A monster of a scam
Would you spend $130 for a lifetime of high-speed Internet access? A couple hundred Netizens did--or at least they thought they did.

They signed up with DSL Monster, a California-based broadband-access reseller. The deal: for anywhere from $130 to $230, plus the cost of a modem, the company promised to deliver high-speed Net access for the rest of your days. All you had to do was put up with a little spam from the company's advertising clients.

Well, you can guess what happened. Nobody ever got online. Corey Dyer, the guy who started the company, disappeared in February. And a posse of angry customers, coworkers, and cops are looking for him.

In Dyer straits
After Dyer vanished, the police learned a bit more about him. For one thing, his name isn't Corey Dyer. Nor is it Johnathan Corbit, the name he used to register DSLmonster.com and several other sites. So let's call him, oh, Mr. X.

Carlsbad police detective Rob Shelton believes he's figured out Mr. X's real identity based on fingerprints found in the suspect's apartment, but the agent was unable to reveal the name to me by press time. The fellow he has in mind is wanted in three East Coast states for spearheading other scams under various pseudonyms.

Funny business
We learned a bit about Mr. X's activities prior to his foray into the ISP business. For a time, he practiced immigration law in Los Angeles (he's not an attorney), using the sites SoCaImmigration.com and DiversifiedLegalServices.com to scare up clients for his bogus legal services. Both sites were suspended. Additionally, he apparently ran a rental referral service in West Hollywood, called GayRentalsPlus.com, which is also dead in the water.

Shelton estimates that Mr X. fleeced 200 to 300 DSL Monster customers for anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000. But the consumers weren't the only ones who were ripped off. Mr. X wrote bad checks to his landlord, suppliers, and employees, said Chuck van Oosbree, who was the Web administrator for the bogus company.

Ready Hosting, a Kenosha, Wisconsin-based hosting service, provided services for nine of Mr. X's sites but never saw a dime for its troubles. The company finally suspended his sites shortly before he scampered.

"Please don't make the employees look bad," Oosbree pleaded with me. "We had nothing to do with it. We all got scammed."

Red flags
One thing is clear: Mr. X is a pro. He fooled everybody--consumers, employees, and service providers. But in hindsight, the scam seems easy to spot. Here are some tips to help you sniff out a con artist:

Do the math. If a company asks you to pay $130 for lifetime DSL access when a year's worth normally runs closer to $500, something is probably not kosher. Even if the company is legit, it will have a hard time staying afloat.

Avoid paying up front. Be suspicious of any "pay now, get service later" plans, unless the company is a well-established operation with a long track record.

Call the DNS. Go to a Whois search engine and look at the site's domain registration information. Is the street address valid? (Check it using the USPS zip code finder.) Does the phone number work? Call and find out. Does the administrator use an e-mail account, such as Hotmail, or some other free service, as Mr. X did? A free e-mail address isn't proof of a scam, but it's a tip-off. Most legitimate businesses use addresses at their own domains.

Check the contacts. If the address on the site's contact page doesn't match the one in, say, its privacy policy, the site may have plagiarized pages from another provider's site, as DSL Monster apparently did. Run a Google search on any suspicious address or phone number to see if the site's competitors show up.

Ask around. The ever-vigilant members of DSLReports sussed out DSL Monster as a potential scam last December. If you smell something fishy, check the Web and find out if other folks have gotten wind of it.

If Mr. X sounds familiar, or if you have other information about any of his schemes, the folks at the Computer and Technology Crime High-Tech Response Team, a.k.a. CATCH, would like to hear from you. Send e-mail to Detective Skip Stephenson. And if you're a victim, fill out a form at the Internet Fraud Complaint Center.