Cyber crime experts report that fake websites are proliferating at the rate of 60,000+ per week or over 3,100,000 per year. And the fraudsters’ malicious exploitations are getting bold and more sophisticated, creating sites that are difficult to discern from those of legitimate businesses or organizations. From banks (which make up about 68% of fraudulent sites) to regulators and news reporting agencies, no entity is immune.
Recently, several local and national newspapers reported on a publicity campaign by a public relations company that purportedly set up a fake news site to promote one of its clients, a public entity, with positive articles and press releases “written in the image of real news” by “journalists” who allegedly do not exist. Although Web experts note that it is fairly common for celebrities and private-sector businesses to generate buzz or improve sales through news coverage, open government advocates called this stunt an egregious breach of trust and ethical standards.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued warnings a few months ago about scam artists exploiting well-known news organizations by setting up fake news sites to peddle their wares. The sites, which usually display logos of legitimate news organizations, promote everything from bogus weight loss products to work-at-home jobs, anti-aging products and debt reduction plans. The FTC cited several investigations that resulted in charges against the fraudsters, saying that many of the websites are owned by marketers and used to entice consumers to click on links to the sellers’ sites. In its case against acai berry supplement peddlers, the FTC disclosed that the sellers paid the marketers a commission based on the number of consumers they lured to their sites. There was no reporter, no studies, no dramatic weight loss, no satisfied consumers who left comments, and no affiliation with a reputable news source. As a rule, the FTC noted, legitimate news organizations do not endorse products.
The FTC itself, and other regulators have not escaped the fraudsters’ blitz. In April 2011, the FTC brought charges against an individual for multiple violations of the Federal Trade Commission Act for misrepresenting his affiliations with federal agencies, including the FTC, misrepresenting that the services advertised on his websites were government-approved, and making deceptive debt relief claims. The FTC alleged that the individual, a Texas-based “lead generator,” set up several websites through which he associated his business with a fictitious government agency – the “Department of Consumer Services Protection Commission” – that appeared to combine two real government entities, the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Among other charges, the FTC stated that to further these scams, the websites depicted the FTC’s official seal, copied language about the fictitious agency’s consumer protection mission from the FTC’s site, and claimed that the fake agency “monitors and researches” member companies that provide financial assistance to American consumers.
The scammers and their fake websites are also busy abroad. Earlier this month, international news sources reported that Russian fraudsters set up a counterfeit site of a popular five-star hotel, complete with the real hotel’s photographs, room descriptions and services. According to published reports, they also paid a fee to Google to ensure that their bogus site was listed before the hotel’s genuine site. The fraudulent website purportedly came to an abrupt end after, among other disparities, it was discovered that the room rates were advertised in dollars.
Another story about a flagrant website invasion came in October 2011 from Belgrade, where Serbian media reported that a mock-up of the official Nobel Prize website was set up purportedly by political activists to promote their causes and views.
Fraudulent websites appear daily and no industry or organization is beyond these fraudsters’ reach. Scherzer International, a provider of specialized background investigations for business transactions and employment decisions, includes comprehensive website reviews in its reports. We know how to spot scams, exaggerated claims and other red flags.