A technology company that has been essential in keeping far-right and extremist websites online was acquired last year by a firm that operates an empire of shell companies across the United States, according to people familiar with the deal.
Epik.com has been for years the go-to domain registrar for websites that other companies refuse to do business with. Sites dedicated to white nationalism, QAnon conspiracy theories, and harassing transgender people were all welcomed by Epik. Now, it appears that Epik’s new owner may abandon the extremist fringe and shift its customer base toward companies seeking to operate in the shadows.
Rob Monster, a born-again Christian who founded Epik in 2009, had been key in keeping many of the most extreme websites online. He often went to great lengths to personally defend the sites and extolled the virtues of free speech. Epik was sold to new ownership last year after the company unraveled amid allegations of gross financial mismanagement.
An accounting firm hired by Epik to conduct a forensic investigation alleged that Monster had misappropriated more than $3.5 million, according to an internal preliminary report obtained by WIRED. More than $1.5 million was attributed to Monster personally withdrawing funds from the company. Nearly $2 million of Epik funds was used in Kingdom Ventures, Monsters’ venture capital firm, according to the report.
Monster didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
The buyer of Epik’s domain registrar business was a brand-new company that had been incorporated in Wyoming weeks before the sale was completed last summer: Epik LLC. The owner of Epik LLC, according to two people familiar with the deal, is Registered Agents Inc. The company confirmed its ownership in a press release late Friday night.
Registered Agents Inc. and its subsidiary companies claim to have offices in every state and Washington, DC. Its services allow companies to operate anonymously in a jurisdiction of its choosing. Registered Agents Inc. says it provides services to over 1 million companies.
The founder and owner of Registered Agents, according to two people familiar with the company, is a man named Dan Keen. In an email, a lawyer for Registered Agents Inc. says Keen is not the owner nor an employee of Registered Agents Inc. or Epik, and that he acted as a consultant in the acquisition.
Keen is intensely private, according to multiple people who have worked with him who requested anonymity to discuss details of the deal. “He has made it his mission in life to be invisible,” said one. “He’s someone who likes to operate in the shadows,” claims another. Keen is a serial entrepreneur who previously ran a lawn care and tree-trimming business, according to public records.
Keen has no website or social media pages. Emails sent by Keen don’t include a signature. Attempts to reach Keen for comment led to a reply from Bryce Myrvang, a lawyer for Registered Agents Inc.
Using a registered agent to incorporate a business allows the owner to shield who actually owns it. A registered agent will act as an official point of contact for a company, receiving legal notices and mail, and filing incorporation documents with the state. In Wyoming alone, Registered Agents Inc. represents around 50,000 companies, according to the Wyoming secretary of state.
For example, a company that uses Registered Agents Inc. to set up shop in Wyoming would have its address listed as 30 N. Gould Sreet, a squat one-story building in the town of Sheridan.
A local paper in Wyoming, The Sheridan Press, reported in August 2021 that scam business had been linked to the 30 N. Gould Street address, where more than 20 registered agent firms claim to have their offices. An editor’s note added after publication stated, “It remains completely legal for registered agents to do what they’re doing under Wyoming Statute.”
A 2022 investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found that “oligarchs, criminals and online scammers” have used registered agents to operate in the United States and shield their true identity.
Registered Agents Inc.’s acquisition of Epik allows the company to extend its offerings to the internet, providing its customers another layer of anonymity for their websites.
“This most recent acquisition provided an opportunity to expand our business offerings to include a business email address, a domain name, and open source website hosting at a reasonable cost,” Myrvang tells WIRED. “Registered Agents Inc. now has the capability to establish an entire business identity for its customers in less than 10 minutes.”
Clues about changes within Epik first emerged in January, when the company terminated its relationship with Kiwi Farms, a notorious trolling site whose users are dedicated to perpetuating never-ending drama and misery. In a series of bizarre and now deleted tweets, Epik claimed it suspended Kiwi Farms in response to a US court order and that the site hosted child sexual abuse material. In response, the Kiwi Farms administrator began crowdfunding money for a defamation lawsuit against Epik.
“You specialize in defamation, revenge porn, harassment, and hate speech and you want to sue us? We will expose all your and your users dirty secrets and they will be permanent public records,” the EpikLLC X account replied. “The judgment we will win against you will follow you the rest of your life.”
It was as if a new set of trolls with an entirely different worldview had taken over Epik.
“Alright all Whiny, Beta Snowflakes. Our DEI hires of the month canceled #Kiwifarms,” another post from EpikLLC read. “We don’t like hate speech, porn, or doxxing. #JoeBiden will fix it! 2024!”
Some of the tweets trolling Epik were later deleted. “If such comments and or interactions on X were found to be offensive, Epik LLC formally apologizes to those individuals and or company,” Myrvang, the company’s lawyer, says. “Further, the appropriate action has been taken internally in relation to the comments made on X.”
It’s unclear if Epik’s new owners singled out Kiwi Farms or if it has booted other sites from its service. “Epik.com’s Terms of Service has been updated to maintain compliance with all regulatory requirements,” Myrvang says.
When asked if the company has stopped working with other customers, Myrvang says, “Epik LLC will suspend and or terminate relationships with any company and or individual who violates its Terms of Services.”
In late 2022, Epik customers began reporting that they were suddenly unable to withdraw money from Masterbucks, Epik’s payment platform, which facilitated buying and selling pricey domain names. One customer, Luigi Marruso, posted on the domain name forum NamePros claiming that Epik was holding onto $1.5 million of its money. In an email to WIRED, Marruso says he still hasn’t been paid back.
Another customer, Matthew Adkisson, sued Epik and Monster, claiming they had mismanaged or embezzled $327,000 from him as he sought to purchase nourish.com. Epik later settled with Adkisson.
Claims like Adkisson’s began to pile up on forums for professionals in the domain name business (known as “domainers”), and Epik was in serious financial jeopardy.
Epik’s customers, fearing the worst, rushed to get their money back from the company. Epik even had outstanding debts with ICANN, the nonprofit that serves as a global administrator for the internet, according to legal filings.
“They were using customer funds to fund its operations. People started asking for those customer funds back, and they couldn’t pay them,” says Andrew Allemann, a journalist who covered the fiasco for Domain Name Wire. “There was a run on the bank, and the money wasn’t there.”
In September 2022, a new CEO was installed at Epik in an attempt to stem the bleeding and settle the company’s debts. Epik, once valued by an investor at around $150 million was sold for around $5 million dollars in June 2023, according to a purchase agreement released as an exhibit in the Adkisson lawsuit. Much of the $5 million purchase price was allocated to paying off some of Epik’s debts. It’s unclear if the terms of the final deal match the one released as part of the lawsuit, but a source familiar with the acquisition says it was generally similar.
The rest of the debt was left with Monster. Just how much Monster owes former customers and vendors is unknown. Two former Epik customers told WIRED they’re still waiting to be paid back $38,000 and $20,000, respectively.
Updated: 2/8/2024, 2:35 pm ET: Added additional comment from a Registered Agents Inc. spokesperson regarding Dan Keen’s relationship with the company.