The curious case of Linkstar Media

Some day I plan to run my own vast Web 2.0 empire, and the media world will tremble at the mere mention of my name.

For now, though, I operate a humble blog (Tynan on Tech) that, well, let's just say it isn't exactly burning up the ComScore charts as one of the 100 hottest Web properties. I have a small but dedicated audience composed largely of family members and their pets, as well as a few stragglers who find their way via the stories I write for this site and others.

So I was a little surprised when, out of the blue, I got an email from "Sarah Bennett" at a UK-based company called Linkstar Media seeking to place a handful of text ads on my site.

Sure, I said, I'd be happy to take some of your money. But first, could you tell me a little more about Linkstar?

You'd think the answer to that question would be simple. It wasn't. The more information I sought, the more elusive it became.

After I pressed Sarah to tell me what kinds of ads they had in mind, who their advertisers were, if they an affiliate-based ad company, and who actually owned Linkstar, her supervisor "Steve Martins" replied and said Linkstar was no longer interested in advertising on my site.

After he realized I was a journalist (which is pretty obvious if you've ever visited my blog), he warned me that the firm's solicitors would vigorously pursue legal action against any one who published defamatory comments about the company.

Well, saying that to someone who does investigative journalism just for fun is like tossing raw meat to a hyena. So I started digging.

The domains "Linkstar.co.uk" and "Linkstarmedia.co.uk" are registered to a Michael Shanks and Jonas Quinn, respectively. Fans of the Sci Fi Channel will recognize Shanks as the actor who played Dr. Daniel Jackson on Stargate SG-1, and Quinn as the fictional character who took the place of Dr. Jackson in season six of Stargate SG-1.

According to the the company's Certificate of Incorporation (found via the Companies House Web site), Linkstar UK Ltd's sole director is Westco Directors Ltd, and its sole shareholder is a Mr. Alberto Lopez-Garcia, who listed an address in Australia.

The address listed on Linkstar's site belongs to a company called Westbury (aka Westco), a chartered accountancy on St John's Street in London. This is Linkstar's registered agent -- a firm that files paperwork for corporations so the actual owners/operators can keep their identities out of public view. There's nothing illegal about this practice; many small US companies do something similar. I sent email to Westbury requesting more information; I'm still waiting for a response.

A little Web sleuthing turned up Alberto's private email address, his Linked In page, and a few other tidbits, including the scant remnants of a long discussion about Linkstar on a UK Webmaster's forum, which "Stephen" from Linkstar had asked the owner to remove. (He did.)

Needless to say, Alberto was a little surprised to receive my email. At first he declined to answer any questions and requested my physical address so I could be served with papers. Ultimately, though, he called me and we had a nice little chat.

Garcia-Lopez says the names on the domain registrations are in fact from Stargate, but he bought them from a domain reseller and has had trouble getting the records updated.

He said he contacted the owner of the Webmaster forum and requested that a handful of defamatory posts [material deleted at the request of Linkstar] be removed. Instead, he says, the owner took down the entire discussion.

He declined to name any of Linkstar's clients, citing confidentiality agreements. I could only find one ad that was actually placed by Linkstar (which I confirmed with the Webmasters on two sites), and that was for an online gambling site based on the Isle of Mann.

Lopez-Garcia says he isn't trying to hide anything, but he keeps his own name and address off the Linkstar site to protect his own privacy. He says Linkstar is a side business that makes a little money for him, but that's about it. And he asked me several times to a) not to post this entry, and b) keep his name out of it.

Sorry, Alberto. Your name is already in the public record. And in my research I found too many other folks out there who'd been contacted by Linkstar and had the same questions I did; I couldn't just let it drop.

As far as I've been able to determine, Linkstar isn't doing anything illegal or particularly shady. But its penchant for secrecy is troubling. As a general rule, I don't do business with any online company that does not clearly identify its principals or provide its actual place of business - and I don't think other people should, either.

Can running the wrong kinds of ads on your blog or Web site hurt you? Absolutely. But that's a discussion for part two of this series, which will post next week.

UPDATE: The sequel -- "Bloggers beware: Bad ads can come back to bite you" -- is now posted.

Know anything else about Linkstar? Contact me directly - dan (at) dantynan (dot) com - or post your info below.

[Note: This post has been altered slightly since it originally posted to correct a few minor discrepancies.]

When not chasing mysterious Web companies down the rabbit hole, Dan Tynan tends his blogs, Culture Crash and Tynan on Tech.

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