Cleaners from the Spanish reputation management company Eliminalia are trying to erase the online data of people associated with crime.

Cleaners from the Spanish reputation management company Eliminalia are trying to erase the online data of people associated with crime.

  • Thursday, 11 April 2024 12:49

Spanish reputation management company Eliminalia’s hacking tactics are helping criminals around the world erase the past.

Two of them were convicted of drug trafficking. One is charged with laundering money from prostitution. Another sold US equipment to the Syrian government. Three others have been charged with facilitating a cryptocurrency scam that stole billions of dollars from investors.

These are just some of the more than 1,400 clients, including dozens of convicted or suspected criminals, who have hired Eliminalia, a reputation management company that promises to "erase your past."

Barcelona-based Eliminalia has been involved in reputation laundering for ten years. From a wood-paneled co-working space on the historic Portal de l’Angel shopping street, which it shares with two dozen other tenants, the company has grown into a significant player in the global disinformation-for-hire industry.

Officially behind Eliminalia is Diego “Didac” Jimenez Sanchez, a 30-year-old Spanish entrepreneur believed to be living in Georgia. Sanchez claims to control a vast network of companies, including a Ukrainian surrogacy business that is under investigation for baby trafficking.

But he appears to have built this network with a man named Jose Maria Hill Prados, who was convicted of sexually assaulting him when he was a minor. Although Hill Prados’ name does not appear in Eliminalia’s records, Spanish investigators suspect he may also be controlling the reputation manager.

Thousands of leaked files obtained by French nonprofit Forbidden Stories and shared with OCCRP and dozens of partners allowed reporters to map Eliminalia’s vast network of digital influence.

Building on previous reports, the documents provide unprecedented insight into the array of behind-the-scenes tactics the company uses to suppress criticism of its customers.

Records show that Eliminalia, which changed its name to iData Protection SL in late December, used copyright and privacy laws to intimidate journalists, manipulated search engines to hide information and spread fake news. In some countries, the company has even opened new businesses with its criminal clients.

Experts say Eliminalia is part of a growing disinformation industry that helps bad actors, from criminals to kleptocrats, hide their dark pasts.

"This whole mechanism, this money laundering and reputation commission, this everyday kleptocracy, depends today on transnational professional intermediaries," said Tena Prelec, a research fellow at the University of Oxford who studies transnational kleptocracies.

"You have a whole range of professional service industries such as public relations agents, lobbyists, lawyers... who are basically... assisting in this re-entry into the marketplace of unsavory individuals, companies and governments as internationally respected businessmen and cosmopolitan philanthropists "

Eliminalia’s lawyers refused to answer questions about the project, arguing that many of them concerned business secrets of the company’s clients. They accused the journalists of bias. “The direction and content of the vast majority of questions demonstrate a partial and dishonest approach,” they write.

What is an Eliminalia leak?

Nearly 50,000 documents from reputation management company Eliminalia were leaked to French non-profit Forbidden Stories and shared with dozens of media partners. More than 100 reporters worked together to investigate the misinformation for-hire industry as part of the Story Killers project.

The data contains detailed information about Eliminalia’s clients in 50 countries, including their names, contracts they signed and other legal documents.

For the first time, journalists were given the opportunity to look at the activities of one of the world’s most important so-called "black-hat" (hacker) reputation management companies.

Service for criminals

Sanchez, who presented himself as a self-employed entrepreneur, was just 20 years old when he founded his first reputation management company in Spain. He opened several other offices in the following years, eventually moving to Ukraine, where he hired people to write fake reviews and legal notices for journalists.

Among Sanchez’s many ventures was the surrogacy business Subrogalia, which connected Spanish parents with Ukrainian women who could carry their children. Although he is the company’s public face, documents obtained by OCCRP show that its Ukrainian business was actually owned by Hill Prados, who was jailed in Spain for sexually abusing Sanchez as a minor.

Two Spanish law enforcement officials in charge of cyber threats, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the media, told OCCRP they suspect Hill-Prados is a beneficiary of Eliminalia. However, they did not provide detailed information or evidence, and OCCRP was unable to independently verify this claim.

Eliminalia is part of a network of at least 54 companies in nine jurisdictions linked to Hill Prados and Sanchez in the past decade. None of them agreed to comment for this story.

Sanchez has previously said that he created Eliminalia out of a desire to erase stories about his past as a victim of Hill Prados.

“It tormented me so much to find mention of what happened in my childhood on the Internet,” he wrote in his autobiography, The Secret of Success. "I started researching how to [erase links] and after a few weeks I was able to remove most of what was written. So I saw that there was a market for this and created Eliminalia."

