Network of companies linked to the same man : the wealthy Montrealer Philip Keezer

A tall, smiling bearded man speaks to the camera during a Facebook live broadcast. It is August 2019. Behind him, we can see the modern and refined offices of AdCenter, a web marketing company located on Peel Street in Montreal.

I know we have a lot of affiliates in Indonesia, Bangladesh, all over the world, he said. From all of us here at the office, we wish you health, success and making tons of money with AdCenter , says the man who was the company’s spokesperson at the time.

The welcome is done, he gets down to business. He sits in an armchair and begins reading a list of the most popular films at the box office at the time. He cites Fast and Furious Presents  : Hobbs and Shaw , Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and The Lion King , among others.

“  I hope you can make sales with these films!”  »

You might think that he is giving his audience, AdCenter affiliates – sort of subcontractors working for the company – the mission of promoting these films so that people go see them in the cinema. But no: it rather informs them of current trends that they can use as bait to lure Internet users to paid websites… which do not host these films at all.

If you’ve ever looked to stream a movie for free or watch a sporting event or read a book without paying, there’s a good chance you’ve fallen into one of the traps set by AdCenter affiliates . Under the pretext of offering the desired content for free, they create websites that send Internet users to streaming sites , where they will be asked for their banking information. And affiliates use all means to attract clicks from their targets, including manipulating the Google algorithm so that the misleading sites they put online appear in search results.

Paid sites do not contain the promised content. In fact, they only offer B-movies and other royalty-free works. But using their deceptive advertising, AdCenter affiliates make people believe that they can watch the new Fast and Furious or The Lion King by signing up for a free trial. A free trial that requires their credit card information and can quickly turn into a subscription that costs over $60 per month.

AdCenter is an affiliate marketing business, a legitimate and widespread practice that you encounter every day on the web. The concept is simple: when an influencer promotes a product on Instagram by offering a promotional code to purchase it, for example, this is an affiliate contract. The influencer – an affiliate – receives compensation for each product that sells thanks to her promotion.

Affiliate marketing companies centralize this practice: they sign contracts with advertisers, then Internet users whom they recruit – affiliates – promote their clients’ products on blogs or on social networks, and pocket a profit. commission on sales made. For the most successful affiliates, affiliate marketing can even pay enough to become a full-time job.

AdCenter, however, is not a typical company in the industry. She has just one client: a little-known Barbadian company called Hyuna International, which has more than a thousand almost identical websites, most offering an all-in-one service for streaming movies , books, music and video games.

Our investigation reveals that AdCenter and Hyuna International are linked to the same man, who is, so to speak, his own client: a Montrealer named Philip Keezer.

AdCenter affiliates are not influencers or well-known personalities. Rather, they are shadow workers from all over the world who are looking to get rich and who know how to manipulate Internet users to get their attention. They do not promote Hyuna International sites by touting their merits or the content actually found there. In several months of investigation, we were unable to find a single example of an AdCenter affiliate seeking to sell subscriptions to Hyuna’s sites by clearly and truthfully explaining what a subscription gets them.

Rather, they pollute the web with all kinds of deceptive schemes that succeed in convincing thousands of Internet users to take out their credit cards to subscribe to products that do not offer the promised goods. While AdCenter officially condemns these behaviors, our investigation shows that it is aware of them and even implicitly encourages them.

We tried the experiment. For three recent films –  Borat  2, Soul and Wonder Woman  1984  – we quickly found dozens of misleading ads created by AdCenter affiliates that promised we could watch them online for free and invited us to sign up for sites posted online by Hyuna International. The same goes for professional sports events like NHL hockey or NFL football.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

These lures are everywhere on the web: on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, in blog comment sections, in Google search results. All AdCenter affiliate tactics aim to convince Internet users to take out their credit cards to subscribe to Hyuna International sites. And to achieve this goal, anything goes, including lying.

Every month, thousands of new subscribers find themselves with a few tens of dollars less without having been able to consult the content they were promised. AdCenter affiliates earn a commission for each subscription. And this obscure streaming company , Hyuna International, rakes in subscription fees from new customers that AdCenter provides through affiliates.

