Fraudster skeptic Brian Dunning's shell game

It’s been known for quite some time that Brian Dunning is dirty. From 2006 to 2007, he and his brother set up their joint venture Kessler’s Flying Circus as part of the eBay affiliates program wherein you get commission from every sale if someone purchased something after clicking on a banner ad on your site. Two of Dunning’s other websites, and were configured to “stuff cookies” for eBay — that is, to create persistent cookies in your web browser such that if you visited one of those sites, the next time you visited eBay it would imagine that you’d clicked on one of those banner ads. Basically, by going to the site, without knowing it, you were treated as though you’d clicked on the Dunning brothers’ ad campaign even if you’d never even seen that ad. And the cookie would persist such that all your purchases looked as though they came from that ad campaign.

He’d figured out to do this by reverse-engineering Shawn Hogan’s tools — Shawn Hogan being the top-most eBay affiliate, who had himself defrauded eBay of $30+ million USD.

In 2008, eBay filed a lawsuit alleging that Dunning and Dunning had defrauded them of $5,300,000 USD. Though not as big a fraud as Hogan’s case, the Dunnings were the number two affiliate, and this was not chump change. eBay was definitely not getting the advertising bang for their buck. In 2010, a federal grand jury indicted him on five counts of wire fraud in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1343. The FBI issued a press release in April 2013 showing that Brian Dunning had pled guilty. He faces 20 years jail time for his crimes.

Given that his general defense to the FBI was that eBay had been “stupid” in the way they set up the program, it’s fairly self-evident he was not repentant of his crimes and thought he could fight the suits in a sort of characteristically Libertarian “if you can do it, then it’s okay to do” defense. Now that he’s pled guilty, it’s fairly evident that he could not fight this case with that method of thinking.

Dunning’s legacy, his skeptical podcast Skeptoid, has long been known to be a cash cow as well — with its own advertisements, and a kitsch store with huge markups on t-shirts and mugs and the likes. However, now that Dunning has pled guilty and is awaiting sentencing, Skeptoid’s fate is in question.

In May of 2012, Dunning filed to convert the Skeptoid Media, Inc into a 501(c)3 non-profit charity, removing the ads from the podcast and site. This is mere months after he’d been forced to publicly admit that the lawsuits were ongoing.


This is a screenshot of the filing for non-profit status from the Department of Justice website.

It’s an easy leap to believe that this was done to protect it from fallout from his fraud; it’s an easier leap to believe that all he has to do to protect the money he stole is to donate it all to Skeptoid as soon as the non-profit status comes through. I am under the impression that Dunning is presently setting up a board for this non-profit entity prior to the status actually changing. I don’t think it’s possible, at this point, to consider the brand anything but spent and destroyed — any efforts made by any members of our community toward rehabilitating its image and disassociating Skeptoid the brand from Brian Dunning the imprisoned felon are, in my mind, wasted and themselves tainted efforts.

I’m certain that the FBI will not allow this shell game to happen, especially not with the scrutiny that’s levelled at Brian Dunning presently. But on the off chance that it does happen, that Skeptoid is allowed to use funds from the eBay fraud, and that it doesn’t die on the vine thanks to the ongoing support I see from numerous big-name skeptics in our community, at least it won’t have happened because everyone stayed silent.

I do not consent to the skeptical “brand”, insofar as there is one, being represented by malicious con-men and other ne’er-do-wells. The skeptical way of thinking is a toolset that supplements a person’s identity. Not every person’s identity toolset is complete — many people lack empathy or a strong moral compass, among other numerous lacks. The skeptical toolset has too long been associated with amoral Libertarian con-artists that comprise the big-name skeptics, like Dunning, and I’d very much like that to end now. We have enough of an image problem with so-called “honest liars”; no need to prop up dishonest con-artists as part of a package deal.

Speak up. Repudiate any efforts to resurrect the Skeptoid brand. Dissociate yourselves from it if you have ties. Dunning is an unrepentant con-man and none of us need to go down with his ship.

