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Everyone knows or has met someone who is able to get seemingly impossible things done, from finding some luxury item in the middle of nowhere, to persuading someone to do something out of the ordinary, often against their better judgment.
A shortcut, a tip, the man with the inside track. Stephen Cohen is that person.
An easy manner, a splash of charm, the ability to read people instantly and a very, very quick mind is what you need if you are to make a living conning people out of their possessions. But they are all as nothing without the right knowledge and careful planning. Stephen Cohen possesses an extraordinary ability to acquire snippets of information and then weave them together to create an entirely different, and entirely convincing, picture about what is happening or has just happened.
It makes him an extraordinary storyteller, and he will literally tell you tale after tale for hours. He will tell you about meeting Bill Gates. "I know him. I went to Comdex one year - I arrived on the Tuesday and I couldn't get a badge because it was late, around 5.30 p.m. There were some old farts on security, about 65, so I just walked in. And I saw a group of people watching big screen TV but with the sound turned off. So I walked up to this guy, introduced myself and started talking."
He will tell you about his Rolls Royce: "It was a 1979 Silver Cloud. But I remember the insurance company asked me for the horse power of the car because it wasn't listed anywhere, so I wrote to Rolls Royce's headquarters in England saying 'What is the horsepower of my car, I need to know for my insurance company' and they wrote me a letter back. It contained one word: 'sufficient'."
He will tell you about charming the most beautiful woman in the world in a lift in Nicaragua. He will leave pregnant pauses in an intriguing story about how a Caribbean plane due to take off returned to a terminal to let on several mysterious American-speaking men dressed exactly alike. Whatever the subject, whatever the country, whatever the moment, Stephen Cohen has a story to tell about it. And every story has in it a kernel of truth, a fascinating snippet that he has picked up from somewhere that he then weaves a tale around.
But while this most human of gifts makes Stephen Cohen a great man to chat to, it is also the basis of his criminal enterprise. He has learnt that if you talk to someone long enough they will relax and be more likely to break confidences. The sheer amount of time he spends talking on the phone is extraordinary. He has new phone lines installed in every place he lives; he has become an expert on the latest technology that runs calls over the Internet; when in jail he made literally dozens of phone calls every day. Stephen Cohen was born with a phone attached to his ear.
This mastery of the phone and ability to draw out secrets achieves remarkable results. Cohen would often taunt Kremen by calling him up and providing small details of Kremen's legal tactics, often just hours after they had been discreetly prepared.
Talk with him about a wide range of subjects, and he will have a comment to make on something that happened only hours earlier. Cohen picks up interesting titbits before they become public knowledge and uses them to give the impression of knowledge and authority. The catch is that there is almost no depth to that knowledge - something that becomes increasingly obvious the more you speak with him.
An old friend and lawyer of Cohen's, Frank Butler, knows this better than most. "Steve is the sort of person that has read the first page of every book ever written. He would pick your brain for all of the salient points of an issue and then regurgitate them back to you. And he could use them to his advantage. He is a very bright person."
One of Kremen's lawyers, James (Jim) Wagstaffe, is less complimentary: "If you lit a match in front of his mouth, the whole room would explode it is so full of gas."
Nonetheless, through a potent combination of careful planning, bald untruths, aggressive legal pressure and endless phone calls, Cohen manages to achieve seemingly impossible results, getting people to hand over money, cars, even houses in return for nothing. And he has done it over and over again for nearly 40 years.
It is an old maxim that you can't con an honest man. As a result, conmen are often viewed as loveable rogues, even though they feed off people's weaknesses, because the person who loses out knew they were up to no good in the first place.
Cohen doesn't fit this model of con man. He is certainly devastatingly charming when he needs to be, he can spin a yarn and have you believe it's true, but Stephen Michael Cohen prefers - loves - to fox, bewilder and cajole honest people into making mistakes. People aren't complicit in a Stephen Cohen scam - he takes you for what you're worth and then turns around and grins, defying you to try to get your possessions back. The result is that Cohen's skills at avoiding people - creditors, bailiffs, lawyers, angry husbands, sheriffs - are even more honed than those he uses to con people in the first place.