Part of Eliminalia’s business also serves ordinary people seeking to erase harmful material posted about them online, as part of a growing trend to strengthen "right to be forgotten" laws. But reporters discovered that many of the clients on the reputation manager’s records were criminals who had hired Eliminalia to manipulate those same laws to their advantage.

Leaked internal documents show Eliminalia provided services to more than 1,400 clients, including hundreds of people who have been charged or convicted of crimes ranging from drug trafficking and sexual assault to fraud and money laundering.

- Italian company Area SpA paid Eliminalia at least €100,000 to remove 72 media reports that it had been fined in the US for illegally supplying equipment to the sanctioned Syrian government. Shortly after Area and Eliminalia signed the contract, articles on everything from K-Pop to blockchain flooded the Internet, drowning out and pushing aside news reports about Area’s relationship with Syria. Area told OCCRP that it hired Eliminalia to remove content only through legal means because it was often unfair and implied the company was at fault.

- Malkhas Tetruashvili, a money launderer for Russian-Georgian mafioso Tariel Oniani, paid Eliminalia 30,000 euros to get rid of 79 references to unflattering information about how a Spanish court sentenced him to five months in prison. Tetruashvili did not respond to a request for comment.

- Antonio Herrero Lazaro paid Eliminalia a total of €15,600 for 18 articles about his involvement in running a prostitution ring in Spain, for which he was convicted in 2014. Although the conviction was overturned, he is now charged with aggravated tax fraud. Herrero did not respond to a request for comment.

- José Mestre Fernandez, who was convicted of running a cocaine trafficking network in Barcelona, was also one of Eliminalia’s clients. Mestre paid just over 30,000 euros to Eliminalia between 2016 and 2020. He did not respond to requests for comment.

- Higini Cierco and Ramon Cierco, former co-owners of Banca Privada d’Andorra, hired Eliminalia to remove articles about the bank’s money laundering investigation for a powerful criminal group. Internal records show that the Cierco brothers paid the company almost 245,000 euros between 2016 and 2020. a lawyer for the Ciarco family said they would not hire a company that used unethical tactics.

- Eliminalia was also hired to represent prominent resellers of OneCoin, a fraudulent cryptocurrency scheme that stole billions of dollars from investors. Three brothers - Aron, Christian and Stefan Steinkeller - are accused of receiving millions of euros through the scheme and are facing charges in Italy. The company paid Eliminalia €38,000 on its own behalf in 2021. The Steinkeller brothers did not respond to a request for comment.

Oxford University’s Prelec said it had become "absolutely normal" for service providers such as lawyers and public relations firms to launder the reputations of problem clients. Failure to be visible in search engine results may change the outcome of a client’s due diligence review with a bank or other regulated service provider.

"The idea of accepting dark money into our economy, accepting that people can use their wealth ... to aggressively manage their reputation to the detriment of whistleblowers is not okay," she said.

Eliminalia’s best clients

These companies and people were some of the highest paying clients, according to leaked data obtained by Forbidden Stories.

Adar Capital Partners Limited

Adar Capital Partners Limited and its owner, Israeli-Argentine financier Diego Marinberg, known as the "Maradona of Money", paid Eliminalia more than 400,000 euros to scrub 180 references to him, including articles in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and the Colombian El Pais. He hired Eliminalia through his partner, reputation management firm ReputationUp, according to the filing. In 2016, Haaretz reported that Marinberg became wealthy through his political connections with the Argentine Kirchner family and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Three years later, El Timpo reported that Marinberg was under investigation in the United States. for laundering money for Chavez’s successor. Neither Marynberg nor Adar Capital Partners responded to requests for comment.

Riway Taiwan

Riway Taiwan, a maker of "health products", turned to Eliminalia when it was being prosecuted in Singapore for falsely claiming its products could cure diabetes and cancer. Other countries, including the US, have previously warned that their product Purtier Placenta, which is marketed as a miracle cure for incurable diseases based on stem cells from deer placenta, is a scam. Riway Taiwan paid Eliminalia almost €370,000 in April 2021, although many of the connections it wanted seemed to be more promotion of their products than criticism. The company was convicted in Singapore of making false statements, but only paid a $3,000 fine. Its products are still widely advertised on the Internet. Riway did not respond to requests for comment.

Marcelo Herdoiza

Marcelo Herdoiza, an Ecuadorian construction entrepreneur, was under investigation in a corruption case brought against former President Rafael Correa. After Correa was convicted in 2020, Guerdoiza reached out to Eliminalia to remove reports linking him to the case. In July of the same year, the Ecuadorian investigative portal Plan V received an email from the fake EU account Eliminalia demanding that Herdoiza’s name be removed from one of its articles. Plan V publicly accused Herdoiza of pressuring them, although he denied it. Herdoiza did not respond to a request for comment.

