Did Sundance Vacations Forge A Court Order To Suppress Online Criticism?

Sundance Vacations would like to bill itself as a purveyor of wholesale and discount vacations. But on the internet, it is widely described as a sleazy hard-sell telemarketer selling sales presentations.

Companies are increasingly aggressive — perhaps belligerent is the better word — in defending their online reputation. There's evidence that Sundance Vacations has taken this trend to a new extreme through forging court documents in an effort to suppress criticism.

Matt Haughey has the story. When Sundance demanded that critical posts be taken down from Metafilter, and provided an apparent court order from Mississippi, Matt did something very rare and special — he exercised critical thinking. Matt noted discrepancies in the purported court order, crowdsourced a request to determine whether the case actually existed, and eventually did the legwork himself by calling the clerk's office. The result:

Today (Tuesday) I called a clerk in the Hinds County Chancery Court office. They asked me to fax them a copy of the court order so they could verify the document. I did as requested and a few hours later got a call back from the office saying it was not a real document from their court. The case numbers on the first page are from an unrelated case that took place last year. The clerk said they found a case from August 21, 2014 that used similar language but had different plaintiffs and defendants, but the same lawyers on page 3. In their opinion, it seemed someone grabbed a PDF from a different case and copy/pasted new details to it before sending it on to me.

Naughty, naughty, naughty. And so very reckless.

I've written to Sundance Vacations, a rep there who wrote to Matt before, the account that sent the court order this time, and Sundance's attorney of record on the order, asking them all for comment. I'm moving on to seek comment from the opposing lawyers in that apparently cut-and-pasted case. I'll report more if I learn it. Matt explains that the fake order came from a gmail account; Sundance may attempt to distance itself and deny responsibility for that account.

For now, Sundance Vacations is about to learn about the Streisand Effect. BoingBoing has picked up the story, and more will follow. And could there be consequences for using forged court documents in interstate commerce to suppress commercial criticism? Gosh, what an interesting question . . . .

Updated: On its Facebook page, Sundance Vacations confirms the prior email to Matt but denies it sent the recent one with the apparently forged documents, as predicted above.


Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. Eric says

    Holy crap.

    Is this the sort of thing that could land a few scumbags in jail? Forging a court order has got to be against a buttload of laws.

  2. Jed says

    I went to Popehat to look for your email address to send this to you, and saw that you already had a post up about it. :P

    If the story is true, I'd think criminal charges would follow, no?

  3. Peter says

    Learning that somebody forges court orders either made my day or ruined it. Whatever the case may be, I am somewhat giddy at the thought that this incident can get interesting.

  4. Zach says

    Ken is breaking tradition by having a headline that ends with a question mark where the answer is probably yes. Pretty sure that forging court documents is all kinds of illegal. Hopefully some scumbags will see jail time.

  5. Andrew says

    Matt did something very rare and special — he exercised critical thinking.

    That's quote-of-the-month material in my book…

  6. Dion Starfire says

    So, what kind of punishment are we looking at here for the person who forged the court order? I'm practically drooling with schadenfreude.

  7. Jack says

    I would love to see the headers from the original admitted to e-mail and the follow ups with the forgeries. I would imagine a scammy timeshare company with only rudimentary Photoshop skills, evidenced by the fact they used screenshots and couldn't even match font sizes or be bothered to look up that a company can't sight it's name in court documents, has that whole VPN or TOR thing down yet.

    This should be a very simple mystery to solve!

  8. MKR says

    Hmm… I think that before publishing that I thought the document was a fake, I would confirm with the lawyers for the company sending me the letter. … giving them the opportunity to give an extra yank on that rope.

    After all, it's not like Google can't find the IP that accessed the account that sent the document. And unless Sundance exercised THAT much foresight, a simple denial isn't going to be enough.

  9. TomB says

    For all you who are waiting for someone to go down for this, I just hope the court system in Mississippi is tougher than Maryland. One of Popehat's other subjects, Brett Kimberlin, has already admitted, in court, to forging a summons along with altering Post Office "green cards", and all he got was a stern talking to by the judge. Absolutely pathetic.

  10. Dan Weber says

    Matthew, it's entirely conceivable. People pissed at a company — and we know people are pissed at this company — can try some stupid things to get it in trouble.

    I don't think it's likely.

    The headers aren't too useful if it came from a GMail address; what is more important is Google's logs, which surely exist, and if the court is annoyed can compel Google to turn over those logs.

    Looking through the meta information in the PDF file, it was created last Saturday at 3:47PM (unknown timezone) at smallpdf.com, an online Word to PDF convertor. Their logs could be very useful in a criminal investigation as well.

    There is also meta-information that suggests a version of Adobe Photoshop CC on Windows was used, again on Saturday at 8:52PM (unknown timezone). Assuming those timezones line up, I assert someone made the PDF file at smallpdf.com, then converted it in Photoshop on their local PC.

