Has Vitaly Borker, Online’s Biggest Bully, Returned?
Outraged customers of Eyeglassesdepot.com sound like the victims of a man who’s already spent years in prison for terrorizing consumers.,
Has Online Retail’s Biggest Bully Returned?
Outraged customers of Eyeglassesdepot.com sound like the victims of a man who’s already spent years in prison for terrorizing consumers.
The worst online shopping experience of Samin Beringer’s life started with a Google search last fall for a pair of Chanel sunglasses. One of her top results was a site called Eyeglassesdepot, which promised to beat the price of any competitor. On Nov. 2, she placed an order with the company for $322.
When the glasses finally arrived, three weeks late, they were the wrong color and, worse, they appeared to be fakes. One giveaway: there was no Chanel box, dust bag or certificate of authenticity.
“I own about 20 pairs of Chanel glasses and these were much lighter and flimsier,” she said in a recent interview. “I didn’t bother to bring them to an expert to verify I was right. I just asked to send them back.”
And so began a weekslong barrage of emails, texts and late-night phone calls from someone identified to her only as Arsenio. He seemed to cycle quickly through the three stages of retail grief, starting with denial (“It’s not supposed to come with a BOX,” he emailed on Dec. 10. “This is not Macy’s”) bargaining (“Why don’t you keep it for $50 off ok?” he wrote the same day) and anger.
The anger erupted soon after Ms. Beringer posted negative comments about Eyeglassesdepot on a consumer review site called Trustpilot. As part of a campaign to bully her into taking down the review, Arsenio sent an email that stated, “This is my final warning to you,” and threatened to file a defamation lawsuit in “NYS Supreme court” if the comments weren’t deleted.
It was Christmas Day.
“I’m a family law attorney and I deal with distraught and emotional people, and very contested issues,” Ms. Beringer said. “I’ve never experienced anything like this in a professional setting, let alone from a guy I was trying to buy sunglasses from.”
While new to Ms. Beringer, this fraught encounter will sound familiar to hundreds of unsuspecting online eyeglass buyers, some of whom made their purchases more than a decade ago. In 2010, these people had chanced across a site called DecorMyEyes, which was operated by a man calling himself Stanley Bolds, who regularly threatened to murder or maim customers who griped that their pricey glasses were cheap knockoffs.
In 2017, buyers from another site, OpticsFast, complained that when they tried to return their counterfeit glasses, they endured grueling harassment from someone identified as Becky S.
Stanley and Becky turned out to be same person, Vitaly Borker, a 6-foot-5 immigrant from Ukraine. I have known about Mr. Borker’s singular approach to online retail since 2010, when he explained his business in a surprisingly candid interview at his home in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. He was arrested a week later, and would serve three and a half years in prison after pleading guilty to fraud and sending threatening communications as the operator of DecorMyEyes.
Once released, he went straight back to work, running OpticsFast, prosecutors said. In 2017, he was arrested and imprisoned again, this time pleading guilty to mail and wire fraud.
An array of online clues strongly suggests that Mr. Borker, who was released from prison in November 2020, Federal Bureau of Prisons records show, is behind Eyeglassesdepot. None of Eyeglassesdepot’s customers said they were threatened, but at least three were doxxed — that is to say, their names, addresses and credit card information were posted online — by an Eyeglassesdepot representative underneath their complaints about the site.
An email to Eyeglassesdepot was returned by someone identified only as Alex. “I suggest you get your facts right before making false public allegations about this website,” he wrote, without citing any inaccuracies in a detailed note about this article. He declined to comment. A follow-up email asking for Alex’s last name was answered with copy of a contract showing that Alex had purchased Eyeglassesdepot from Vitaly Borker in November 2020. Alex’s last name was inked out on the document.
Mr. Borker’s lawyer, Dominic Amorosa, sent a one-sentence response: “Mr. Borker denies that he is the person identified as Arsenio in your proposed piece.”
One of Eyeglassesdepot’s doxxed customers is Sasha Kuczynski, who in March found the site while looking for a place that could repair her Max Mara glasses. The estimate of $45 sounded appealing, but the odd syntax, misspellings and snippy comments in subsequent correspondence put her off and she emailed to say she would send her glasses elsewhere.
Not so fast, a representative at Eyeglassesdepot replied. The company had already generated a postal label to send her glasses. She owed $9.95. When she declined to send a penny, the representative said Ms. Kuczynski would be reported to a collections agency. Would she, the representative then asked, be willing to set up a phone call with the company’s sales team and chief executive?
“Then the phone rings,” said Ms. Kuczynski, recounting the story recently. “I was so amazed. It was Easter Sunday and this guy had taken time out of his day to harangue me about $9.95.”
She hung up, blocked the number and posted a negative review on Trustpilot. Soon after, Eyeglassesdepot posted a reply that stated, “This is a fake customer posting from a competitor repair website. We have identified the culprit.”
Beneath those words were Ms. Kuczynski’s home address and cellphone number.
She started looking into Eyeglassesdepot and found other consumers enduring similar ordeals. One of them is Melanie Craddock, of Kernersville, N.C. In early April, Ms. Craddock’s name, address and credit card number — including expiration date and three-digit authorization code — were posted by Eyeglassesdepot on Trustpilot, beneath her unhappy tale of buying, then returning, a pair of fake-seeming Versace sunglasses to the company. In a recent interview, she said she and her husband were worried about what else Arsenio might do in retaliation.
