that you have been a victim of fraud is much easier than legally proving it to a court.

There MUST be proof that when the site was built (or significantly modified) the owners made a representation known to be false or misleading, further they acted dishonestly with intent to gain pecuniary advantage against the interests of contributors.

Deceit?

It is arguably easier to take a civil action through the tort of deceit, which in some jurisdictions is called civil fraud, which is classified as an intentional tort and in some jurisdictions may mean the claimant may be able to collect punitive damages if they are able to prove their case. Deceit provides a civil remedy for anyone who relied on a false representation to their detriment.
 
That false representation is a key component here, it must be known by the makers to be false or at the very least can be proven to have been made recklessly (at the time it was relied upon) - that is at the time the contributor opened their account at the site and there must be real damage or loss suffered as a result of the deceit.
 
The detriment, is monies paid out in reliance of the false statement, and courts normally consider this to be a real loss, monies paid out in expectation of gaining something in return, for example the monies paid by an investor to an alleged ponzi scheme. Whether a court will classify unpaid earnings in your on-line account at the time a site closes as a real loss is highly questionable, arguably they are only potential earnings and you would pay out more to start a law suit than could ever be recovered from the site that closed. No funding is available via legal aid in the majority of jurisdictions to bring intentional tort claims.

Conclusion

With the closure of sites like Bubblews there are certainly some that believe a scam was functioning, but in my view what we witnessed was an idea that was taken advantage of by a group of people that saw a way to make money through poorly written posts and forming "Like" clubs, which ended up operating to the detriment of the site. The management, like most genuine writers, simply didn't see this happening until it was too late and had little choice but to close the site.
 
There is much difference between operating a scam and a genuine business idea that fails. The former is never intended to make anyone but the owners money, while with the latter failure is simply the unintended result.
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