    There also seems to be exif metadata (which may actually contain the Photoshop information) that provides more data.

  11. AlphaCentauri says

    Any idiot ought to know that forging a court order could lead to serious consequences. It takes a special kind of sociopath to know but not care.

    I wonder if Metafilter is a big enough thorn in Sundance's side that someone would take that risk just to get their information taken down? If the letter is real, I would tend to suspect there were other similar fake orders sent to other sites.

  12. Nancy says

    There were a few other names mentioned in the court document. Has anyone been able to contact those people to see if they also got a suspicious sounding court document?

  13. That Anonymous Coward says

    You mean that laws that so favor one side over another aren't tilted enough, so they have to create fake documents and pray that someones fear of their entire site going away will just bow to the pressure?

    Perhaps paying less to PR spin firms & reputation management firms and putting the cash into training your staff to not be hard sell pricks that get talked about negatively online just seems to old fashioned. Why provider better service, when you can abuse the law or make your own fake legal documents and make the complaints go away. There is no way this could backfire and destroy any hope of appearing not as a flaming asshole.


  14. Stephen H says

    One assumes that there will be IP addresses to which the email can be traced. While they are not definite proof (just ask those asshats at Prenda Law), they do add to a case.

  15. bst says

    Sundance is not doing too bad in their web presence. A Google search for Sundance Vacations showed me in a results page in which the Sundance Vacations web site was in the number 2 slot! How many companies would love it if a search for their full official name actually found their company public home page as a top choice!

    And of the other nine results that I got on that first page, every one of them had to do with this particular Sundance Vacations. No other company gets first page search hits from that phrase. The titles (or my description) of the nine hits, starting with the top hit on the page, then hits 3 – 10:

    * Boycott Sundance Vacations | Facebook

    * Sundance Vacations on Yelp (at least this one doesn't say "scam" or "fraud" in the cached snippet)

    * Am I about to get screwed by Sundance Vacations? (metafilter)

    * Sundance Vacations Scam Report – YouTube

    * 32 SUNDANCE VACATIONS Complaints and reviews

    * Sundance Vacations: from scams to forgery

    * Sundance Vacations sends forged court order to remove

    * (snippet shown in News) "timeshare company Sundance Vacations may have taken things to insane new levels: forging a "

    * Sundance Vacations – Spirit Incentives – Travel Message Board …
    boards.independenttraveler.com › Travel Issues › Travel Scams

  16. Dan says

    I would love for these fine folks to get nailed, but just like anatomy of a scam, the legal system provides plenty of opportunities for people to hide forever and obscure things so that nothing ever seems to happen.

    Very glad you took up this cause, but I would LOVE to see these people held to consequences for their actions.

  17. Nancy says

    Ken, I meant there were other people who were listed on the order. Not the lawyers who signed, but the other sites that were being affected. I wondered if any of them had gotten the same order Haughey received.

  18. Matt C. Wilson says

    So it's illegal to impersonate a police officer, but impersonating the justice system itself is legit?

    Please tell me there is some equally well-established law against this.

  19. says

    The conduct as described would arguably fulfill the elements Mississippi's civil tort of fraud if the recipient acted upon the misrepresentation by taking down content then later discovered that the representation was false:

    In order to recover for fraud, a plaintiff must prove the following elements: "(1) a representation; (2) its falsity; (3) its materiality; (4) the speaker's knowledge of its falsity; (5) his intent that it should be acted on by the hearer and in the manner reasonably contemplated; (6) the hearer's ignorance of its falsity; (7) his reliance on its truth; (8) his right to rely thereon; and (9) his consequent and proximate injury."

    Phillips Brothers, LP v. Winstead, 129 So. 3d 906, 915 (Miss. 2014) (clear and convincing evidence standard).

    Mississippi also recognizes the tort of negligent misrepresentation, which need only be proved by a preponderance of evidence standard. Elements:

    (1) a misrepresentation or omission of a fact; (2) that the representation or omission is material or significant; (3) that the person/entity charged with the negligence failed to exercise that degree of diligence and expertise the public is entitled to expect of such persons/entities; (4) that the plaintiff reasonably relied upon the misrepresentation or omission; and (5) that the plaintiff suffered damages as a direct and proximate result of such reasonable reliance.

    Horace Mann Life Ins. Co. v. Nunaley, 960 So. 2d 455, 461 (Miss. 2007)

    I only gave this a few minutes on Lexis. I didn't pop anything on the criminal side, but a more thorough search might.

  20. says

    From the additional information that Matt provided, the name on the Gmail account is Brian Smith and the document was sent from an IP address that maps back to a Courtyard by Marriott in Philadelphia. This search for Pennsylvania attorneys named "Brian Smith" returns two in counties adjacent to Philadelphia. (Those being Montgomery and Bucks counties.)

    Anything productive in reaching out to those two attorneys asking them if either of them is the "Brian Smith" that sent the email to Matt. (I'm not an attorney.)

