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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton shuts down one of the Internet’s most elaborate schemes

Dallas Morning News, November 1, 2017

By: Dave Lieber (with Marina Trahan Martinez)

For more than 30 years as a Realtor, Tom Grisak from Allen had a spotless record with his clients. He knew of no major complaints against him.

Until there was one.

An anonymous online post accused him of being too harsh when talking to a potential client after he didn't win a house listing. He says it's not true.

"In all honesty, I should have ignored it and lived life," he says. "But I didn't want my clients to think I was anything less than above board."

He hired a reputation management company he found online. The California company, Solvera Group, promised to handle his problem. He paid $10,800.

Solvera handled it, for sure. Solvera handled his negative online post and posts hurting several thousand other worried customers in a way that should get recognized as one of the more dastardly Internet schemes of all time.

The company created fake complaints and then orchestrated their removal.

The company's strategy was brilliant in its design. To fix negative comments, the company, run by the elusive Chris Dinota, allegedly had to fool not only customers, but also Texas lawyers, state judges and even the big dog itself, Google. All of them fell for the scheme over and over. Web pages were removed from public search.

Grisak and other victims are at the center of an extraordinary lawsuit brought by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and his legal staff against Solvera. Paxton's lawsuit appears to have helped shut down the company. Phones are disconnected, and its websites are offline. The company hasn't responded to the lawsuit, and there's no attorney of record for Solvera.

The Watchdog couldn't find Dinota, the president. No personal records about him could be found. And although the suit was filed August 24, he still hadn't been served with papers. He's tough to find. You gotta hear about this crazy company.

Remove negative online comments

Solvera's public names were InstantComplaintRemovers.com and DefamationRemoval.com. Before the websites were taken down, they bragged of being the "#1 Rated Content Removal Solution" and promised to "Remove Complaints in as Little as 48 Hours."

The websites claimed the company helped celebrities, political leaders, lawyers and doctors. The company boasted it could remove negative comments from YouTube videos, blogs, news articles, Yelp reviews and many more.

Dinota told CNN.com in a 2014 story, "We can remove something that shouldn't be there."

Big promises. But they were often kept. Forbes describes the elusive Dinota as "The man who duped Google into suppressing bad corporate reviews."

How Solvera did it

This is how the attorney general says it worked:

After Realtor Grisak signed a contract, Solvera paid a blogger to post a second negative comment on the targeted post. Then it hired a Texas attorney to handle a defamation lawsuit against the complainer whom Solvera claimed it had identified (even though it's the wrong person).

The hired lawyer would then file a lawsuit with legal papers Solvera wrote and prepared. Lawyers involved were misled.

Nobody told Grisak he was about to sue anyone. He says he never would have agreed to that. But Grisak Properties v. Baroro is now a public record - even though that's not his company's actual name. Fake names were used in the fake lawsuits.

The judge in his defamation lawsuit was presented with an agreement that both plaintiff and defendant supposedly liked (even though they're actually one and the same). Judge signed a final judgment "premised on a complete falsehood," the A.G. lawsuit says.

The judgment is an order to Google and other search engines to "de-index" the troublesome web page. De-index means the page is still on the Internet, but is invisible in search results, meaning no one will find it.

Google follows judges' orders.

So there you go. Judges, lawyers and Google have no idea what's going on.

And what did go on? The original complainer was never found, and the second one was a dupe. It doesn't matter. The entire web page vanishes.

Brilliant.

Until Paxton sues.

Not so brilliant anymore.

A big case for Ken Paxton

There are names for the strategies employed: libel takedowns and de-indexing injunctions. But few others used these tactics as strategically as this company.

In a statement, Paxton says, "My office will not allow Texas consumers, attorneys and courts to be confused and deceived by this unlawful behavior."

Like everyone else, I couldn't find Dinota, the disappearing ex-CEO.

A Google spokesperson told me, "We have measures in place to safeguard the integrity of our search results against bad actors seeking to game the system with fraudulent court orders. We work with law enforcement to combat fraud and abuse of the judicial system and have assisted law enforcement in their ongoing efforts on this issue."

The Realtor says, "It all became smoke and mirrors. If I'd known that's what Solvera was planning to do, I would have run away from them so fast and they'd never hear from me again."

He didn't know. How could he? Now he's helping the attorney general make things right.