If we rely on reviews published by Internet users on the web, thousands of people have been caught by this sophisticated scam in recent years. And while the amounts it extracts from each person who signs up may seem minimal, we were able to determine using public – but incomplete – financial data that the entire scheme generates at least tens of millions of dollars. per year with subscriptions of $20, $40 or $60.

According to information posted on LinkedIn by two former high-ranking employees and a current employee, Mr. Keezer’s empire generates annual revenues of $100 million. Several of our sources also estimated that the annual turnover reached this amount.

All this, in complete discretion, without the defrauded Internet users realizing that they have been fooled by a vast network managed from Montreal.

AdCenter denies everything

According to our investigation, Philip Keezer is linked to all the companies constituting this network, including Hyuna International, AdCenter, Action Media, AdSurge and PaymentsMB. We contacted them all as part of our investigation. The only company that responded to us was Action Media, aka AdCenter. A lawyer responded to us that our allegations are false, misleading and downright defamatory . Action Media, however, has not commented on the allegations about its activities, but says it vigorously denies them . Philip Keezer did not respond to our repeated requests for an interview.

In its terms of service, AdCenter states that its affiliates cannot use deceptive strategies, whether intentionally or by omission. But many ex-employees told us the company is aware of these tactics. According to our investigation, it even seems to half-heartedly encourage them, and they are at the heart of its business model.

Over the years, the companies in Philip Keezer’s empire have multiplied and some have changed names – Big Rebel, Let’s Play Ventures, JoMedia, JoVentures, AdCenter, Action Media, AdSurge, Playster, Hyuna International – but the scheme remained the same, confirm in interviews around fifteen people linked to Mr. Keezer’s companies, including former employees and affiliates.

All requested confidentiality for fear of being sued by Philip Keezer, often described as a wealthy and powerful man.

All roads lead to Hyuna

It is not only with films, novels and sports that AdCenter affiliates bring Internet users to Hyuna International sites. Any popular live-streamed event, including ceremonies like the Golden Globes and Oscars, is likely to be prime bait.

To attract clicks to Hyuna’s websites, affiliates do everything they can to be among the top search results for people looking for free entertainment. This has not gone unnoticed by Google, which describes AdCenter’s practices as attempts to manipulate its search engine. The Californian giant says it has been aware of these tactics for several years, so much so that it claims to have put systems in place to identify them and limit their effectiveness.

Despite everything, what we find sooner or later when carrying out this type of search are web pages created by AdCenter affiliates which skillfully imitate those of sites offering multimedia content, with the sole aim of duping people. and redirect them to Hyuna sites. Many of them contain fake video players that give the user the impression that they have successfully found the content they are looking for.

A few seconds after trying to start a video in this fake player, a message tells the user that if they want to continue watching, they must sign up for a free trial period. When he clicks on the message, he is then redirected to a Hyuna website with a funny name like BoinkPlay or Funlizard, which asks him to enter his credit card, under the pretext of wanting to check his geographic location.

This page of the site promises the Internet user that he will not pay anything; it does not mention anywhere that it may have to incur fees or that it is a paid site.

It is only after having entered and validated their credit card information that the Internet user can learn about the terms and conditions surrounding the free trial: it is then explained, in small print, on a new page, that their membership will be renewed automatically for US$49.95 per month if they don’t cancel their five-day trial.

On the next page, still in small print, he is then offered access to the site’s “multimedia pack” for US$2.95 per month. The box to add this functionality to your subscription is discreet, and already checked. If they click Continue , US$2.95 is immediately debited from their card. The AdCenter affiliate who directed him to Hyuna’s site then pockets his commission.

Once all these steps have been completed, the Internet user can finally access the website, which does indeed offer films, music and books, but not the content promised. In fact, the site is filled with B-movies and royalty-free works. And if they forget to unsubscribe in the next five days, they’ll be charged US$49.95 per month. No notice will be sent to him by email.

The Fundonkey experience

We signed up for a free trial for one of these streaming sites called Fundonkey. None of the top 25 films in its Most Popular section were released more recently than 2011 and none of them had a budget of more than $500,000, according to data from the specialist site IMDb. None have earned enough professional reviews to be rated on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

Most of these 25 feature films were produced by RSquaredFilms, described as an independent distributor of Z films by Slate magazine. (New window) in 2012 The company’s former president, Buzz Remde, confirmed to us that he had sold the rights to his films to Hyuna, but did not want to grant us an interview.