I say that as someone who got into movement skepticism with Skeptoid being the first podcast I ever listened to.

Fraudster skeptic Brian Dunning's shell game
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69 thoughts on “Fraudster skeptic Brian Dunning's shell game

  1. 1

    Yeah… Skeptoid was probably the 2nd skeptical podcast I started listening to after SGU. I won’t lie… I’ve learned a lot from Dunning. I hadn’t heard about the wire fraud until maybe 2 years ago at the most. It really just disgusts me. I’m so tired of being passionate about this shit to have it constantly blow up in my face by unscrupulous jerks.

  2. 2

    I think there are people who will support Skeptoid, no matter what Brian Dunning does, which is unfortunate. It’s like the reasoning is as long as you don’t claim to have supernatural powers, do what you will.

  3. 4

    Wait! Think what FtB could do with $5 million dollars! All we have to do is the same stuff Dunning did. The skeptics all think it’s fine to skim a bit from eBay, so I’m sure they’d have to agree it’s OK for us to do it, too.

  4. 5

    Short disclosure: Although I have no particular loyalty to Dunning, I will say that I regularly listen to Skeptoid and find it to be a fair entry-level Skepticism podcast covering many pop-culture-ish topics.

    This by no means is intended to defend Dunning for his past crimes. He has plead guilty of fraud and will be punished for that by our justice system, but my skeptical radar goes off when I read this post and come across the sentence,

    “It’s an easy leap to believe that this was done to protect it from fallout from his fraud; it’s an easier leap to believe that all he has to do to protect the money he stole is to donate it all to Skeptoid as soon as the non-profit status comes through.”

    It may be an “easy leap” for some, but condemning someone’s current and future plans based on pure speculation is a leap that shouldn’t be made so easily without some evidence.

  5. 6

    Evidently you missed this part:

    I’m certain that the FBI will not allow this shell game to happen, especially not with the scrutiny that’s levelled at Brian Dunning presently. But on the off chance that it does happen…

  6. 8

    I guarantee you, that sentence absolutely is relevant to the original criticism. As is the fact that as skeptics, we have a moral imperative to warn people of potential con-artistry, even when there’s no direct evidence for it. “Watch out for this” is not condemning someone’s current or future plans, it’s condemning the possibility.

  7. 9

    I agree. Warning people about potential harm is very important. My only concern is the use of the “It’s an easy leap”-type rhetoric.

  8. 10

    I agree. Claims require proof. Also, the FIRST claim the writer makes it sound as if trying to protect Skeptoid’s mission from Brian Dunning’s personal imperfections is a BAD thing—

    The evil that men do lives after them;
    The good is oft interred with their bones:
    Must it be so with Dunning?

    I do not believe for a minute that the NEXT leap the writer makes, that “all he has to do to protect the money he stole is to donate it all” could possibly be true. That money is going back to its rightful owner, and not to any non-profit/charity, obviously.

  9. 12

    For a while, I was having a hard time putting my finger on exactly why I was having problems with the “easy leap” portion of this post but after spending some time mulling it over, I think I understand the root of my concern. Warning people of POSSIBLE bad outcomes only requires some logic, but using rhetoric like “It’s an easy leap to…” actually starts to speak to PROBABILITY which, I believe demands much more support to back it up.

  10. 14

    I don’t see it as a logical leap to say that it is probable that someone who has committed that kind of fraud in the past will do so again. It’s possible and it’s also probable.
    Statistics back it up, too. Recidivism rates are high (53% for men and 39% for women in the US in 2003) – and of course remembering that the rates are based on people who were caught and went to prison… Yeah. Not a stretch at all.

  11. 15

    It isn’t much of a ridiculous “leap” to assume that an admitted fraud is capable of further fraud.

