Why did these weird sketchy people buy my website?
January 14, 2016 10:44 AM   Subscribe

A while ago, I sold a site to some bizarre sketchy people. I've never been able to understand why they bought it, since they removed all the monetization from the site. Can you help me figure it out?

Years ago, I sold a small programming website for a few hundred dollars. The buyers were an LLC in New York and were very sketchy -- among other things, their story for why they wanted to buy the site made no sense, and they claimed to represent a local government organization but had a free email address. It was pretty obvious they were lying but, hey, their check was good. After buying the site, they took down all the ads, which were the only source of revenue. For a while they made no changes at all, but eventually they added a huge "staff" directory, with very made-up sounding names, pretty much all of them WASPY or British-sounding, showing that this tiny website had a staff of about 30+ people, including 10+ admin assistants. They also replaced instances of "us" and "we" with "staff". Since then, they also added a link to a now-defunct Turkish gaming server. I've never been able to figure out who these people are -- the domain is registered anonymously, Googling the name of the LLC produces only an address (that appears to be just some guy's house), the high-end fancy mailing address on their check was for a Mailboxes, etc. location.

What I've never been able to figure out is -- why did these people buy the site? The only guess I've been able to make is resume fraud, but truly this would be truly lame and elaborate resume fraud, to spend hundreds of dollars making it look like you are "employed" by a tiny website that was made by a high school student and hasn't been updated in years -- surely anyone would be able to see through this in seconds? What angle am I missing?
posted by phoenixy to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Back in the day, what was the site's Google Page Rank? A single link from a high PR site (to the Turkish gaming site) could have been worth several hundred dollars to the right buyer.

Alternatively they may have bought it for the domain name.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:55 AM on January 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: They added the link to the Turkish site much much, much later, like several years after buying it, I think.

The PageRank is apparently 4.

What I don't get is that if they bought it for PageRank, why add the staff directory? And why did they not add any outbound links for years?

The domain name was not valuable.
posted by phoenixy at 11:02 AM on January 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's totally the CIA using your established website and its history to provide cover identities for their agents.

Well, okay, probably it isn't.

But it seems like what they wanted was an aged site with history for some reason related to providing credibility to those names. Perhaps they're doing some google bombing around those names, to clean up their reputation perhaps?
posted by jacquilynne at 11:06 AM on January 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

Not enough information to make any guesses. Care to share some links etc to better understand the situation?
posted by TheLittlePrince at 11:12 AM on January 14, 2016

Well there is obviously some deception going on. Resume fraud seems unlikely to me, although definitely possible. My guess is maybe it's real monetary fraud and they are using the website to put up a front for a company that doesn't actually exist. Maybe like a "shell corporation" but a fake one at that. Maybe they bought an older website instead of just making their own because they wanted the website to have a long history and make it appear the company existed for a while. But this is just pure speculation on my part.

If there are no ads, that removes the possibility of it being a click-mill website that exists just to idly collect ad revenue.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:18 AM on January 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Maybe they had a sensible plan (like those suggested above) that got interrupted? Then all you've gotten to see the detritus of a scrapped effort.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 11:28 AM on January 14, 2016 [6 favorites]

I would not be surprised if the essence of Jacquilynne's comment re: CIA is accurate, if not the exact details.

In other words, if it isn't the CIA (and a couple details make me think it isn't exactly them, for reasons I won't go into here), it sounds like it's someone like the CIA. Could be a state or non-state org.
posted by incessant at 11:30 AM on January 14, 2016

This is exactly how covert operations work. It could be something as exciting as a fake business providing cover for government operatives, but more likely there is some code or similar built into the names or pages that still exist, it might be a way for persons who are not supposed to know each other to communicate.
posted by jbenben at 11:48 AM on January 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

This is exactly how covert operations work.

Covert operatives don't tell people they work for the government and use a free email. This is how covert operatives use front companies. Dun & Bradstreet numbers, a physical location, tax forms. Better yet, have the operative working for a real company with a non-official cover.

