Monday, August 15, 2016

Germany's internet desert: the suspense & fraud allegations around travel portal Unister

Practical European internet use suggestion: Thoroughly check before you buy anything from a European website that has "24" in its name. This often - though by now means always - indicates domain farms, for example "", or "". One place to check may seem a bit unlikely at first, but go do it: a workplace review site like Kununu (not affiliated with the K-Landers in any way, and not the only site of its kind). Check the additional note at the end of the post.

It started out with a short news piece like others reporting the accidental death of some important person. The founder of German internet company Unister and another member of the team died when the small plane that took them from Venice to Berlin crashed. Other outlets put the praise right into the headline: "internet millionaire".

Nothing worth writing a blog post about.

A week or so later, the story became interesting. The founder had been in Venice for a business deal involving "a very large sum of money", and he had been defrauded, according to documents by Italian police. And Unister announced it was seeking bankruptcy protection.

More time passed, and a couple of days ago, the news reported the arrest of a loan consultant who had "duped" the deceased. According to that article, the Unister chief withdrew half of the three million in cash that the company had to hand it over as collateral/downpayment on a loan of 12 million Swiss Francs closed in Venice.

The 12 million were handed over in cash. Which turned out to be fake, except for some 10 thousand Francs or so.

So, "duped"?

The plane crashed on the way back.

Thus far into the story, most people would have wondered what kind of a company Unister was. The blogster, snotty as usual, figured that it was one of typical German "internet start-ups", in other words, a company that had taken an established business model and made it German. The main business areas, travel and price comparison, supported that interpretation.

Rounding off the unflattering impression of Germany's internet elite, an article in today's Zeit online talks about the cut throat business model of Unister, and reports what several former call center employees experienced there. There was immense pressure to sell unnecessary service packages, fees for anything - for example a fee to run a customer's credit card, or a 15 Euro fee to simply tell a customer if a flight was refundable or not.  One the bright side, some foreign language reps with a solidly monolingual boss would use their advantage and give open advice to customers or waive add-on fees, telling the boss later that they forgot.

According to the article, one factor in filing for bankruptcy protection was that the company's finances were a complete mess, with a network of about 40 "clone" sites adding to the accounting disaster.

As already indicated at the top of the post, workplace review sites can sometimes assist in figuring out whether you want to deal with a company or not. Caveats for those are that they may tend to be overly positive, at least for Germany with its strict libel laws and a somewhat underwhelming concept of free speech.
Most importantly, though, you may not find the company because it is merely one unit of a larger conglomerate.

If you enter, for example "" or "", one of the Unister companies, on Kununu, you get no result. A web search for something like " parent company" can fix that.

Please note, the numbers "24" in a domain name are not always an indicator of an "internet desert" domain farm. For example, is a great, useful and ethically sound enterprise.

Finally, in the unlikely event that you read the Zeit Online article and feel that a couple of "disgruntled employees" should not be given a voice, check out Kununu entries from a year or more ago.

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