There were negative reviews on other review sites, but Trustpilot was the one that seemed to worry Arsenio the most. Trustpilot, which recently went public, has a total of 120 million reviews on its site, and a new review is added every two seconds, a representative said.
Arsenio told furious customers that he would deflect attention from their biting reviews by posting raves that he or an ally had written. (“Burying your bad review under all the good ones,” he wrote to Ms. Beringer in late December.) Trustpilot offered little more than an auto-reply email when Ms. Kuczynski pleaded for the deletion of her home address.
Soon after Trustpilot was alerted to the bogus review claims and the doxxing episodes, the site’s staff found that more than 60 Eyeglassesdepot reviews — about 40 percent — were fakes, which they deleted. Trustpilot sent the company an email asking that it “cease and desist” from writing fake reviews.
“Yeah whatever,” Arsenio emailed back.
A Trustpilot representative acknowledged that it should have responded more quickly and said it was working hard to improve “content integrity.”
Some information about the online origins and ownership of Eyeglassesdepot is private. But Doug Pierce, founder of Cogney, a search engine optimization agency, looked into the vendor at the request of The New York Times and found plenty of clues suggesting that the owner of OpticsFast also owns Eyeglassesdepot.
“There’s a number of glaring fingerprints,” Mr. Pierce said.
Most tellingly, the sites share what are called third-party tags. This is a bit of code from companies that offer e-commerce services, like web security. Eyeglassesdepot and OpticsFast have identical tags, for instance, with two companies that market online live-chat services.
Further, Mr. Pierce ran the source code of Eyeglassesdepot and OpticsFast through a program and found that 95 percent of it was identical. Whoever created Eyeglassesdepot, he concluded, simply cloned OpticsFast, perhaps in the interest of saving time and money, and then made a few cosmetic changes. That person isn’t necessarily Vitaly Borker.
“But who else,” Mr. Pierce asked, “would steal the code from a website as notorious as OpticsFast?”
At one point, Mr. Borker considered his hyper-abrasive style an effective sales strategy. During that 2010 interview in his home, he said that he was delighted that hundreds of buyers fumed about him on customer review sites. It had the perverse effect, he explained, of elevating DecorMyEyes in Google search results.
That’s because Google’s search engine didn’t then distinguish between outrage and positive feedback. It all registered as hubbub, he said, which made DecorMyEyes more likely to show up high on the first page of results. He had previously spent money on search engine optimization specialists, he went on, but they didn’t produce the results he got by scaring his customers, which didn’t cost him a dime.
Typically, he would hint at imminent violence (“You put your hand in fire. Now it’s time to get burned”) though he vowed to rape at least one customer and sent emails to the co-workers of another, claiming the customer dealt drugs.
“Why am I there?” he all but shouted, when DecorMyEyes showed up high up in the results of a Google search for Christian Audigier eyeglasses. He was sitting in his living room with a reporter, typing on his laptop, sounding both annoyed and pleased at the same time. “I don’t belong there.”
A few days after the article was published, Google announced that it had tweaked its algorithm so that toxic retail could not benefit toxic retailers.
Neither that change nor a few years in prison did much to alter Mr. Borker’s methods. His 2017 arrest occurred while he was still on probation, the terms of which prohibited him from lying to probation officers — which he did, those officers testified, when he lied about whether he owned OpticsFast.
“I don’t see how you’re allowed to be back in business,” said an irate Judge Richard J. Sullivan in 2018, six years after he had sentenced Mr. Borker to prison the first time.
In 2018, Mr. Borker also pleaded guilty to an indictment related to OpticsFast and received another two-year sentence in 2019. Judge Paul G. Gardephe, who presided over the case, said in court he’d never seen a defendant return “so quickly to exactly the same crime.”
“It’s over, it’s over,” Mr. Borker told the judge. In a pre-sentencing letter, Mr. Borker also stated, “Something is just not right inside my brain.” Judge Gardephe concurred, noting that mental health professionals had found that Mr. Borker suffers from narcissism, bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.
In his 2019 opinion, Judge Gardephe offered one of the few hints about the economics of Mr. Borker’s business. DecorMyEyes had generated $3.2 million, he wrote, in just over a year. Running the company took little more than a cellphone and an attitude. Mr. Borker didn’t carry inventory. He bought glasses from an array of vendors, often through eBay, and often had those vendors ship directly to his customers.
If Mr. Borker is in charge of Eyeglassesdepot, he broke the law well before he doxxed a customer. The terms of his release prohibit him from involvement with online retail in any capacity.
Eleven years after Mr. Borker’s first arrest — which turned him into New York City tabloid fodder and later the star of an episode of the CNBC true-crime series, “American Greed” — remarkably little has changed. The owner of Eyeglassesdepot can abuse customers and still rank high in Google search results. Unhappy customers can still vent on complaint sites with no effect on the fortunes of Eyeglassesdepot.
And if Arsenio is Mr. Borker, he spent much of the last decade behind bars for a crime he returned to immediately after his release from prison last year. He seems to regard selling glasses online in the most combative way possible, causing maximum aggravation over the tiniest sums, as a professional calling.
During the interview at his home in 2010, he blamed mercurial customers for his noxious manner and implied, with more than a hint of self-pity, that his endless war on unsatisfied buyers, played out through texts and phone calls, was surely shaving years off his life. When it was suggested to him that he might want to find a less stressful job, he pushed back immediately.
“I love the craziness,” he said with sudden smile. “This works for me.”