Without receiving an email notification, our Fundonkey account was upgraded to a Premium subscription for US$49.95 (CA$64.23) after the five-day trial period. For comparison, a Netflix subscription costs CA$18.99 plus tax per month, a Disney+ subscription costs CA$11.99 plus tax, and a Crave Premium subscription costs CA$25.97 plus tax.

What the law says

The question arises: is the process used here misleading in the eyes of our laws?

This is what we have the right to ask ourselves, according to two lawyers who studied it at our request.

There are at least two, if not three, steps [of registration] that suggest the process is free. So, even if at one point it is indeed clearly stated, the fact remains that there are other stages where, on the contrary, it was marked as being free , observes Me Vincent Gautrais, lawyer and holder of the LR Wilson Research Chair in Information Technology and Electronic Commerce Law.

It would be fun to say that there is a general impression of freeness that appears, particularly for a consumer who is considered inexperienced [in the eyes of the law] , he analyzes.

“  There is legitimate confusion for a consumer reading on a screen, who generally goes through the process very quickly.  »
— A quote from   Vincent Gautrais, lawyer and holder of the LR Wilson Research Chair

Me Sylvie De Bellefeuille, lawyer and legal advisor at Option consommateurs, also believes that the entire process leading to registration could contravene the Canadian Competition Act.

What the law says is that a merchant does not have the right to make false or misleading representations. So, if we come to lure you with your favorite superhero film, saying that you will be able to watch it by registering, and ultimately we present you with a bunch of films where there is absolutely no content that we promised you, I think there is something fishy going on , she observes.

The pre-checked box with the additional subscription at $2.95 is a questionable practice , according to Me Gautrais, without necessarily being illegal, since there is no case law to this effect. The Civil Code of Quebec provides that consent must be free and informed , while the Consumer Protection Act stipulates that before concluding the contract, the merchant must expressly give the consumer the opportunity to accept or refuse the proposal and correct errors .

The only way to be sure, according to them, would be for a judge to rule on the legality of this entire process, something that has never been done since Hyuna International and AdCenter have been in business.

Facebook taken by storm

Searching for streaming content is just one of the many paths to Hyuna’s subscription sites. On Facebook, false events offering so-called free virtual tours of museums or tourist sites – often of interest to tens of thousands of users – also lead to this.

In January, La  Presse shed light on fake concerts by Quebec artists, promoted on social networks, which also directed Internet users to these same sites. The phenomenon has also been documented in the United States and in Norway, among others.

Our research was able to show that all of these events were organized by AdCenter affiliates and led to Hyuna International sites.

In addition, countless fake Facebook accounts of well-known personalities from around the world have been organizing bogus competitions for months directing Internet users to the same registration page on the Barbadian company’s sites, promising prizes in exchange for a Sign up for a free trial.

Bianca Longpré, Olivier Primeau, Charles Tisseyre, Jean-Luc Mongrain and Éric Duhaime are just some of the Quebec personalities who have seen their identities usurped to promote Hyuna sites since the start of the year.

In March, CBC reported that Indigenous artists living in Ontario and Quebec, Tara Kiwenzie and Tammy Beauvais, had also been victims of identity thefton social networks.

Fake competitions involving American celebrities, including host Ellen DeGeneresand star basketball player LeBron James, were also organized by affiliates. In short, several of the scams that we see all over the web and that have been making headlines for some time have the same point of origin: AdCenter.

An “ordinary mother” in AdCenter’s crosshairs

Our investigation allowed us to determine that at least three fake Facebook accounts impersonating Bianca Longpré were created by AdCenter affiliates in the first months of 2021 alone. These fake accounts attempted to lure Internet users to Hyuna websites using fake contests.

Bianca Longpré, who manages the popular Ordinary Mother Facebook page, said she regularly receives reports of fake accounts in her name from her community. Some girls who follow my page contacted me and said: “hey Bianca, are you organizing a competition?” testifies the author and entrepreneur. I sometimes organize one, but at that time there weren’t any. They sent me the link, I went to look, and I saw for myself that indeed, there was someone stealing my identity.

