Proehl told him that if what he said was true, he shouldn’t worry, and the domain name would be returned.
So far, so good. Except Kremen had no idea who he was dealing with. He had blithely entered the foggy world of Stephen Michael Cohen, where nothing is certain except for the fact that Stephen Michael Cohen will come out of it better off. Just two days after discussing the situation with Sherry Proehl, Kremen received a call out of the blue from a Bob Johnson, who identified himself as Proehl’s supervisor.
Johnson advised Kremen that NSI would not be returning the domain because Stephen Cohen did indeed have a trademark in the name and so possessed greater rights to it. "This was just when the issue of people registering other people’s trademarks hit," Kremen explains years later.
It was November 1995, and domain names were just beginning to enter people’s consciousness because Network Solutions had started charging $50 a year for them. Thousands of people suddenly all had the same thought: if people were willing to pay money for a space on this computer network, there must be a market for other goods.
And so company lawyers started making a lot of noise about how currently anyone could register company names and trademarks as domain names withoutauthorisation.
Network Solutions was desperate to avoid a fight with corporate America, and the issue had inevitably found its way into the press. The trademark issue was therefore timely and struck a chord with Kremen. "It was a believable story. I believed it. I didn’t realise how dumb that was until later on." It wasn’t really so dumb of Kremen to believe the story, but even so it was baloney.
There was no Bob Johnson at NSI – it had been none other than Stephen Cohen on the telephone. Cohen had already spent a decade posing as everyone from government officials to FBI agents to lawyers. He was so good at it that, according to one story, he had even impersonated a judge in Colorado, heard real cases in court, and let people off before he was finally discovered by an embarrassed judiciary. Kremen simply had no idea he was dealing with a master criminal who was prepared to say or do anything, legal or not, in order to keep the property he’d stolen.
And the phone call from “Bob Johnson” was all it took for Cohen to secure ownership of sex.com. It stopped Kremen from chasing NSI for several valuable months, during which time Cohen managed to jump the last hurdle – Proehl’s real boss. David Graves was looking at the change in sex.com’s ownership and had told Cohen he wanted proof that it was legitimate.
Cohen told him he had a signed document that handed over ownership to him, so Graves asked him to send a copy. Nearly three months after he had stolen the domain, and under increasing pressure to prove his claim, Cohen finally faxed NSI what was to become the most controversial and bitterly fought-over document in the battle for sex.com. How was the most valuable domain name on the Internet stolen? With a one-page forged letter.