Paul Hansmeier, one of two lawyers charged in an elaborate porn copyright scheme, in 2013
NBC News screenshot

Prosecutors in Minnesota charged two attorneys Friday with a “massive extortion scheme” after they reportedly uploaded X-rated films to file-sharing sites, sued people for downloading them and then collected millions from unwitting victims who feared humiliation.

Minnesota U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said that Paul Hansmeier, 35, and John Steele, 45, produced some of the pornography solely for the purpose of copyrighting it so they could file “sham lawsuits” used to shake down their targets, NBC News reports.

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Hansmeier and Steele were charged with conspiracy to commit fraud, money laundering and perjury.

“The conduct of these defendants was nothing short of outrageous,” Luger said at a press conference. “Everything about their practice of law was fraudulent.”

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According to NBC, the alleged scheme used unwitting judges to identify those who downloaded the porn. In 2013 it became clear that the lawsuits were not legitimate.

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The lawyers would offer to represent makers of sexually explicit films and protect them against the pirating of their materials. They allegedly uploaded the copyrighted material of their duped clients on websites where they knew it would be illegally downloaded. They then filed copyright infringement lawsuits against “John Does” and sought subpoenas to gain the identity of those who had downloaded the films.

According to NBC, they never intended to go through with the lawsuits because litigation would reveal that they uploaded the movies themselves, so instead they offered the victims the chance to settle out of court for several thousand dollars.

Eventually Hansmeier and Steele reportedly realized that they could cut out the middleman by producing their own films to trap file sharers. They created a company called Guava and claimed that its computer systems had been hacked in an effort to get more names and file more lawsuits.

“They were essentially their own clients,” Luger said.

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According to prosecutors, before the courts got wise to their scheme, the duo raked in about $6 million in settlements. NBC reports that Hansmeier and Steele’s firm, Prenda Law, fell apart after courts hit it with sanctions and a federal judge referred them to criminal investigators.

Hansmeier was arrested Friday morning. Steele was arrested in Florida. Both denied any fraud in previous litigation.

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Read more at NBC News.