WASHINGTON, Sept. 23, 1999 -- The Federal Trade Commission has asked a U.S. District Court Judge to halt a Internet scam that clones everyday Web sites and uses the copycat sites to barrage unsuspecting consumers with pornography.
According to the agency, the scammers copy existing Web sites and insert coded instructions in the copycat sites which automatically redirects unwitting consumers to adult sites operated by the defendants. Then the scammers disable the browser's "back" and "exit" commands so that Internet surfers trying desperately to escape the pornographic images face screen after screen of similar material and advertisements for other adult sites.
The FTC obtained a preliminary injunction from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia and is seeking a court order to permanently purge this scam from the Internet.
"These operators high-jacked Web sites, 'kidnapped' consumers and held them captive," said Jodie Bernstein, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.
"They exposed surfers, including children, to the seamiest sort of material and incapacitated their computers so they couldn't escape. They copied as many as 25 million Web pages from sites as diverse as the Harvard Law Review and the Japanese Friendship Garden."
"When consumers used search engines to find subjects as innocent as 'kids on the net,' 'news about Kosovo,' or 'wedding services,' they risked being exposed to a torrent of tawdry images. This scam is outrageous and we want it off the Internet. We're confident the court will help us arrange that," Bernstein said.
Bernstein explained the scheme at a press conference in Washington, D.C. where she also announced the FTC's new high-tech Internet Lab that will assist the agency's investigators as they search for fraud and deception on the Web.
According to the complaint, in a practice called "pagejacking," the defendants made exact copies of Web pages posted by unrelated parties, including the imbedded text that informs search engines about the subject matter of the site.
Then they made one change that was hidden from view: they inserted a command to "redirect" any surfer coming to the site to another Web site that contained sexually-explicit, adult-oriented material. Internet surfers searching for subjects as innocuous as "Oklahoma tornadoes" or "child car seats" would type those terms into a search engine and the search results would list a variety of related sites, including the bogus, copycat site of the defendants.
Surfers assumed from the listings that the defendants' sites contained the information they were seeking and clicked on the listing. The "redirect" command imbedded in the copycat site immediately rerouted the consumer to an adult site hosted by the defendants. Once there, consumers were victimized by another scam. The defendants "mouse trapped" consumers by incapacitating their Internet browser's "back" and "close" buttons, so that while they were trying to exit the defendants' site, they were sent to additional adult sites in an unavoidable, seemingly endless loop.
Bernstein speculated that the high rate of traffic generated by the "kidnapped" surfers allowed the defendants to charge premium prices for the banner ads displayed at their site. In addition, the defendants may have received income from diverting surfers to other adult oriented Web sites.