U.S. Arrests Online Seller Who Scared
By DAVID SEGAL
Federal law enforcement agents on Monday arrested a Brooklyn Internet merchant who mistreated customers because he thought their online complaints raised the profile of his business in Google searches.
The merchant, Vitaly Borker, 34, who operates a Web site called decormyeyes.com, was charged with one count each of mail fraud, wire fraud, making interstate threats and cyberstalking. The mail fraud and wire fraud charges each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. The stalking and interstate threats charges carry a maximum sentence of five years.
He was arrested early Monday by agents of the United States Postal Inspection Service. In an arraignment in the late afternoon in United States District Court in Lower Manhattan, Judge Michael H. Dolinger denied Mr. Borker’s request for bail, stating that the defendant was either “verging on psychotic” or had “an explosive personality.” Mr. Borker will be detained until a preliminary hearing, scheduled for Dec. 20.
The arrest came eight days after The New York Times published a lengthy account of Mr. Borker’s campaign of intimidation against a woman named Clarabelle Rodriguez who had bought a pair of glasses from DecorMyEyes over the summer.
When she tried to return the glasses, which she believed were fakes, he threatened to sexually assault her and later sent her a photograph of the front of her apartment building. He also sent menacing e-mails, one of which stated that she had put her “hand in fire. Now it’s time to get burned.”
In an interview with a reporter from The New York Times in October, Mr. Borker maintained that scaring Ms. Rodriguez — and dozens of other customers in the last three years — enhanced the standing of DecorMyEyes in Internet searches on Google. That was because Google’s algorithm, he claimed, was unable to distinguish between praise and complaints. All of the negative postings translated into buzz, he said, which helped push DecorMyEyes higher in search results and increased his sales.
It is unclear if Mr. Borker was right about the cause of DecorMyEyes’ surprisingly strong showing in online searches. But last week, Google published a post on its official blog stating that it had changed its search formula so that companies were penalized if they provided customers with what it called “an extremely poor user experience.”
For months, Ms. Rodriguez was unable to get much traction with any of the law enforcement entities she had called as she coped with Mr. Borker’s verbal and written attacks. Now, there seems to be a competition to punish him.
He has already been charged with aggravated harassment and stalking by local authorities and is scheduled to be arraigned on those charges on Dec. 22. The state attorney general’s office is conducting its own investigation and could bring additional state charges.
But federal law enforcement seemed eager to partake as well. In a statement released Monday, Preet Bharara, United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, said, “Vitaly Borker, an alleged cyberbully and fraudster, cheated his customers, and when they complained, tried to intimidate them with obscenity and threats of serious violence.”
At the arraignment, an assistant United States attorney, E. Danya Perry, argued against bail by claiming that Mr. Borker was both a flight risk and a risk to the community. She said that postal inspectors had carted off boxes of apparently counterfeit eyeglasses after searching Mr. Borker’s home and had also found a handful of guns, including a semiautomatic machine gun.
Mr. Borker’s lawyer, Bruce Kaye, said the weapons were stage props capable of firing only blanks, not live ammunition.
Mr. Kaye argued that Mr. Borker should be released on bail because no one had ever accused him of committing any violent acts. He added that Mr. Borker was family man — he has a wife and a 2-year-old child — and was willing to surrender his passport and post a bond worth $500,000.
Judge Dolinger said that even if Mr. Borker had not physically harmed anyone, he could still be a threat to society given his habit of terrifying his customers.
The complaint against Mr. Borker describes the accusations in detail. A DecorMyEyes customer identified as Victim 4 stated that Mr. Borker’s threats included a phone call in which he said, “I can hurt you,” and, “I know where you work.”
Mr. Borker apparently sent e-mail to the company where Victim 4 worked, stating that the customer sold drugs and was gay. Another customer, identified as Victim 3, said that Mr. Borker had sent her an e-mail that included this warning: “PS: don’t forget that I know where you live as well,” after she mentioned her intent to contact the New York Department of Consumer Affairs. He reportedly later called Victim 3 at all hours of the night, threatening sexual assault.
