|EcommerceBytes-NewsFlash, Number 756 - May 07, 2004 - ISSN 1539-5065 4 of 4|
Hundreds of customers may never receive laptops they purchased from J.C. Morris & Co. years ago, but they've recently seen some justice. The proprietor of J.C. Morris, Todd Wilson Short, pled guilty to fraud on April 21, 2004 and will cooperate with prosecutors.
The J.C. Morris company was an online store that sold discounted laptops only by advance PayPal payment, and often did not deliver. eBay PowerSeller Neil Bansal had blamed its failure to ship merchandise in his legal case http://www.auctionbytes.com/cab/abn/y02/m05/i24/s01 .
Short, who was arrested in North Carolina in May 2003, admitted to one count of wire fraud and one count of mail fraud. Though it's unlikely that he will serve the maximum sentence, those charges could add up to 30 years in jail, a $1 million fine, or both.
Netting the suspect
The road to Short's guilty plea was long, winding, and paved with Internet postings. As early as 2001, customers waiting for J.C. Morris laptops told their stories on message boards. They ferreted out and traded information about the company, piecing facts together from the Internet, UPS labels, and phone calls. Before long, users were contacting the Better Business Bureau, the FBI, their Congresspeople, and the media with their findings and complaints.
Some sites removed their J.C. Morris threads, allegedly under legal pressure from Todd Short's attorneys, but the forum at shopping site FatWallet.com still thrives at http://www.fatwallet.com/forums/messageview.php?catid=24&threadid=53925.
In December 2002, Dale Peterson, one of J.C. Morris' disgruntled customers, created a Web site to organize the information scattered throughout the FatWallet forum and elsewhere. Peterson has maintained the site ever since, and even purchased jcmorris.com, the domain that used to lead to Todd Short's company (http://www.auctionbytes.com/cab/abn/y03/m05/i19/s03).
Peterson's site became a clearinghouse for information about Short's case. Assistant United States Attorney Brian Cromwell, representing the U.S. government in the case against Short, said Peterson's Web site was useful partially because it organized fraud victims and rallied them to action, making it much easier for attorneys to gather information from victims. Peterson "wasn't a vigilante saying nasty things," said Cromwell, he was an organizer.
When Todd Short pled guilty, Peterson alerted his media contacts and posted the information to FatWallet, complete with a link to a PDF of Short's plea agreement. Cromwell recently registered on FatWallet.com to update the J.C. Morris discussion, explaining the legal particulars of Short's plea and encouraging victims to update their contact information with the U.S. Department of Justice. A FatWallet staff member quickly reassured users, some of whom had learned online caution the hard way, that "Mr. Cromwell's email address of record is in fact with the US DoJ."
Peterson is modest about his site's influence on Short's guilty plea. "You never know what drives these things, " he said, "Is it because PayPal [which claims to be owed about $700,000 by Short] got involved? Or because a whole bunch of people wrote their Congressmen?" However, he's happy to have helped. "I really appreciate the thanks from Brian Cromwell," Peterson wrote on FatWallet. "I'm very pleased to know that my postings and my website (jcmorris.com) have been helpful to law enforcement in pursuing this case."
There are three questions looming large in the minds of fraud victims like Peterson: Will Short implicate others, how much time will he spend behind bars, and are they ever going to get their money back?
Since Short's plea bargain depends on his cooperation with prosecutors, there's a good chance he'll provide information on his associates.
Sentencing is more complicated. The United States Probation Office will now prepare a pre-sentence report (PSR) for the judge who will sentence Short. This process often takes three to six months, said Cromwell, but may take less in this case. The PSR will include Short's personal and criminal history, describe the crime's effects (including victim statements), and determine a range of jail time he could serve and/or fines he could have to pay.
After the PSR process, a sentencing date will be set. Cromwell can't comment on Short's possible sentence, but emphasizes that Short has a very limited right to appeal, and that federal prison sentences do not offer parole. When his sentence is up, he'll be under supervised release and have to report to a probation officer.
As for the money, the pre-sentencing report also calculates losses by victims, and considers Short's ability to repay. There are no guarantees, but customers' long-awaited refunds may come through someday. "I'm not too hopeful, but under federal law, you can order restitution," said Peterson, whose undelivered J.C. Morris laptop cost him $899.40 - and a lot of time maintaining a Web site.
About the author:
Jen Muehlbauer is a freelance writer and author of two O'Reilly books.
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