    These pseudo-skeptics trying to claim some sort of intellectual high ground look like fools. If you change the fraudulent person to a preacher, and say he was convicted of one fraud… well, we know every skeptic would say that he’s more likely than not guilty of further fraud. When a known skeptic is an admitted fraud, “skeptics” get confused, their brains shut down, and they start playing pathetic in-group loyalty games.

  12. 16

    Is it wrong of me to think of him as “Brian Dunning-Kruger”?

    Because I think that’s what happened: he thought he was too smart to get caught, and thus deserved to get away with it.

  13. 17

    You may want to scrub Dunning’s home address from the document you posted in this call to arms.

    Or was that the point, given the application did not add anything to your argument?

    I know you can hunt his address down if you are so inclined, but the whole Vacula / Amy blow-up established this was not an acceptable excuse for shining the bat-light on sensitive personal info.

    You may not want Dunning’s thanks, but there is his wife and children to think of.

  14. 18

    That is a home address, so it should be blotted out. (I thought it was an business address at first.) The point that he’s trying to make a non-profit to possibly stash his millions away is strong enough. Let’s not make it easy for Brian to say, “They’re publishing my personal information! Won’t you consider a donation to Skeptoid so I can protect my family and promote true skepticism?”

  15. 19

    brive1987: assuming that that is his home address is a leap beyond what I’d thought, actually. I frankly had no idea that strange three-letter acronym was an identifiable address more than shorthand.

    The application screenshot is only freshly being passed around as evidence that he’d started the process — much of his dealings have been happening on the down-low. Hell, like I said, it was only a month or two before the date on that application that he’d been forced to publicly admit that the prosecution was happening. People in this community do not know he’s a fraud, nor that he’s going to jail! That piece of evidence is new, almost unseen in this community, and it’s vital to establishing the chain of events to put them in the proper context — he only filed for charity status for his podcast after it became readily apparent that he was going to jail for a long time.

    But to your point, Brian Dunning’s wife and kids — if they live there — do not deserve to be put in harm’s way. Since I am unequivocally against the sorts of tactics your buddies at the Slime Pit defend regularly, I will absolutely do what you suggest and sincerely apologize for my oversight.

  16. 21

    I’m really conflicted about this. I still think Skeptoid is a *great* podcast, and I’m not convinced that the fact that the guy running it has committed fraud makes his podcast any less valuable. I stopped my monthly contributions to Skeptoid when I heard of the crime, but I continue to subscribe to the feed.

  17. 23

    MarkA: there are allegations regarding several of his episodes being poorly researched or cribbed from other resources. Frankly, if you were to throw out his entire body of work, I don’t think movement skepticism would suffer from it. He’s said nothing that anyone else hasn’t also said somewhere. There’s nothing especially unique about his takes on these events. Sure, it’s sad that he put so much work into his podcast, but frankly, we shouldn’t suffer from the fallout of associating ourselves with the guy just because of our feels.

  18. 24

    Dbryte, per what I’ve blogged on this issue, there’s plenty of past evidence of Dunning’s intentionality in other aspects of this case. Therefore, it is an easy leap.

  19. 26

    Many skeptics still support Al Seckel, who headed Southern California Skeptics in the 1980s and was championed by CSICOP leaders. He is now defendant in a major fraud case ( He was enabled in his dealings because skeptics refused to criticize him, due to greed, embarrassment at having been conned by him themselves, or fear (he used legal intimidation aggressively). I exposed his phony credential claims many years ago and reported on prior allegations of financial fraud; his response was to sue me for libel.

  20. 27

    @Tom McIver #25: Strange how that seems to be the standard toolset.

    As for Skeptoid, I do still listen regularly (though I’ve stopped listening to the round-number musical episodes. Ugh). At this point, it’s less a matter of ‘I’ll trust this guy to give a good skeptical overview of some topic,’ as I might think regarding the SGU, for instance, and more of a ‘hey, this guy sometimes finds interesting topics, and it’s a nice exercise to try to sort out facts from ideology.’ While he makes a show of correcting his mistakes (which is important, and puts him a step above the ideologically-similar Penn & Teller), his run-ins with the facts over things like DDT and Fukushima have shot his credibility in my mind. Well, and the fraud thing.