A far more subdued version of Mr. Borker appeared in court on Monday afternoon. Dressed in jeans and a button-down shirt, he said little. When he was led away by court officers, he turned to look at his wife, who was sitting in the courtroom. He appeared grief stricken and on the verge of tears.
“Sorry,” he whispered to her, as he was escorted through a side door.
Google Acts to Demote Distasteful Web Sellers
By DAVID SEGAL
Google announced on Wednesday that it had changed the way it ranks search results so that unscrupulous merchants would find it harder to appear prominently in searches.
The change was prompted by an article in The New York Times on Sunday about Vitaly Borker, a Brooklyn-based online seller of eyeglasses. Mr. Borker claimed that he purposely shouted at and frightened some of the customers at DecorMyEyes.com because the online complaints actually worked in his favor in Google search results.
In essence, he claimed, Google’s search engine is unable to tell the difference between positive posts and withering online critiques. Therefore, the more complaints posted about Mr. Borker’s site, the more likely customers would be to find his store ranked high on a Google search, which yielded him more revenue.
In a blog posting titled “Being bad to your customers is bad for your business,” Google said that it had revised its algorithm so that it could detect Mr. Borker and “hundreds of other merchants that, in our opinion, provide extremely poor user experience.”
Google did not reveal how it had changed its algorithm, or how that change would affect online sellers like Mr. Borker. It simply said that the more it reveals about the changes it made, the easier it will be for unscrupulous sellers to game it.
“We can’t say for sure that no one will ever find a loophole in our ranking algorithms in the future,” Amit Singhal, a Google fellow, wrote on the blog post.
“We know that people will keep trying.”
With the changes, Mr. Borker has already had a harder time pushing DecorMyEyes to its previous high rankings on Google. The store once showed up on the first page of a search of “Christian Audigier” and “eyeglasses.” As of Wednesday night, it was not in the first 20 pages.
Mr. Singhal said that the change was made after the company read in The Times about the ordeal of Clarabelle Rodriguez, who bought a pair of glasses and contact lenses from DecorMyEyes in July.
When she tried to return the frames and get a refund, Mr. Borker (using one of his favorite pseudonyms, Tony Russo) commenced a campaign of phone and e-mail harassment.
That included threats of litigation and chilling statements like “You put your hand in fire. Now it’s time to get burned.”
He also sent a photograph of the front of her apartment building, and in a separate e-mail wrote “I AM WATCHING YOU.”
Ms. Rodriguez went to the police several times and on Oct. 27, Mr. Borker was arrested and charged with aggravated harassment and stalking.
He is set to be arraigned on Dec. 22.
The Internet is rife with consumer complaints about DecorMyEyes, and even the quickest search of the store’s name yields dozens of outraged testimonials.
In July, Ms. Rodriguez’s search used only the brand name of the glasses she wanted. DecorMyEyes was at the top of Google’s main search page.
“We were horrified to read about Ms. Rodriguez’s dreadful experience,” Mr. Singhal wrote in the blog post. “Even though our initial analysis pointed to this being an edge case and not a widespread problem in our search results, we immediately convened a team that looked carefully at the issue.”
Exactly how Mr. Borker wound up so high in Google searches has been a matter of online debate. His theory is that the great mass of grievances on all those highly regarded consumer complaint sites were the key to his success.
Google cast doubt on that idea, saying that consumer complaint sites typically include special coding along with the mentions to the companies in question so that such links do not count in the companies’ favor in search results.
At the blog Search Engine Land, Byrne Hobart also wrote in a recent posting that the review-generating strategy was not the driver of Mr. Borker’s success. His analysis found that Mr. Borker benefited chiefly from various “black-hat tricks” to improve his site’s standing, including links from what he called auto-generated spam pages. He also found that the store was frequently linked to by mainstream media sites — The Times included — when references were made to high-end eyeglasses.