Sundance Vacations goes from bad to worse
In January of 2013, I was contacted by Sundance Vacations over this 2010 question at Ask MetaFilter. The company appears to be a time-share vacation company and it seemed they were trying to chase down every negative mention of their company online. The question at Ask MetaFilter doesn’t necessarily tarnish their company, as someone asks if a vacation sales pitch they have to attend to win a free trip is worth the trouble. Most of the answers mention general stories of having to sit through strong-arm timeshare sales pitches and how to get out of them quickly.
The email furnished me with a court order against a person running a Sundance Vacations protest site, who was no longer allowed to speak negatively about the company online. Sundance then asked that I remove the thread. I did a bit of research and quickly figured out the person named in the court order could not possibly be the person that posted the thread (different names, from different parts of the US, etc). I notified the company and they thanked me for my time.
This past Sunday, I was contacted again by Sundance Vacations, again about a court order obtained against someone running a “Boycott Sundance Vacations” Facebook group, asking me to remove that same old Ask MetaFilter thread which was now listed in court documents. (Here is the PDF, screenshots of the PDF below)
I found that last bit strange; why would my site be listed in a court document but I was never contacted by any court or lawyer beforehand to figure out if the person that made the original post was the defendant in the court order? Again, I did some digging and the names didn’t match up at all, and I notified the company. This time, instead of thanking me and dropping it, they demanded all identifying info about the user that did make the post so they could contact the court about obtaining a new court order against that user.
I flat out refused and told them to not contact me any more. Then I went back to the original court order document they sent me. There were a lot of strange things about it, including:
- I couldn’t select any text in the PDF, each page appears to be one giant image.
- The two signatures of court officials are blank lines with signatures, no printed names of who is signing them.
- The company signs as “Sundance Vacations” as a signature. I run a company, and I always have to sign my full name as president of my company, never as the company name itself.
- The font on the front page plaintiff mention of Sundance Vacations is a different size from every other font on the page.
- The URLs mentioned on page 2 appear to be a slightly darker font than the rest of the text on that page.
- I searched a couple relevant Mississippi court record databases but couldn’t find this exact court order. When I asked for help on Twitter, no one else could find it in any court database, even someone that paid for a $10 state system account so they could search the entire Mississippi court database.
The whole thing started to seem fishy to me. Being it was Sunday on a holiday weekend, I had to wait until the courts opened on Tuesday before I could talk to anyone about it.
Today (Tuesday) I called a clerk in the Hinds County Chancery Court office. They asked me to fax them a copy of the court order so they could verify the document. I did as requested and a few hours later got a call back from the office saying it was not a real document from their court. The case numbers on the first page are from an unrelated case that took place last year. The clerk said they found a case from August 21, 2014 that used similar language but had different plaintiffs and defendants, but the same lawyers on page 3. In their opinion, it seemed someone grabbed a PDF from a different case and copy/pasted new details to it before sending it on to me.
Shady companies go to great lengths to cover up any critical reviews online and I’ve been contacted many times over the last 15 years by companies looking to get any mentions of them removed from MetaFilter. Forging court documents is a felony offense and is an altogether new low though. I don’t know what the next step is, but I hope the Hinds county court and the two lawyers listed in the fake court order (who both appear to be real attorneys in Jackson, Mississippi) think about taking action against the people behind Sundance Vacations.
For anyone running a website, even when you get a scary legal notice like this demanding you remove material from your site immediately, be sure and take the extra step to verify its authenticity. There are now new lows that companies will go to against website owners in their efforts to protect their brand.
Update: September 3, 2014
The company is denying they sent the court order to me and said they are looking into the matter. The initial contact to me came from the IP address: 184.108.40.206, which in 30 seconds of research puts it in a Courtyard by Marriot in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (a 2 hour drive from where Sundance Vacations is based). The person emailed me two additional times from the gmail address firstname.lastname@example.org, which maps to this Google Plus account. Lastly, a document software engineer gave a pretty good run-down for all the ways the document was faked. If you’d like to see the fake court order email in its entirety with headers, I’ve uploaded it to dropbox.