  21. 28

    I’m not here to defend Dunning, but… “kitsch store with huge markups on t-shirts” is unnecessarily catty and, from a quick look at his store, also un-true. His t-shirts are reasonably-priced by most standards (around $20, which is less than many PoD offerings).

    This swipe is going to be seen as a cheap shot and adds erodes the moral high-ground.

  22. 31

    Maggie: yes. And I contend that’s an image problem, and that we should be especially wary of that image problem now that we also have dishonest con-artists that we as a community cannot seem to cut loose.

    To everyone concerned that it’s completely unskeptical to presume that a convicted fraudster might defraud again, check out these PDFs for stats on recidivism rates for fraud:

    We can’t ASSUME he’s going to defraud again, but we should damn well be WARY of it!

  23. 32

    Thank you for scrubbing. I can assure you it was his home address as I remember it from the police report. The same report that described how he was handcuffed in front of family during a property search by an armed swat team.

    I’m sure the human toll inflicted upon eBay has been more than matched to date by Dunning. And society will expect there to be more to come. The guy committed fraud, yes, but let’s not luxuriate in the prospect of 20 years jail and a family destroyed by his greed.

    The fact the crime was committed against a company doesn’t mitigate. But it should perhaps limit our desire for what could be seen as personal vengeance. Surely this is on the same despicable level (no sarcasm implied) as intentional tax fraud?

  24. 33

    Jason: It also speaks to a problem that skeptics have long had issues accepting, namely that there’s more to rhetoric and convincing people than logic. Logos is just one mode of persuasion. Informing people about, say, the fact that Brian Dunning has pled guilty to fraud, or that Kevin Trudeau has had similar convictions, addresses ethos rather than logos. And while it would be fallacious ad hominem to dismiss their arguments based on their characters, it’s relevant to considering whether or not they are trustworthy and believable.

    So while Dunning (and Trudeau, for that matter) is certainly capable of making valid, sound points, his past history of fraud and ideologically-slanted reporting means that I’m not going to believe him, especially on certain subjects, without a pretty good deal of external corroboration. And more to the point, I’m never giving that bastard another red cent.

  25. 34

    It takes a seriously twisted view of a situation where I chafe at all the people bending over backward to excuse a guy of a five million dollar fraud job and you view that as “luxuriating in the prospect” of his family being “destroyed”.

  26. 35

    Tom Foss: I keep saying that you need ethos, pathos and logos to create an argument that impacts, and that when you only have one of the three, you won’t convince anyone. I try to keep that in mind for all my posts.

  27. 36


    The fact the crime was committed against a company doesn’t mitigate. But it should perhaps limit our desire for what could be seen as personal vengeance. Surely this is on the same despicable level (no sarcasm implied) as intentional tax fraud?

    At the same time that he was ripping off eBay to the tune of millions of dollars, he was begging for donations at the end of Skeptoid, and I was a deep-in-debt graduate student who fell for the pitch. It might have only been $60 or so all told, but that’s $60 that he had a lot more capability to spend than I did. So you’ll forgive me if I don’t cry any tears for the poor multimillionaire.

    And if I were one of the legitimate eBay affiliates in the same kinds of circles as Dunning’s websites, I’d be wondering how many of my sales might have been overridden by Dunning’s cookies. I seem to recall the indictment talking about that, but it’s been awhile since I read it. Is there any convincing assurance that this didn’t happen?

    @Jason Thibeault: I totally agree, but I’ve actually had “skeptics” argue against that point. Shouldn’t ever need emotional appeals, because logic. The mind, it boggles.

  28. 37

    He asked you to pay for the value you received and to net off the time spent producing the show. I didn’t steal Windows in the 90’s even though Gates didn’t need my money and his company was getting hammered in European courts for the “victimless” but lucrative crime of bundling.

