Con Artist Shares Inside Story of Google Pharmacy Ad Sting

pillsDavid Whitaker used his Rhode Island electronics equipment company,, to scam customers and a credit card processing company out of up to $20 million in 2005. After accepting millions of dollars in orders for iPods and failing to fulfill many, Whitaker did what any reasonable person would do… he hired a private security detail, rented a private jet, and skipped town.

It wasn’t his first time at the rodeo. Whitaker had stolen his mother’s credit card at 16 years old, to rent a private jet and take his girlfriend on a shopping spree. When he started in Rhode Island, Whitaker was already fleeing probation in Massachusetts, for larceny charges. He needed a partner to lend some capital and a bit of legitimacy to his new venture, so Whitaker teamed up with a man named Cory Johnson.

Within a few months, they had moved from a home-based business to occupy three floors of a downtown Providence office building. Whitaker and Johnson recruited management experts from CompUSA and other dot-coms. He was living the high life, with a $200,000 a month mansion in Miami, a $9,000 a month home in Jamestown, and his own bodyguards and security staff. Whitaker even threw a half-million dollar New Year’s Eve party.

After fleeing the U.S. over that pesky missing millions deal, Whitaker set up shop in Mexico. This time, he operated as an online pharmacy, specializing in the sale of illegal growth hormones and steroids to Americans. He decided to write the Wall Street Journal from prison recently to tell his side of the tale that resulted in one of the largest financial settlements in history.

It was a stroke of luck for U.S. federal authorities that in March 2008, this convincing, disarming, and charming career criminal was arrested in Mexico for entering the country illegally. Upon his extradition, he told authorities how complicit Google Adwords had been in helping him advertise his illegal business to U.S. consumers.

“It was very obvious to Google that my website was not a licensed pharmacy,” Whitaker wrote to the Journal. “Understanding this, Google provided me with a very generous credit line and allowed me to set my target advertising directly to American consumers.”

In exchange for a reduced sentence recommendation, Whitaker agreed to help authorities in the Google pharmacy ads sting. He become Corriente and developed working relationships with Google execs, eventually having them help him work around more and more rules. Eventually, they were helping him set up ad programs not only for HGH and steroids, but for other prescription-only drugs like RU486, oxycodone, and weight loss medications.

In his letter, he explained that the sites were designed to look “as if a Mexican drug lord had built a website to sell HGH and steroids.” Some were rejected at first, according to Whitaker. But bypassing the electronic systems and speaking to real ad execs resulted in near universal approval of his campaigns.

“There were photos of the drugs, descriptions, labels that clearly printed out that we were shipping without a prescription and it was from Mexico,” Mr. Whitaker said.

Last August, Google agreed to pony up the half billion dollar penalty when it became clear that execs right up to Larry Page had known about Google’s role in the pharmacy ads debacle.

The settlement prevented federal prosecution, which would almost certainly have been even more damaging to Google’s flagging reputation. As their sting operation wrapped up, the federal task force paid a visit to Google’s headquarters to share what they had learned.

In total, more than 4 million pages of emails and internal documents were forfeited to prosecutors. Most of this will never see the light of day, given the deal. It is curious that Whitaker spoke out to the media, though it does shed some light on just how far past the line Google AdWords had gone.

As for Whitaker, he had faced up to 65 years in prison for his crimes. At sentencing in December 2011, he was given credit for four years time served and ordered to serve another two years and two months. He was also ordered to pay more than $10 million in restitution.

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