  21. Constance says

    Looking forward to hearing response from the other attornies who are on that notice. Is there a particular charge they could file for being falsely named as representation?

  22. says

    Matt C. Wilson desires to know that "there is some … well-established law against" Sundance's apparent forgery."

    Yes, yes, there is! As Ken already mentioned, the Streisand Effect has taken hold and is punishing the accused, based on a preponderance of evidence conviction. I have no idea whether there is a statute on the topic, but you asked about LAW. Streisand Effect qualifies and is inexorable.

    You'll notice too that many more (and faster) investigators are on the case than Mississippi could deploy.

  23. Rick C says

    Speaking of "Anatomy of a scam," it's been just under 2 years since the last post (with that tag.) Has anything new happened?

  24. Dan Weber says

    The provenance of that 65.* IP address is weird. It's randomly stuffed into the mail voluntarily by the sender. It doesn't come from the mail headers.

    He also linked to someone who knows more about document forensics than my initial attempt above. Some lawyer should, at the least, drop a note to smallpdf.com and ask them to preserve evidence.

  25. Dan Weber says

    The headers of the Gmail message, as predicted, don't show where it came from. If you use the web interface to send a mail, it doesn't leak your own IP address. (If you use certain smartphone apps, it might. But that's not relevant here.) You need to look in Google's logs for this information.

  26. pjcamp says

    " denies it sent the recent one with the apparently forged documents"

    That's easy enough to check. Look at the full email headers and they will tell you every IP address the email passed through all the way back to the originating one.

  27. Dan Weber says

    pjcamp, it was sent from gmail address to another. All IPv4 addresses in the headers are in the 10/8 block of RFC1918; all IPv6 addresses belong to Google. The headers seem to indicate legitimate mail from one gmail user to another.

  28. Dan says

    I think the original email came from a website's (metafilter's would be my guess) "contact us" form, and it's that form that inserted the IP address in the body of the email. The full headers of the original email would be helpful in determining whether this is the case.

  29. norahc807 says

    Matt Haughey has an update to his original post:

    Update: September 3, 2014
    The company is denying they sent the court order to me and said they are looking into the matter. The initial contact to me came from the IP address:, which in 30 seconds of research puts it in a Courtyard by Marriot in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (a 2 hour drive from where Sundance Vacations is based). The person emailed me two additional times from the gmail address sundancevacationlegal@gmail.com, which maps to this Google Plus account. Lastly, a document software engineer gave a pretty good run-down for all the ways the document was faked. If you’d like to see the fake court order email in its entirety with headers, I’ve uploaded it to dropbox.

    Here is the dropbox link he posted…


  30. tbw says

    Matt should bring this to the attention of the Chancery Court judges in Hinds County, the local prosecutor's office, and/or the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations. In the one instance I have ever seen of such a forgery (as a law clerk), the judge referred to local prosecutors and our state bureau of investigation, who began an investigation within 24 hours.

    The signature on the fake order is illegible and does not appear to be the name of any listed judge, but the clerk's office or the court administrator should be able to shed light on who it could be.


  31. Terry Cole says

    I have some legal training but not for US jurisdictions. In most commonwealth common-law jurisdictions the first thing a judge would think is "This is a matter of inherent jurisdiction". In other words never mind what some fraud statute might say, a court has the power to regulate its own systems and could impose really serious penalties of its own, without reference to penalties a parliamentary statute might impose. A question: is this still true in the US? I imagine it might vary from state to state.

  32. Gramps, the original says

    @ToddP.. Thank you. I tried the "F5 solution" after I read your message on a different machine… it worked. It was interesting that only this particular thread was truncated.

  33. CupOfSoup says

    Is there any reason the comments were disabled for Patrick Non-White's post about Kennewick Man? Given the factual errors it gives the impression that PopeHat isn't a big fan of online criticism either.

  34. GreenW says

    Looks like the Attorney General thinks this is a civil matter, and will not be pursuing. Can't find a way to link to the exact comment on the original article, but this appears to be filed by the subject of this case :(

    Depending on how many times they have done this (and it appears they have done this a lot), this is a 20 year felony. Plus conspiracy to commit forgery.

    I decided to finally sit down and contact the Mississippi courts about this. I called the number you listed Ironmouth, and they shuffled me off to the Attorney General's office, who shuffled me through three more people before I got I think an actual AG.

    I explained the story really quickly and stressed the forged court order as a felony and the guy only wanted to talk about it as a civil matter I should pursue on my own to get money for my time lost to this, and told me flat out their office has no power to go after the timeshare company or get IP records from Google to solve this. A real bummer, I wish someone there took it a bit more seriously, but I guess we need more evidence of a timeshare company employee being caught red-handed.
    posted by mathowie (staff) at 10:06 AM on September 10

    Comment (currently) towards the end of the thread at this url (in case I misread):

    (search for comments on September 10, there are not many)