It could be the plot of a sleazy B-movie: a notorious con man becomes an online porn baron after stealing the world’s most valuable internet address, then goes on the run to dodge a $65 million court judgment.
But what became one of the longest-running feuds of the dot-com boom, pitting a convicted fraudster against the rightful owner of the website, is not fiction. Stephen Cohen did hijack sex.com, make millions of dollars and skip the country.
The extraordinary saga came to an end last month when Cohen, 57, was arrested in Tijuana, Mexico, as he applied for a work permit, four years after he absconded. He will be back in a Californian court this week where he will be told to hand over his fortune to Gary Kremen, the man who had the foresight to register sex.com in 1994. He must stay imprisoned until he pays back at least $25 million.
Nobody really knows what happened to all the money. Cohen claims he has only $100,000 left but Mr Kremen’s lawyers believe millions have been squirrelled away.
Millions of people log on to sex.com every month and the site reaps $8 million in advertising revenue each year. But Mr Kremen had no idea that he was sitting on a goldmine when he registered the domain name more than ten years ago.
He turned his attention to other things, including the company that became the phenomenally successful online dating agency, Match.com, and did nothing with sex.com. But Cohen, who those close to him say is a consummate con man capable of making anyone believe his lies, saw the site’s potential.
According to court documents filed in California, Cohen forged a letter to Network Solutions, the domain name registrar, saying that Mr Kremen had been fired and that Cohen should assume control of sex.com. Network Solutions handed the name over.
When, some months later, Mr Kremen discovered that his sideline had been stolen, Network Solutions said it was powerless to intervene. And so began his long and torturous legal battle to retrieve sex.com.
After his ten-year battle, Mr Kremen has mixed emotions about Cohen. He said: “I don’t feel animosity towards him. But I am sure he will come up with an excuse not to pay. Although I have recovered property from him and now live in his house, I have not recovered any money. I have a bill for $4.4 million in legal fees. I am sure that I will never see all the money I am owed.”
The global porn industry is estimated at about £6 billion
The number of porn sites is estimated at 4.2 million
25 per cent of net searches are for porn
About 4 million Britons surf porn sites
They stay on the sites for an average of 45 minutes
A survey found that Germans spend the longest viewing porn (59 minutes), followed by Norwegians, Swedes and Spaniards. Britons is sixth