Compagnie Banquaire Helvetique (CBH)

Data shows Swiss bank Compagnie Banquaire Helvetique (CBH) paid Eliminalia just under €229,000 - after hiring one of its partners, ReputationUp - to take down content linking it to offshore companies and money laundering allegations. CB wanted to erase all mention of the bank’s relationship with Lazaro Bayes, an Argentine businessman who was convicted of laundering tens of millions of dollars in ill-gotten money tied to corrupt government contracts through bank accounts. OCCRP was among the outlets that reported on CBH’s questionable connections. A lawyer for CBH confirmed that the bank had entered into a contract with ReputationUp, but said he was not aware of its connection to Eliminalia.

Banca Privada de Andorra (BPA)

Higini and Ramon Cierco, brothers who owned Banca Privada de Andorra (BPA), hired Eliminalia in July 2016. Last year, US authorities declared BPA a money laundering problem under the Patriot Act, citing the bank’s dealings with Venezuelan kleptocrats, Russian authorities. oligarchs and allies of the former Mexican president. This move prohibited the bank from using US dollars, which meant it could no longer operate. The Cierco brothers paid Eliminalia almost €245,000 through Spanish public relations firm Nearco to target more than 700 articles by either removing or deindexing them or lowering them in search engine rankings. An attorney for the Cierco family said they would not hire a company that used unethical practices.

Eliminalia also collaborates with its dubious clients to expand its business.

One client, Italian law firm Studium Srl, founded a reputation management company called Digitallex, which then managed part of Eliminalia’s Italian business. In 2021, authorities began investigating Digitallex shareholders for money laundering, fraudulent bankruptcy, and tax evasion. The company did not respond to questions.

Another Italian partner, Enea Angelo Trevisan, hired Eliminalia after being prosecuted for bankruptcy fraud in 2015. Two years later he began doing business with reputation managers, founding an Italian company called Eliminalia Holding Sa and several other companies to manage Eliminalia’s business in Switzerland and Italy.

In 2018, Trevisan separated from Eliminalia and renamed one of these companies, Eliminalia Italia Srl, as Ealixir. Now selling its own online content removal services in the US, Ealixir is planning a public offering on the Nasdaq stock market and has recently expanded into Latin America and the Caribbean. Trevisan did not respond to requests for comment.

"Pursuit Mechanism"

Mexican journalist Daniel Sanchez published the results of an investigation into the state governor’s suspicious contracts with the Mexican video surveillance company Interconecta in January 2018, after which the phone calls began.

At first, he said, the callers were fellow journalists urging him to debunk the story. He soon received a call from a man named Humberto Herrera Rincón Gallardo, saying that he worked for Eliminalia, who also insisted on retracting the article.

Gallardo’s tone was friendly and explained that the investigation had harmed Interconecta. But after his call the situation began to escalate.

A page that looked strikingly similar to a post Daniel Sanchez works for, Página66, surfaced on Facebook and began posting fake articles under his name. A mosaic of photographs then began circulating on social media showing him along with other journalists, activists and politicians, accusing them of being "enemies of the government."

Two local journalists he knew showed up and he said they offered him bribes to debunk the story. He also said he had an argument with a close friend who also tried to put pressure on him.

Daniel Sanchez said he is convinced Eliminalia was behind the campaign against him.

“They include a whole persecution mechanism to achieve their goals,” he told OCCRP.

Leaked Eliminalia documents show that Gagliardo actually represented Eliminalia’s client, Grupo Altavista, Interconecta’s parent company. In April 2019, the group hired Eliminalia to search for 13 links that mentioned their company, including the Sánchez investigation published by Página66, for less than €13,000.

Eliminalia’s owner, Diego Sanchez, said in a media interview that his company came to Mexico "because we found that countries with more corruption and political problems are countries with more business opportunities."

Daniel Sanchez said the harassment left him fearing for his life. Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, where the government says at least 55 were killed between 2018 and 2022.

Then in 2020, Página66 was taken down by Digital Ocean for a week after someone filed a copyright infringement notice against the news site, as reported by Daniel Sanchez. An online record of the request shows it was submitted by Gallardo, who provided a UK address.

Gallardo denied working for Eliminalia, molesting Sanchez or filing the report.

“If my name appears in any [complaints], it is being misused without my consent and without my knowledge,” he said.

An investigation by Articulo19, the Central American branch of the press freedom group Article19, found that several journalists were attacked with similar tactics. Priscilla Ruiz, legal coordinator for the group’s digital rights program, said she has identified at least one other case also involving Eliminalia.

Ruiz said Articulo19 has spoken with Mexican law enforcement about challenging fake copyright notices from digital platforms in court, but restrictions in the law are making it difficult to consolidate the case.