This is more likely what people said, above -- just an SEO thing.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:43 PM on January 14, 2016 [6 favorites]

Years ago, I worked at a student paper where a reader launched an ostensible complaint campaign against us based on something that I still don't totally understand, and set up a bunch of transparently fake blogspot and livejournal pages to burnish the credibility of these complaints as coming from serious organizations with serious concerns about our, uh, 300 word blurb on a pottery workshop or something. That a "major law firm" would have its primary web presence as a livejournal seemed pretty dubious to us, and the complaints lasted for a few months from a handful of free email addresses with copy pasta complaints that seemed to indicate some sort of personal beef with somebody from the story.

While perhaps not likely, this could be someone who has a beef with the gaming site attempting to astroturf some support. In general, to my disappointment, mysteries like this often seem like they have mundane and inscrutably stupid motivation behind them — rather than covert operations, a disgruntled employee or customer seems more likely.
posted by klangklangston at 1:46 PM on January 14, 2016

Response by poster: Yeah, I seriously doubt these people were covert ops. The "staff" page is incredibly fake looking. They're claiming a 30+ person staff of analysts, admins, senior directors, etc. for a website that consists entirely of a handful of articles on topics like "Introduction to Red-Black Trees". And most of the names of the staff, when Googled, have zero hits. What would the "staff" even do?

On looking back on my email, I realize I misstated two things --

1) They actually bought the site for a few thousand dollars, not a few hundred, which makes the SEO explanation less likely. (When they bought it, they said they wanted to expand and build out the site, but then they never did.)

2) They said they worked *with* a government organization, not that they directly worked for one.

Right now paper chromatographologist's answer is seeming sensible to me -- maybe they really did intend to make a business out of the site, but changed their minds and re-sold it at a deep discount to somebody else, who then did things like adding SEO for Turkish gaming. It's still very strange.
posted by phoenixy at 2:13 PM on January 14, 2016

If it was a failed SEO attempt, you should offer to buy it back and see what happens.
posted by Leon at 5:13 PM on January 14, 2016

I'm guessing a company bought it for SEO purposes. Or they might be doing work on elance or something like that and giving it out as an example - either for their portfolio or for their company. It's possible that the site serves all or a combination of these purposes. They might have been offered $200 to put a link to the gaming site, so they took it and parked the site. Maybe they're planning to use it later. Maybe they needed to put a few legitimate sites on their server, so that the server wouldn't get marked as being in a bad neighbourhood.

It could also be that someone is willing to go to lengths to create some confusion around their identity. Sure, the average Joe/Jane might not be willing to pay $800 for resume fraud. But let's say you have a doctor whose husband got sent to jail for something and their name comes up in articles (happened to a friend of a friend). Or let's say you're a professional who did something really stupid at your last job and it ended up in the paper - and you are the child of someone with deep pockets. People in these circumstances might be willing to hand over $2500 or more to a company that does "reputation management". And that company might be willing to set up a variety of sites and list some people with similar names. If they do this in enough places and don't just use free sites, it will look a little more legit and several hits will come up for the name, enough to push some results down and create the idea that this name is more common than it seems (causing people to be less likely to think Dr. X is the same Dr. X or that Bob Z is the same Bob Z). And perhaps the company that did that for Dr. X (or whatever) decided at some point to sell a link to a gaming company or to use the site for the occasional linkback, just to get a little more money. And they might put it in their portfolio or keep it on a server to diversify the list of sites on the server. Stuff like that.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 7:36 PM on January 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Could it be an op by reputation.com to clean up the name behind one of the staff pages? Not sure how much you've dug into the names on the staff page to see if there is something nasty buried on page 30 of Google about them? I'd probably setup a Google alert for the names and see if anything comes up in time. Might be too late now if they've done their job though.
posted by msbutah at 8:49 PM on January 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I currently own a domain name but am not using it all because I am so lazy. Perhaps their plans were bigger than their abilities and they just never got around to putting something decent on it?
posted by kinddieserzeit at 5:03 AM on January 15, 2016

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