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May 24, 2007 News » Cover Story

Conman.com 

If cybersquatter Robert Paisola is the future of the Internet, then we’re all in big trouble.

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LAWN-MOWER MAN
“Do you feel a presence when you’re around me?” Paisola asked. “Do you feel a magnetism?”

What I felt was a hammering headache from being constantly shouted at as I tried to extract his story. But in order to understand Paisola’s dark Wizard of Oz persona, you need to see the criminal roots from which it sprang.

Paisola was born in 1967, a date worth noting since he’s been known on his MySpace pages to lop five years off his age. He was raised a Mormon in Newark, Ohio. His father was an elementary school principal; his mother, a real-estate agent. Money was important to Paisola, even at age 13. While his school friends were getting $5 allowances, the budding entrepreneur had his eye on $50 bills. So he set up Paisola’s Lawn Care. “I cut neighbors’ lawns for $5 and $10 apiece,” Paisola recalled, who ranks one-time junk-bond king Michael Milken and business mogul Donald Trump as personal heroes.

He studied business administration, he says, at Brigham Young University. While he disagrees with a BYU records office administrator about how many years he was there—she said four, he said two—either way, both say he dropped out. With a group of friends, he set up a Provo company called Credit Control in 1990. “[We] said there’s all these apartment complexes in town … [so we] specialized in collecting the rent of students that don’t pay.”

Times were so good for awhile that the firm’s principals’ Porsches lined the entry to Credit Control headquarters, Paisola boasted. But in February 1996, according to press reports at that time, Utah County Attorney’s Office investigators shut the firm down. Paisola faced 22 state charges of theft by deception and one of racketeering, and one count of insurance fraud. He pleaded guilty to the fraud charge in August.

In January 1997, Paisola pleaded guilty to a federal charge of submitting a false loan application and was sentenced in June 1997 to 30 months in prison with 60 months supervised release. The state dropped its charges in exchange for the federal plea. He was ordered to pay more than $132,000 in restitution.

Paisola served his time at Lompoc Correctional Facility in California. While there, he also pleaded guilty in 1998 to the possession of three or more images of child porn found on his computer. His 18-month sentence ran concurrently with the time he was already serving.

Come May 1999, he was out of jail, on parole and back in Utah. The child porn conviction earned him a place on the Utah State Sex Offenders Registry. It lists his home address in Utah County and two Lexus vehicles. The Website also features Paisola’s sex offender registry’s ID photo.

He asked if I noticed anything unusual about the picture.

“You were smiling,” I said. “Why on earth would you smile?”

“To be completely clear it’s OK,” he said. “If everybody lived in their past, Bill Clinton would probably have a difficult time being paid anything to speak to anybody.”

MR. INVESTIGATIVE
Despite the fate of Credit Control and a long list of small-claims court judgments, Paisola nevertheless returned to handling others’ debts when he left jail, opening a collection agency called Western Capital. Three years later, he was back in court on charges of violating his parole by making two false loan applications.

At Paisola’s sentencing hearing in July 2002, U.S. District Court Judge David Winder said, “This man didn’t gain any understanding from his conviction on the prior crimes, and he gets out, and there is just page after page fraudulently dealing with other people here. … In order to keep him from committing crimes, he has got to be incarcerated.”

Along with a 16-month sentence, Winder ordered 18 months of supervised release that included participation in mental-health treatment, no control over others’ assets or funds and no access to computers. The Internet ban included “any Internet service provider, bulletin board system or other public or private computer network.”

But according to material on his own Websites, Paisola was soon breaking parole by promoting Western Capital via the Internet.

Paisola said he recently quit retail debt collection to focus on “helping people.” Through blogs and Websites, he began assailing companies—whether debt collectors, real-estate agents, or mortgage lenders—he claimed were abusing consumers. He launched so-called “investigations” using his credentials as a self-proclaimed senior journalist at “CNNlegal” and also as a member of the University of Missouri-based Investigative Reporters and Editors [IRE] organization. His critics argue that his promotion of ties to organizations like IRE add weight to his spurious claims of wrongdoing and inspire fear in those he pursues. Paisola evaded several requests to produce either printed or electronic articles he’d been paid for. He did, however, produce his IRE membership card.

I inquired with IRE president Brent Houston about Paisola’s membership. Following a review of his credentials and a request for any additional material, Houston said Paisola’s $60-per-year membership was terminated. “We rely a great deal on the integrity of people who apply to be journalists,” Houston said.

Paisola continues to hold himself out as an IRE member, despite being told of the nonprofit’s decision to revoke it. “As an accredited reporter with IRE, we provide raw stories to some of the nations leading publications,” he insisted by e-mail. “Many of the stories we do are investigative in nature.” Paisola explained that CNNlegal.com, for which he claimed to work as a senior journalist, is “a conduit for these raw stories.”

Click on CNNlegal.com on Paisola’s site and, until recently, you were taken to CNN’s home page, giving the impression he worked for the 24-hour news network. “CNN is a trademark of Turner Communications and that is why the site goes to CNN.com,” he said.

Asked for comment, CNN spokeswoman Megan Mahoney said, “We’re looking into this matter further and will take action as we deem fit,” she said.

By purchasing sound-alike domain names like CNNlegal.com, Paisola often leeches off the reputations of brand-name outfits to give himself gravitas. In a lengthy letter of complaint about Paisola to the Utah Attorney General’s Office sent December 2006, a debt collector turned private investigator named John Brewington explained, “Mr. Paisola steals whatever appeals to him. He takes names like Trump, CNN, Sundance, IPO, Carnival Cruises and changes them to make his own. There is no mistaking his intent.” That intent, Brewington said, is to get companies to pay him in exchange for the domain names. “If the owners of the material make their dissatisfaction known, Mr. Paisola posts their names on his Website in a suggestion that they did something wrong.”

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