After we contacted them, Facebook removed a dozen fake pages and events that we had shown as examples of this scheme, which were sending people to Hyuna sites. Facebook says these pages violate its policies on spam, fraud and deception .

A Facebook representative, however, said that the social network has not determined that there is a link between the pages in question . However, our analysis shows that the web addresses contained in these fake profiles displayed unique identifiers revealing that they were the work of AdCenter affiliates.

Despite our reports, dozens of fake competitions usurping the identities of well-known personalities as well as hundreds of bogus virtual tours and concerts persist on Facebook, and new ones are regularly posted online.

Internet users’ forgetfulness and distraction at the heart of the business model

If these false promises of films and shows, which are very seductive, attract people in large numbers, not all of these people take the plunge. In fact, the vast majority of baited people unsubscribe within minutes of signing up and will not be charged a fee.

But if the company manages to make money, or even amass fortunes, it is because thousands of users forget to unsubscribe, or simply do not know that they have subscribed to a paid site.

It is these uncancelled subscriptions, many ex-employees testify, which are at the heart of the business model of the network linked to Philip Keezer. In fact, they say, it is with this money that the company makes almost all its profits.

“  Essentially, we were making money off the backs of people who didn’t realize it. It is inconceivable that people would voluntarily pay monthly fees for the inferior content we were offering.  »
— A quote from   A former employee of Philip Keezer

Imagine, some kind of really shitty Netflix, full of movies you’ve never heard of, that you can’t even find in the back of a Blockbuster. That was it , said this former employee.

These former employees speak from experience: they held various positions within companies linked to Mr. Keezer.

The business model used here is not new. Although it is here on a rarely seen scale, involving affiliates around the world and hundreds of separate websites, it has already proven itself.

According to Better Business Bureau (BBB) ​​international investigations expert Steve Baker, many subscription-based scams rely on consumers forgetting to unsubscribe.

“  Many people pay off their credit cards without ever looking at their statements. Sometimes it takes months and months before they notice.  »
— A quote from   Steve Baker, Better Business Bureau international investigations expert

And when they do notice, repayment isn’t as easy as they might hope. In his study on subscription traps and deceptive free trials, Steve Baker notes that credit card companies are often reluctant to reimburse people who fall for such schemes.

Mr. Baker refers to an in-house survey conducted by theBBBsurvey of 1000 people according to which 57% of respondents had made chargeback requests from their credit card company and 44% of them had not been reimbursed.

He adds that many people are not aware that chargebacks exist and that it is common for victims of this type of scam to cancel the subscription without even asking for a refund.

According to former employees of companies linked to Mr. Keezer that we spoke to, the company quickly refunds unhappy customers who request it to prevent them from trying to reverse the payment with their credit card provider. Because too many chargebacks would expose credit card companies to scams.

This is what we saw with our Fundonkey subscription. After paying fees for two months, we asked customer service to cancel our subscription and refund us the CA$124 charged. Fundonkey complied without question.

Internet users pour out their hearts

Our team has cataloged thousands of negative reviews and comments on the web regarding the websites involved in this scheme.

These opinions suggest in particular that not everyone manages to get their hands on their lost money: several say they do not know why they have been billed without their knowledge for months, while others report problems with unsubscribes that could only be resolved by canceling the credit card linked to the account.

These Internet users believe they have been fooled by sites with names like Yaydigital, Donnaplay or Lizardfun, which apparently have no connection between them. But our checks show that all of them are part of the Hyuna International network.

We read 642 reviews associated with five Hyuna sites on the consumer review platform Trustpilot, written between the years 2015 and 2021: Geeker, Lilplay, Tzarmedia, Iceboxfun and Funmanger. Nearly half of them include variations of the words scam , fraud or theft , and the vast majority at the very least involve unexpected or unknown transactions on credit card statements. More than 95% gave the worst rating possible, one star out of five.

Note, however, that several of these Internet users claim that it was possible for them to be reimbursed, even after paying for a subscription for several months without their knowledge.

Without specifically talking about the thousands of negative comments targeting Hyuna sites on the web, Philip Keezer deplored the existence of platforms like Trustpilot in a blog post last year. He believes they allow companies to anonymously smear competitors or for frustrated ex-staff members to defame their former employer out of revenge.

