Criminal conspiracies can happen anywhere. From an inopportune click on the web to an untimely passing of a loved one, there are always businesses looking to short circuit competition and prey upon the public. The Division has recently uncovered such criminal conspiracies in two very different areas of the American economy: online sales and heir location services.
Online Wall Décor
Photo Credit: Comstock Images/Stockbyte/Thinkstock
Every day, millions of Americans who shop online every day rely on e-commerce platforms to provide the same kind of free and fair marketplace as brick and mortar businesses. In April 2015, the Division brought the first e-commerce prosecution in its history when a former e-commerce executive, David Topkins, agreed to plead guilty for conspiring to fix the prices of posters sold online through Amazon Marketplace. According to the charges, Topkins and his co-conspirators agreed to end price competition between them by adopting complex pricing algorithms to automatically coordinate changes to poster prices. These algorithms allowed each conspirator to track the other’s prices and to fix prices in conformity with the parties’ unlawful agreement.
In December 2015, a one-count indictment against two other conspirators in the price-fixing scheme, Daniel Aston, and his company, United Kingdom-based Trod Ltd. (d/b/a Buy 4 Less, Buy For Less, and Buy-For-Less-Online), was unsealed in Federal district court in California. The indictment’s unsealing followed searches by U.K. law enforcement and the FBI of Trod’s headquarters and Aston’s residence in the U.K.
The prosecution of the participants in this complex online scheme underscores the Division’s commitment to protecting competition on the internet.
Heir Location Services
Photo Credit: mb-fotos/iStock/Thinkstock
When a person dies without a will, heir location services providers seek to identify relatives who may be entitled to an inheritance from the deceased’s estate and help these relatives secure their inheritances in exchange for a contingency fee paid out of the inheritance.
The Division and FBI’s investigation into this industry revealed that certain heir location services providers had been conspiring for years to eliminate competition by allocating customers in different areas of the country. In December 2015, Bradley Davis, the president and CEO of heir location services provider Brandenburger & Davis, agreed to plead guilty to participating in the customer allocation scheme for almost a decade, representing the first prosecution in this industry in Division history. Brandenburger & Davis also agreed to plead guilty and pay an $890,000 criminal fine.
In January 2016, Richard Blake, the owner and president of a Massachusetts-based heir location services provider, also agreed to plead guilty for his participation in a similar scheme to allocate heir location services customers from 1999 to 2014.