FTC cracks down on "trap" Web sites

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has filed a complaint in Federal court against a "cyberscammer" for registering common misspellings of legitimate domains, including 41 variations of pop star Britney Spears' name, in order to trap users into sites that produced dozens of pop-up ads.

The FTC filed the complaint against John Zuccarini, who has done business under a number of different company names, according to a statement released Monday by the agency. Zuccarini registered more than 5,500 domain names designed to divert Web surfers from the sites they were trying to reach, the FTC said. When users went to the sites inadvertently, they were hit with a barrage of pop-up advertisements for pornography, gambling sites and psychic services.

The FTC estimates Zuccarini earns between US$800,000 and $1 million annually from the scheme, charging advertisers whose banner ads and affiliate programs appear on his site. The FTC will seek a court order to force the defendant to give up his "ill-gotten gains," it said.

In one case, an FTC investigator visited one of the misspelled sites and 29 different pop-up windows opened, the FTC said. Sometimes the intended site would open in one of the windows, making users think that the barrage of ads was from the legitimate site. The practice could expose children to pornography and cause workers inadvertently to break company rules against visiting pornography or gambling sites, the agency said.

At the request of the FTC, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania prohibited Zuccarini's practices pending further order of the court. The FTC believes the court will force Zuccarini to shut down the sites permanently.

There have been 63 previous law suits against Zuccarini in the last two years for the same practice, and he lost in 53 of the cases, the FTC said. Zuccarini has also had almost 200 of his domain names transferred to the rightful trademark owners, the agency added.

Users who believe they have been victims of the operations can contact the FTC at +1-202-326-2560 and reference the case name "Cupcake Party."

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Douglas F. Gray

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