Surfers searching for a Christian organization’s Web site are being directed to hard-core pornography, it has been revealed.
A simple query at Lycos delivers two identical listings for the British-Israel-World Federation (Canada), but only one of them is legit. One takes you to a pastoral painting of Moses - but the other link has left many smitten with embarrassment.
"Let's face it, we are a religious organization and we can't have people looking us up on the Internet and being taken to a pornography Web site," site owner Douglas Nesbit says. "We are shocked that our copyrights could be so blatantly and clearly violated."
Nesbit is one of thousands of Web site owners bitten by a high-tech form of bait-and-switch that has businesses steaming and government officials reeling. Those watching the trend, report that search engines erroneously list thousands of pornography Web sites. By clicking on the misleading citation, you're whisked to a "spoof" Web site that automatically forwards you once more, this time to a pornographic site.
The US Federal Trade Commission announced yesterday a crackdown on the practice of hijacking legitimate Web pages and redirecting Web surfers to porn sites. The FTC also introduced a new cybercrime squad in conjunction with its hundredth Internet case.
The agency has obtained a preliminary injunction from the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia against two companies allegedly running such scams. The FTC is seeking a court order to stop the activities.
The FTC speculates that the high rate of traffic generated by "kidnapped" surfers allowed the defendants to charge premium prices for the banner ads displayed at their sites. In addition, the defendants may have received income from diverting surfers to other adult-oriented Web sites, says Jodie Bernstein, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.
This is how it works: A hijacker spoofs an identical replica of a Web page and lists it with AltaVista, Lycos, Web Crawler, and others as the real thing. When someone makes a search request for a Web site, the spoofed site appears in the query results. In some cases, clicking on that address takes you to the spoofed site, which forwards you to a porno site; or multiple browser windows pop up offering adult Web sites. In other cases, you might not be driven to a spoofed site, but sent directly to a pornographic site.
"We found at least 3,000 sites that have been hijacked," says David Landrigan, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. He brought the scam to the attention of the FTC and the Federal Bureau of Investigations in April.
AltaVista finds a bogus listing each day, says Tracy Roberts, AltaVista's marketing director. Lycos says it averages about ten fake listings a month, according to Eric Gardner, who is in charge of the Lycos search group. Northern Light says it isn't aware of any phony listings in its index of Web sites.
"These spammers are very creative folks," Roberts says. She says AltaVista has a antispam team that culls its list of indexed sites to remove anything it considers spam. "It's just a matter of porn sites doing whatever they can to get attention," she adds.
Targets include news organizations, community groups, children's Web sites, and even major portals, according to spoof searchers at AltaVista and Lycos. Landrigan says AltaVista, CNET, US Geological Survey, and University of Southern California have all been hit.
It's unclear what the FTC can do thwart such hijackings. However, victims plan to tell their stories publicly to raise awareness, FTC sources say. The agency will announce several actions against perpetrators of such scams.
Experts agree the scam violates copyright laws. In April a federal appeals court in California ruled that companies cannot boost traffic to their Web sites by littering them with another company's trademarks.
"One of the problems with this brave new world of the Internet is that there are so few guidelines," AltaVista's Roberts says. "If we had better guidance, we could better draw a line in the sand to help keep hackers from spamming our index."
Despite AltaVista's four-person antispam and trademark protection team, the problem remains daunting, Roberts complains. Most search engine sites don't enforce trademark issues; the trademark holder has that responsibility.
Typically, scammers copy meta tags, which are hidden words that legitimate Web sites embed to help search engine spiders classify and index sites. Meta tags may be words like games, kids, or politics, which may not really appear in a porn site but fool a spider into listing the site inappropriately.
Or a scammer may copy a legit Web page to look almost exactly like the original and host it on rogue servers. This, too, fools an automated search engine, which does not identify the site as bogus and indexes it as the real thing.
When you visit the search engine and type one of those keywords to find the official site, fake listings are mixed in with real listings. Because not many of us look closely at the URL, we get tricked and go to the wrong site. Sophisticated scammers take the ploy one step further and use a one-line piece of Java scripting to automatically redirect a user to many porn Web sites in just seconds.
For victims like Nesbit, tracking down the perpetrators and stopping them can be nearly impossible. "I've got an inch-thick file of information on this nightmare," Nesbit says, but he still isn't positive who has hijacked his site. "It's become a major embarrassment and a huge headache," he adds. "I still don't know what to do."