California has no fewer than four district courts and is home to one of twelve Appeals Courts of the United States. Cohen knows every one. But even though he, most of his businesses, and most of the adult industry are based in and around Los Angeles, he decided to sue the owners of domains containing the word "sex" in the state of Oregon, over 1,000 miles north.
The state of Oregon has just one district court, no Appeals Court, and a culture of law practice that is a million miles away from the tough-talking, ruthless existence of LA lawyers so frequently portrayed in films and on television. In Oregon things also go much, much faster.
"In Oregon, I tried a murder case in three days," exclaims Charles Carreon - another of Kremen's lawyers. "I won a $300,000 verdict after a four-day trial: the jury was out for two hours! It takes them all day in LA just to pick the foreman! Here, they move your ass."
Cohen had learnt about the speed of the courts of Oregon and decided to use it to his advantage. While he was hoping that his application for a "sex.com" trademark would be approved, he also knew he had faked the supporting documents so there was a big risk it would be turned down. So he decided to go in fast and go in hard with anyone that stood up to him. If someone refused to hand over their "sex" domain or pay the licensing fees, Cohen came good on his threat and took them to court - no fewer than eleven times in two years.
He hired a tough and aggressive law firm to make sure people took him seriously: DuBoff Dorband Cushing & King.
Leonard DuBoff is a highly experienced Oregon notable, and an acknowledged expert in trademark law, albeit one without sight or a right hand, thanks to an explosion in his youth. He led the initial charge.
One of the first people to benefit from this personal attention was porn giant Serge Birbrair and his company Signs Signs Signs. Cohen wanted Birbrair's "sexia.com" domain but Birbrair had refused. The next thing Birbrair knew, on 10 February 1998, Signs Signs Signs received no fewer than five legal documents: a trademark infringement complaint; a discovery order requesting that he hand over all relevant information
concerning sexia.com; a motion for a temporary restraining order preventing him from using the domain; a memorandum in support of the motion for a temporary restraining order; and an affidavit from Cohen's company again backing up the call for a temporary restraining order.
Just two days later, the issue appeared before an Oregon judge, who set a calendar for the case to be heard.
Just seven days after that, the hearing took place, and the very next day Cohen was granted a preliminary injunction. Cohen immediately provided this injunction to the dotcom registry, Network Solutions, and sexia.com was dead.
And that was it - in just ten days, Birbrair went from having a leading adult website to having nothing. And he hadn't even begun to fight Cohen. The combination of his distant Oregon lawyers and an overwhelming first action was a knockout punch and the combination was so successful that Cohen used it again and again and again, building a huge number of premium domain names through pure, raw aggression. No one had seen anything like it, particularly not over the fledgling Internet.
Before Birbrair's case had even ended, Cohen had taken another company to court: Netsphere and its freesex.com domain. He used the exact same approach: five legal documents outlining the claimed infringement, three of them requesting an injunction. The only difference was the name of the domain in the documents. Just two days after lodging the complaint in court, the case was in front of a judge. It was a Wednesday and the first case conference was arranged for that Friday. The case conference was carried out by telephone and gave Netsphere just eleven days to respond.
Netsphere was completely overwhelmed and decided the best thing to do was hide. Cohen's lawyers tried to serve the company with the legal papers but couldn't find them. After three weeks of looking, they informed the court they had only located one of the three defendants. But Cohen didn't stop at that. A week later, Netsphere was tracked down and presented with the court documents. The very next day, the hearing took place without the defendants present.
The judge gave Netsphere another eleven days to respond, but the case was already won. It handed over the domain before the second deadline was up.
There was no stopping Cohen. Just eight days after filing suit against Netsphere, the same process was repeated all over again with another company, Netside, for the domain "sexcom.net". Again the five documents arrived. Again, just two days later, the judge laid down a calendar for the case.
The process was so fast each time that companies barely had time to formulate a response before their domain was put on hold. Netside at least tried to slow the process down: being a Florida company and so on the other side of the United States, it argued Oregon was an improper venue. But just a week later it decided it couldn't handle the legal pressure and simply handed over the domain to Cohen.