If you’ve been in business a long time, you’ve probably experienced the backlash from dissatisfied customers or disgruntled former employees , we read in the post published in February 2020 on Mr. Keezer’s website. Even the largest companies in the world are plagued by negative reviews, fraudulent accusations or outright smear campaigns.

In this text, Mr. Keezer describes the authors of this type of criticism as scammers , fraudsters and trolls , and advises his fellow entrepreneurs to make takedown requests or go through legal channels to defend themselves. .

Affiliates, the key to success

AdCenter sells a dream life to its approximately 5,000 affiliates.

On its website, it suggests that they could earn $10,000 per month – a realistic amount, according to affiliates we spoke to, with supporting evidence.

On social media, AdCenter affiliates in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan post photos of their lifestyle: motorcycles, high-end computers, piles of money, etc.

I love AdCenter because AdCenter has changed my life, an Asia-based affiliate told us. The money I made with AdCenter is worth something like five million dollars in my country. Now I have a big house and a big car. Although he admits in an interview that his activities are not ethical, he argues that his work allows him to support his family.

Affiliates are supervised by affiliate managers, AdCenter employees based in Montreal, but also in other countries such as Indonesia, Peru and Latvia.

We were able to find hundreds of examples of affiliates using deceptive schemes to lure Internet users, but AdCenter says it does not condone this type of practice, and has even set up a team to ensure compliance with its regulations. regarding misleading advertising. According to information that has now been removed from AdCenter’s site, an affiliate’s web page that is the subject of a copyright infringement complaint must be removed within 48 hours of receipt or else the affiliate’s account will be suspended.

Our sources indicate, however, that AdCenter does not actively monitor affiliate sites: it therefore only intervenes after receiving a report.

Additionally, suspended affiliates can easily create a new account and continue working on behalf of AdCenter, according to these sources.

Lie by omission

AdCenter does not directly ask affiliates to lie to generate subscriptions, but it does tell them what might generate interest among Internet users. Affiliates then create advertising campaigns that strongly suggest that a user will be able to view these films or sporting events by signing up for a free trial period.

We spoke to an affiliate who confirmed that the company invites its contractors to promote sporting events, movies and TV series that are not available on Hyuna sites.

It’s a total scam, this affiliate who currently lives in Asia admitted to us. Sports matches are broadcast by television channels. But as an affiliate, you promote it and […] it’s a lie. The customer will not have permission to listen to these matches online. People could watch the games if they subscribed to the TV channels, but AdCenter and its affiliates say it’s free. And that’s totally false.

”  You ask your manager, ‘how can I increase my sales?’ And the manager tells you “promote the NFL, the NBA, the UFC”. But they don’t tell you exactly how to do it.  »
— A quote from   An AdCenter Affiliate

On social networks, AdCenter accounts regularly keep affiliates informed of cultural and sporting events that could attract Internet users looking for free content.

We’ve seen at least five other AdCenter managers publicly encourage affiliates to promote live sports on Facebook, including posting listings and photos of upcoming games and events.

Hello ladies and gentlemen. As many of you know, the Super Bowl is coming up. Anyone planning to promote it via livestream , talk to me. I will make you rich! , can we read in one of the publications.

An Indonesian affiliate manager also published a practical guide on her Facebook profile in March explaining how to increase sales by promoting live sports using fake video players.

Another affiliate manager has published a list of music festivals to promote, including the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival.

Tailor-made scam

According to our survey, AdCenter offers its affiliates a toolbox to increase the chances that an Internet user takes out their credit card. The company has created a variety of personalized registration pages for Hyuna sites, tailored to users’ interests to better attract them.

For example, a user looking to watch a free streaming hockey game will come across an affiliate site that claims to offer NHL hockey, then be sent to a signup page with images of a puck and of an ice cream. The user looking to watch professional wrestling will instead see images of a ring, and the user looking for a virtual concert will see a registration page with images of a stage.

The affiliate only has to choose the most appropriate registration page for the targeted clientele and add the link to it to their fake video player or advertisements . The language of the page automatically adapts to that of the user.

We were able to browse 1600 custom signup pages created by AdCenter to allow its affiliates to target users. An analysis of these shows that the company plays the game of its affiliates.