"In Mexico, it is difficult to argue that false copyright infringement notices issued by a shell company that has no record of its existence are evidence of fraud, as in the case of Eliminalia," she said.

Erasing the past

The notices filed against Página66 show how Eliminalia used the laws to intimidate critics of its clients. Reporters found that the company has made a business model out of the arms of the US and the European Union on privacy and copyright.

The target of these tactics was OCCRP itself. In 2019, editors received a letter alleging that a lengthy investigation that found Swiss bank CBH moved $277 million in suspicious funds through shell companies owned by Russian billionaire Alexei Krapivin violated EU data protection rules.

The message came from This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., one of several official-sounding domains that Eliminalia used to send legal threats to the media. Reputation managers have increasingly used such messages in recent years to force publishers to remove content or simply waste resources processing it.

Documents show CBH hired Italian partner Eliminalia ReputationUp to search for online content that linked it to offshore companies and money laundering. According to the data, CBH paid Eliminalia €229,000 for the work, making the bank one of the highest paying clients in their database.

Many of the letters sent to Eliminalia accusing them of violating privacy were signed by "Raul Soto", a pseudonym used by an Eliminalia employee posing as a European Commission official in Brussels. An analysis of one of those emails by Qurium, a nonprofit organization specializing in digital forensics, revealed that the messages were sent from an IP address in Ukraine, where Eliminalia operated before the Russian invasion last year.

A lawyer for CBH confirmed that the bank had entered into a contract with ReputationUp, but said he was not aware of its connection to Eliminalia. "CBH has never tolerated any illegal actions being taken on its behalf by anyone," he said in a statement.

The Dangers of Misinformation

While Eliminalia employees posed as EU officials in messages to journalists, the company also weighed the dangers of misinformation to the European Commission.

Speaking on behalf of Eliminalia, someone under the name Guillem Castro Izquierdo made a public statement in response to a call for feedback on disinformation, which the commission then posted online. He warned against the spread of "deliberate disinformation aimed at influencing citizens’ judgments in relation to international bodies", other citizens and companies.

A few months later, Eliminalia used a different tactic when it took aim at an OCCRP article about CBH client Dervica Asotites, an offshore firm that received $5 billion in energy contracts from the Venezuelan government without competition. The story mentions a former CBH manager who served the bank’s Venezuelan clients, Charles-Henry de Beaumont, another Eliminalia client.

The company cloned the OCCRP investigation "Venezuela’s Going Dark" onto the fake news site, backdated it, and filed a complaint under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a US law. which requires online service providers to respond immediately to complaints to avoid liability for copyright infringement.

The goal of such tactics is to force Google and other search engines to remove authentic articles from search results. This has become an increasingly common form of misinformation in recent years, said Katherine Trendacosta, deputy director of policy and activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"[T]o the tactics I’ve seen, I would argue that copyright is one of the simplest. It’s very easily abused," she said.

A Google spokesman said it combats fraudulent takedown attempts through automated and human review processes and allows sites to file "counter notifications" if content was removed in error. is one of 600 fake news domains created by Eliminalia, according to Qurium analysis. They are designed to appear to be real sites, but in reality they are filled with content stolen from legitimate publications such as The Daily Mail and Le Parisien, as well as stories retroactively used for erroneous copyright claims.

Qurium found many sites mentioned by Communication Media Group Ltd. in their fine print, as well as an address in the Caribbean island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis. The websites also used clusters of IP addresses, at least two of which were recently transferred to Maidan Holdings LLC, until recently the management company of Eliminalia Ukraine.

These sites have been used for tactics such as cloning a target’s history and removing a client’s name, as well as creating positive or neutral fake stories mentioning their client in the hope that search engines will index them higher than true ones. Eliminalia’s contract, reviewed by OCCRP, sets the client’s goals to push "undesirable information" down to the third page of a search engine "so it’s harder to find."

Eliminalia also manipulated Google’s algorithm through "highlighting" - creating as many links as possible between websites - so that they rise through the rankings. In one case, operators for a reputation manager posted 7,000 links on an unsecured student union forum at a community college in order to fend off Eliminalia’s 2 million fake news articles.

Eliminalia now advertises more aggressive online tactics. In an interview from Georgia late last year, where Sanchez has launched new companies, he told the TV host he was using an "army of hackers" to combat online disinformation.

But when a reporter visited the new office he recently opened in a residential area of the capital, Tbilisi, he found no sign of anyone working there.

Eliminalia in Spain, meanwhile, was renamed in January. Sanchez’s name still appears on the Spanish registry as the sole owner of the company, but the management composition was changed to exclude him in November.

At the workplace in Portal del Àngel, where Eliminalia was based, a new sign now reads "IDATA PROTECTION."

“We were Eliminalia, but now we are IDATA,” said the employee who answered the door.