This approach hadn't gone unnoticed in the adult industry. People were running scared, but a few were getting increasingly angry. It didn't help that Cohen did almost nothing with the domains he acquired, often simply putting up a single page that redirected to sex.com. Everything was maximum profit for minimum effort.
The domain-name crusade was suddenly halted in its tracks, however, when one company - the owner of "hotsex.com" - decided to take the fight to Cohen before Cohen had the chance to sue him. Three days after Cohen had launched his third court case, against Netside, he was named as the main defendant in a civil case brought against him by Michael Davon of Web-Depot, who faced him with his own tactics: Web-Depot was based in Cambridge, Massachusetts - the opposite end of America. Davon also hired a trademark specialist to argue his case.
Unfortunately for him, the speed of law was more Californian than Oregonian in Massachusetts, so it took another two months for the case to come before a judge. This wasn't the only challenge Cohen faced. The undisputed king of online porn, Ron Levi, saw his chance and got involved. Levi had been watching Cohen's progress in the adult industry, and when Cohen stopped his rampage against other "sex" domains thanks to Web-Depot lawsuit, Levi jumped in.
Levi owned "wwwsex.com". So those that typed in the "www" web address but didn't hit the full stop, would be taken to http://www.wwwsex.com. It sounds stupid, but it was incredibly effective. More importantly than that though, the name tackled a fundamental element of trademark law.
An intriguing aspect of trademark - often abused by companies to explain unethical behaviour - is that a company has to defend any misuse of its mark if it is to keep it. So if Cohen didn't react to someone using a domain that included the term "sex.com", he couldn't then go and attack someone else later for having a dotcom with the word "sex" in it. Levi knew this and so launched a site at wwwsex.com while Cohen was waiting for the Web-Depot case to come to court.
But Cohen - who had been carefully avoiding the notoriously tough Levi - had noticed the sudden appearance of the site, realised what it meant, and so sued. Ron Levi received the same five legal papers, but this time with the domain "wwwsex.com" filling in the blanks. Levi had his Californian attorney immediately apply for permission to represent him in an Oregon court, and the two found themselves in a stand-off.
Both decided that the fight was for another day, however, and a month later Cohen withdrew his complaint and Levi took down his site. It was a wary truce, and one that finally broke down when Cohen found out that Levi had started funding Gary Kremen's legal battle against him.
Cohen then fought for another three months with Web-Depot and Michael Davon in Massachusetts, gradually losing ground.
Eight months in and just days before the trial date, Cohen settled and hoped that no one on the West Coast would notice.
Cohen then continued as if nothing had happened, sending out another long list of demands to "sex" domain owners threatening them with legal action unless they capitulated. This time, however, Cohen found a more defiant adult industry that refused to simply cave in when they received a letter from DuBoff Dorband Cushing & King. On 29 July 1999 his legal team filed no fewer than five trademark infringement lawsuits
and kicked the whole process off again.
By 2001, Cohen owned, among many, many other domains: lovemysex.com, wwwsex.net, wesex.com, 4sexy.com, ezhotsex.com, sexq.com, sexonline.com, hardsexonline.com, sexxlist.com, sexxxlist.com, trysex.com and truesex.com.
It is difficult to underestimate how happy Cohen was during this period - possibly for the first time since his childhood. He had spent his whole adult life pulling scams and then rapidly avoiding the fallout. No matter how much Cohen had congratulated himself on his prowess at not being caught, there had always been people after him. And despite all his feelings of superiority, it was quite clear society had thought little of him.
Now, however, sitting on top of sex.com, he found both the buzz he craved and, for the first time, a measure of respectability in the eyes of at least some of the rest of the world. It may have been the sleazy adult industry, and he may have been basing his entire legal crusade on a domain name he had stolen, using a trademark application he knew to be fraudulent, but he was successfully screwing people and didn't have to watch his back while he did it. The money, power and sense of legitimacy was intoxicating.
Unfortunately for Cohen, the more Gary Kremen saw him using sex.com to build a fortune and found a business, the more determined he became to take it off him. A strange intensity started building between the two, as each put more and more store in having control of the domain.
Find out what happened next. Get this book from Amazon.com.
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