In particular, they use intellectual properties for which Hyuna does not hold the distribution rights, such as images from the Disney film Toy Story  4 . On the page, a video player broadcasts a few seconds of the film, before inviting the Internet user to create an account to continue .

We were able to find other similar homepages exploiting the colors and symbolism of popular television series such as Game of Thrones ; films such as Avengers  : Endgame , Mission  : Impossible   Aftermath and Aquaman ; sporting events, such as the mixed martial arts fight between Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov in October 2018 and the WWE SummerSlam event.

Behind the screen, opaque companies

We found over 1100 nearly identical websites, all registered by Hyuna International, using the DomainTools tool. The traffic they attract is huge.

Those that we were able to list would have generated a total of an average of 32.4 million page views per month in 2020, according to estimates provided by the analysis firm SimilarWeb. This is nearly 10% of the 331 million page views generated by the popular video-on-demand platform Disney+ in March 2021, again according to SimilarWeb estimates.

These websites are linked to 318 companies, most of them registered in Britain and Cyprus. The vast majority of these companies report having no employees and had a value, on paper, of between £1 and £100 (between CA$1.72 and CA$172) at the time of incorporation.

Our team attempted to contact the registered directors of these companies. Most were untraceable, but the few dozen we managed to track down – including a billiards champion, a masseuse and a British actor – either did not respond to our questions or blocked our communications.

Many of these companies had as their address the offices of a company based in Haslemere, Great Britain, a town of 18,000 inhabitants. This company offers incorporation services in Great Britain and Cyprus, among others. For £750, it recruits an EU resident for its international clients to act as a director of their company, according to its website.

The financial statements of the 187 entities registered in Britain reveal that they reported assets of £9.8 million in 2019, which is equivalent to almost C$17 million at the current exchange rate. This amount reached £14.8 million in 2015 and £18.4 million in 2014. These amounts are equivalent to CA$25.6 million and CA$31.8 million at the current exchange rate.

Business secrecy does not allow us to consult the financial statements of the 99 entities registered in Cyprus nor of the thirty registered in Slovakia, the Czech Republic or the United States.

Philip Keezer’s name does not appear in documents related to these companies.

A labyrinth to hide the truth

Different users falling for the same trap set by an AdCenter affiliate will end up on the same personalized registration page. But the Hyuna network site to which they will be redirected is chosen at random.

According to a former employee, who spoke to us on condition of confidentiality, the use of these hundreds of companies and websites serves to spread the risk across its network, since, as a result, complaints and requests reimbursements do not all end up in the same place.

This gives the impression that Hyuna’s network is not a single operation, but rather a constellation of sites with no apparent connection, according to the same source.

We showed the results of our investigation to Ron Guilmette, an independent researcher living in California who has been interested in web scams for over 20 years. According to the researcher, these companies have all the appearance of shell companies, that is to say companies used to hide the financial transactions of other companies.

Mr. Guilmette maintains that Internet scammers often resort to strategies consisting of setting up hundreds of websites and shell companies to cover their tracks.

Clearly, the people behind this scheme have created several levels of camouflage to cover their tracks , he judges.

“  It is designed to discourage, if not outright block the way for consumers, authorities and credit card companies who would attempt to investigate this network.  »
— A quote from   Ron Guilmette, independent researcher

The complex structure of this type of network, with its overseas companies, is indeed enough to discourage any quest for justice.

If you have [had fees charged by] a foreign shell company, especially in a jurisdiction like Cyprus, how is an average angry consumer who feels they are being scammed supposed to get their money back? ? , he illustrates.

A consumer could well decide to use the services of a lawyer in the country of the shell company that cheated him, but this risks being rather expensive, especially considering the small amounts ultimately involved.

Essentially, it’s impossible. You have to let it go and move on , forget Ron Guilmette.

The same goes for the authorities, who can in any case draw the conclusion that these activities which take place on paper, in other countries, are not their responsibility, he adds.

Note that another company linked to Mr. Keezer, PaymentsMB, processes all payments made on Hyuna International sites. These two companies, as well as AdCenter, therefore form a truly hermetic ecosystem, which supports Internet users from the beginning to the end of the process.