    Yes the guy committed fraud and society will have its due. That is as it should be.

    But he is not going to get 20 years, this is the max and he has not forced a court case.
    He did not personally receive 5 million despite subtle efforts to attach this figure as “his take”.
    There is no evidence his tee shirt sales are a “cash cow”. Let alone this being “long known”
    Is Skeptical Robot a “cash cow” as well? Who knows?
    And you ascribe the worst motives for the charity application.

    This is why it is seems to me there is an element of vindictiveness in this post – that goes beyond the known facts.

    Dunning’ own account is that his share of the fraud has been consumed by lawyers.

    The Feds can attempt to recover the proceeds which could destroy his family. I would expect him to do everything in his (legal) power to protect them. And this probably played a part in him not fighting a complex business fraud case down to the wire … and last cent.

    Yes morally he is wrong. Legally? Who knows what the eagles could swing given enough time and money.

  29. 40


    He asked you to pay for the value you received and to net off the time spent producing the show. I didn’t steal Windows in the 90′s even though Gates didn’t need my money and his company was getting hammered in European courts for the “victimless” but lucrative crime of bundling.

    Most podcasts are freely available. This is the reality of the podcast market. People produce and host podcasts, distributing them freely to their audience. Some podcasters just donate the time and energy and money needed to make podcasts, others recoup that by selling ads or asking for donations or selling merchandise or partnering with larger podcasting networks or offering paid premium content or some combination of the above. Dunning sought donations, using his hard-luck, does-it-all-himself story as his sales tactic. There’s nothing about Skeptoid in particular that makes it more deserving of donations than other similar podcasts; it’s not longer or more well-produced, it’s certainly not better-researched than some competitors. Had I known that Dunning was raking in millions of dollars, I would not have been swayed by his tin-cup-rattling.

    Windows is operating system software. In the ’90s, most operating system software was not available freely, but was sold as a product–a physical product, in fact, complete with manuals and discs and so forth. That was the market in which Microsoft was operating. Windows had lots of tangible advantages over competitor operating systems, chief among them compatibility with most commercially-available games and other programs. Profits from sales of Windows didn’t just go to Dunning, but to the entire Microsoft company (and the retailers, and so forth), paying lots of people who were involved at various steps.

    The only way in which these two scenarios are alike is that they both involve money and computers. Otherwise, there’s a very big difference between a rich person selling you a product in a market where most similar products are sold, and a rich person asking you for donations to recoup (comparatively miniscule) losses incurred for offering something for free in a market where most similar products are offered for free. If I were subscribed to an e-mail newsletter from Bill Gates in the ’90s, and he was asking for donations to defray the costs he incurred by sitting and typing and sending a newsletter each week, I’d roll my eyes as hard as I do now when Dunning starts in with his donation spiel.

    And hey, if someone wants to give me a couple million dollars, I will gladly do a weekly podcast and ask for no donations.

    And you ascribe the worst motives for the charity application.

    His history of fraud and evasiveness makes such an assumption necessary.

    Dunning’ own account is that his share of the fraud has been consumed by lawyers.

    It’s gonna suck for him if he ends up required to pay it back, then.

    @Jason Thibeault:

    Meanwhile, all I want is for skeptics to stop tying our goddamn community and values to this man. Can you do that? Or are you too skeptic?

    Jason! Didn’t you hear? Brian Dunning is a hero! He’s “a luminary. A shining light. A beacon that has brought many of us out from the swamps of superstition into the light of rationality and reason.”

    The skeptical and atheist movements will be way, way, way better off when they learn to distinguish between “heroic leader” and “person who writes/speaks pretty well on topics I’m interested in.”

  30. 41

    Was his claimed defense really that EBay left him loopholes to exploit and their stupidity is no reason to treat him as a criminal?

