A sapphire salesman thought he’d found the solution to bad internet reviews. Now he’s facing jail time for forging a judge’s signature.
Michael Arnstein is the third-generation owner of the Natural Sapphire Company, a Manhattan-based jewelry business. After a falling-out with a former business partner, Arnstein’s company amassed dozens of negative reviews, which featured prominently in the Natural Sapphire Company’s Google search results. Arnstein sued the former business partner in 2011, accusing him of writing defamatory negative reviews, and a judge ordered the partner to delete 54 of the negative comments.
But some negative reviews remained, even after the court order. So Arnstein copied the judge’s signature and forged new court orders of his own, demanding that Google scrub negative reviews from his company’s search results, Arnstein admitted in a guilty plea on Friday.
Arnstein’s troubles began in 2004, when he hired web developer Prashant Telang to register domain names for the Natural Sapphire Company, Arnstein alleged in his 2011 lawsuit against Telang. But after the Natural Sapphire Company fired Telang, he sabotaged the company’s website and redirected its homepage to a forum with negative reviews he had written about the company, Arnstein alleged in his suit. Telang allegedly emailed the company, threatening to “effectively bury your web site in toilet,” according to court documents.
Arnstein and Telang settled their case, with Judge Alison Nathan of New York’s Southern District Court ordering Telang to delete 54 reviews.
But to Arnstein’s apparent dismay, some negative reviews remained, and featured prominently in the company’s Google search results.
“I learned my lessons the hard way. I bought from The Natural Sapphire Company and experienced embarrassment of life time; made myself to appear like a stingy idiotic boyfriend,” reads one 2012 review on the website Ripoff Report, in which one alleged buyer claims to have received a sapphire that “looked like plastic marble.” The review is still online.
Arnstein’s company accused Telang of authoring the review.
“OUR COMPANY WAS SUBJECTED TO FAKE/FALSE REVIEWS BY A FORMER EMPLOYEE/VENDOR,” the company wrote in a reply under the review. “The judge issues a court order to remove all the false reviews and Google complied on most of the fake reviews that we could find.”
But Arnstein found a better way of handling negative reviews, court documents show. While Google cannot remove webpages from the internet, it sometimes prevents those pages from showing up in search results, through a process called “de-indexing.” Google sometimes de-indexes negative reviews, if served with a court order.
In 2014, Arnstein emailed an employee asking them to digitally doctor Judge Alison Nathan’s old court order, so that it would appear as though she was ordering Google to remove more negative reviews, court records show.
Photoshopping the court order was easier than getting it through a judge, Arnstein boasted in an email later that year, according to court records.
“Google isn’t checking this stuff; that’s the bottom line b/c I spent $30,000 fuckin thousand dollars and nearly 2 fuckin years to do what legit could have been done for about 6 hours of searching and photoshop by a guy for $200., all in ONE DAY,” he wrote in an email included in the criminal complaint against him.
“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,” Google spokesperson Patrick Lenihan told The Daily Beast. “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.”
From January 2015 to February 2017, Arnstein emailed Google ten times, presenting them with forged court orders, according to a criminal complaint.
“I spent 100k on lawyers to get a court order injunction to have things removed from Google and Youtube, only to photoshop the documents for future use when new things ‘popped up’ and google legal never double checked my docs for validity,” he wrote in a September 2014 email, according to court records. “Lawyers are often worse than the criminals.”But while Arnstein was boasting, feds were compiling a case on him, with Google’s assistance, Acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim said in a Friday statement.
In April, Arnstein was charged with two counts of forging a judge’s signature and conspiracy to forge a judge’s signature. He pleaded not guilty to all three counts at the time, before reversing his plea on Friday, when he pleaded guilty to one of the forgery counts.
But in a statement to The Daily Beast, Arnstein said the case had been misrepresented in the media. "My attorney suggested we just lay down and take every bit of punishment and hope we survive. This feels very much like David vs Goliath," Arnstein said.
Arnstein alleged that Google had not removed the negative comments, which Judge Nathan had ordered removed.
"Our company has been abandoned by Google's legal dept, they still refused to honor the valid court order. Google's Advertising Dept refuses to review more 100k+ in click fraud admitted to by the perpetrator," Arnstein wrote.
"The Dept of Justice refused to consider a Differed Prosecution in light of the extraordinary circumstances our company faced; and now they issue statements effectively characterizing our company as a shady online jeweler that rips people off and tries to white wash our reputation illegally. This couldn't be anything further from the truth."
His plea deal carries a stiff penalty of up to 18 months in prison, and fines ranging up to $55,000. And New York’s Southern District, the same federal court where Judge Alison Nathan presides, will decide his sentence.
“By forging court orders and the signature of a U.S. District Judge, Arnstein was able to effectively erase websites critical of Arnstein’s business from its search results,” Kim said. “Now Arnstein awaits sentencing in the same court he impersonated.”