The Keezer Mystery

Philip Keezer seems to cultivate mystery. Photos of the forty-year-old are rare on social networks, and very little is written about him. His older brother, Matt Keezer, is a relatively well-known businessman. He is one of the co-founders of the site Pornhub and the company Flighthub.

Philip Keezer’s association with Hyuna International was only made public in 2016 with the release of the Paradise Papers , a leak of documents from tax havens obtained by the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and Radio-Canada.

The Hyuna International incorporation documents we viewed as well as testimonials from staff members confirm these connections. According to these documents, a company named JoMedia BBD was incorporated in Barbados in April 2011, and Philip Keezer became its president in November of that year. In September 2014, JoMedia BBD changed its name to Hyuna International, and Mr. Keezer is listed in documents as president of the company until June 2016.

JoMedia is also the name of a Montreal company founded and majority owned by Mr. Keezer. It is still designated as the main shareholder of AdCenter, according to the Quebec Business Registrar, and Hyuna International’s incorporation documents indicate that JoMedia BBD is JoMedia’s Barbadian subsidiary.

Another Montrealer acted as CEO of Hyuna from 2016 to 2019, these same documents reveal. However, according to our information, the company is still linked to Mr. Keezer.

During our investigation, we managed to find some public information about Mr. Keezer.

In 2018, his name appeared on the list of donors who purchased a $1,500 ticket to a gala for the Liberal Party of Canada, an event frequented by extremely influential families, such as the Desmarais and the Bronfmans.

In 2014, Hyuna International was behind a mysterious $300 unsolicited donation sent to the Denis Coderre Team. At the time, the party, which said it did not know why a Barbadian company would have given it money, refused the donation. Questioned by The Gazette, Hyuna then did not want to reveal the identity of her owner.

According to our information, Philip Keezer owns a few properties in Quebec. Until 2018, he owned a $4.4 million home in Westmount. A trust of which he is the representative recently sold a sumptuous heritage residence in Senneville, put on sale for $9.5 million, and Mr. Keezer also owns an imposing summer house in Saint-André d’Argenteuil .

In 2017, a property nicknamed “the Downton Abbey of Westmount” was purchased for CA$13.5 million by a private trust. This was the largest amount ever spent on a residence in Quebec in 2017 and, at the time, the most expensive home to have ever been sold in Westmount. The bill of sale shows that the representatives of this trust are two members of Philip Keezer’s close family, and the trust shares an address and telephone number with Keezer’s businesses. According to DomainTools, the trust’s website – used as an email server – was registered with the same phone number used to register the AdCenter site.

Competition Bureau well placed to investigate, experts say

Several of the experts we contacted believe that given the scale of the scam, Canada’s Competition Bureau would be well placed to investigate the network’s practices.

They particularly mention false or misleading representations given to consumers by Hyuna affiliates and websites, which could contravene the Canadian Competition Act.

Contacted by our team, the independent organization did not want to specifically comment on the Hyuna International/AdCenter file.

Its spokesperson Marie-Christine Vézina, however, asserts that companies using affiliate marketing cannot exonerate themselves from having given false or misleading information to sell a product by blaming their affiliates.

That a company that offers affiliate marketing has given misleading information does not change the way in which the Bureau would look at the facts specific to the merchant’s situation , maintains Ms. Vézina.

The spokesperson for the Competition Bureau explains that any marketing product is considered an indication , according to the Canadian Competition Act, as long as the general impression [that it] gives leads a person to act in a manner specific, such as buying or using a product or service .

The sound of the story offered by José Fernandez, professor of cybersecurity at the École Polytechnique de Montréal, is however slightly different. According to him, in certain cases, the use of an affiliate system can allow a company to dissociate itself from their behavior. She can plead ignorance of her affiliates’ dishonest techniques while profiting from their work.

If we’re talking about activities that are not necessarily criminal, but that are risky from a reputational or moral perception point of view, the use of affiliate systems potentially allows you to have [a] safeguard. moral or legal fire, he argues. This allows us to say that these potentially reprehensible activities were not carried out by us. It protects in some way, from a legal or reputational point of view, the people who operate this system , he judges.

Fernandez adds that the fact that only relatively small amounts are taken keeps the scam below the pain threshold that could prompt authorities to intervene.

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