    Is that like “they left their front door open so they can’t possibly charge me with theft since I could just walk in and take what I want,” or “if she hadn’t dressed that way…”

    I wasn’t aware that unsuccessful defense by victim was a ‘get out of jail free’ card. Is this libertarian or something?

  31. 42

    That’s a step up from the excuse he offered in the “Partial Explanation” post he put up on Skeptoid at the time, wherein he elided what makes cookie stuffing illegal and basically said it was okay because everyone who advertises online does it.

  32. 44

    Hang on a minute there, Brive:

    He did not personally receive 5 million despite subtle efforts to attach this figure as “his take

    So you are saying that not only did he commit fraud, but also he was bad at it.

  33. 45

    Just throwing this out…..frequently a guilty plea may be associated with a plea-bargaining deal….is there any evidence of this or details of the pleading situation? Not to diminish the seriousness of the situation but if there is any hope of a good thing coming about from any plea-deal that might change the picture?

  34. 46

    Seeker of Reason and Amusement and Beer @44: That question occurred to me when I posted about the plea last year. It’s certainly possible with our legal system for someone to do the math and realize, even if they’re not guilty, that they don’t stand much chance of proving it at trial and deciding a guilty plea is less costly in the long run than a protracted legal battle that they’re likely to lose.

    That said, it seems unlikely that that’s the case, especially in light of the statements Dunning made to an FBI agent. Some of the more interesting bits:

    On June 18,2007, during the execution of a search warrant at his home/place of business, defendant Brian Dunning […] freely and voluntarily consented to be interviewed by FBI Special Agent Lisa Miller. Mr. Dunning did so only after S/A Miller had advised him that he was not under arrest, that he was free to leave, and that he was under no obligation to speak with her. […] During this interview, Mr. Dunning made certain inculpatory statements- including that users who downloaded his widget “were not aware that they had been ‘cookiefied,’ and that he knew he was receiving credit (that is, payment) from eBay for traffic he did not direct to eBay — he also defended his actions, claiming that he did not believe he was doing anything illegal and that he was simply taking advantage of a “stupid program.”

    Go check it out; it’s worth the chance to read an analysis of Dunning’s apparent after-the-fact recollection of events that could have come straight from a skeptical website for its discussion of the unreliability of memory. I should point out that, as a legal document, that PDF does have a lot of personal information in it. I would redact it if I were hosting it, but I’m not, so browse at your own risk.

  35. 47

    @45, Thanks Tom. I enjoyed reading your post and the historical one. Perhaps I am missing something subtle but I was asking if anyone had any specifics on the possible conditions of any possible plea arrangement (possibly too much possibilities….:-) ). Whether Dunning believes he is guilty or not, is not really relevant to what he MAY have needed to commit to in a plea-deal in order to NOT receive the maximum sentence. If, perchance, something good could come out of a “foundation” (even if mis-founded on greed or malice or other human failings) then MAYBE the long term picture for Dunning’s contribution to Skepticism would be viewed in a different light. I don’t really wish to sound like a pollyanna, and I understand Jason’s stance (and accompanying indignation that comes through). I was just curious if there were more facts to be heard and allowing for things to change sometimes promotes that change.

  36. 48

    If Dunning didn’t believe himself to have committed a crime he could have plead “No Contest” – it’s functionally the same as a guilty plea but instead of swearing (under penalty of perjury) that you did something you didn’t do you simply concede that based on the evidence “a reasonable trier of fact” (a judge or jury) could find you guilty.

    So either his admission of guilt was honest or he perjured himself. Take your pick.

  37. 50

    brive1987: NO ONE HERE is demanding “personal vengeance;” we’re only calling for skeptics to distance ourselves from a known fraud, for simple, obvious self-protection reasons that shouldn’t have to be explained to any sane adult. Your failure to distinguish one from the other really makes you look stupid.

    As for Dunning’s family, HE should have thought of their welfare. If his dishonesty has consequences for his family, that’s on his head alone, not his critics’ heads.

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