Operators of Jerk.com were jerks, government charges


(By Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

The Federal Trade Commission is accusing the former operations of Jerk.com of more than being just jerks. The agency has charged Jerk, LLC, the company that ran the site from 2009 until 2013, and its operator, John Fanning, with sucking up personal information from Facebook and creating profiles labeling people a “Jerk” or “not a Jerk" on the Web site, then tricking people into paying $30 with false claims that they could revise their profiles.

In the court filings released today, the FTC lays out a pretty nefarious scam: Jerk.com was set up to be like a site where users could submit people and rate them as jerks - with an estimated 73.4 to 81.6 million consumer profiles. But while the content was supposed to be user generated, the FTC says most of profiles were created by the site based on information pulled from Facebook.

And, then, the company profited. According to the FTC, Jerk.com "earned revenue by selling 'memberships' for $30, by charging consumers a $25 customer service fee to contact the website, and by placing third-party advertisements on Jerk."

Information on the site led people to believe that signing up for a membership might allow them to alter or dispute postings about themselves, the FTC says, although there was no actual mechanism for doing so.

The FTC also says the site had a nasty habit of featuring photographs of minors:

An estimated 2.7 to 6.8 million Jerk profiles contained a photo of a child who appeared to be under age 10. Some photos featured intimate family moments, including children bathing and a mother nursing her child. Often, Jerk profiles featured photographs of children, which were collected without their or their parents’ knowledge or consent. Numerous consumers have complained that photographs and other information about them on Jerk were originally posted on Facebook using controls that enabled users to designate material for dissemination only to a limited group, and that the information was not designated for public viewing.

The court documents also say the site was "unresponsive" to law enforcement requests to remove profiles -- and, in at least one instance, "ignored a request from a sheriff’s deputy to remove a Jerk profile that was endangering a 13-year old girl."

The case against Jerk.com and John Fanning won't be heard until January. But the FTC is already on the offense: “In today’s interconnected world, people are especially concerned about their reputation online, and this deceptive scheme was a brazen attempt to exploit those concerns,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection in a statement.

The Washington Post was unable to reach the company or Fanning.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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