FTC Shuts Down Hundreds of Misleading Websites Charging Fees for State Services Like Motor Vehicle Services, Fishing, Public Benefits
The United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was granted a preliminarily halt that shut down hundreds of websites operated to mislead US consumers seeking government services for public benefits, hunting and fishing licenses, and motor vehicle services. The original complaint was filed in United States District Court Southern District of Florida in December 2019 . The halt was granted on February 5, 2020.
The defendants Burton Katz, Brent Levison, Robert Zangrillo, Arlene Mahon, and Elisha Rothman who operated the websites using dozens of companies are all charged with violating federal FTC laws that bar unfair or deceptive acts of commerce, according to the original FTC complaint filed in December. They operated over 200 websites that used search engine optimization (SEO) techniques to rank higher in Google web searches to appear above official state services websites. The defendants also used paid advertisements to generate more website visitors.
Motor Vehicle Services Scam
One of the main websites, DMV.com offered vehicle registrations, state driver’s license services, and other motor vehicle related services for all 50 US states. The site represented itself as “DMV Made Easier” and had links to renew driver’s licenses and car registrations. In addition to collecting payment card information and driver’s license numbers, the defendants collected full name, address, date of birth, gender, telephone number and email address,
Other motor vehicle themed websites used naming patterns for each state to make them seem ore legitimate. For example, they used sites such as httpx://floridadriverslicense.org, httpx://coloradoddverslicenses.org, httpx://californiadrivers.org, and httpx://texasdriverslicenses.org to funnel consumers to httpx://DMV.com
If a consumer submitted payment card information they were charged twice, the website sent them back to the main webpage and the consumer received nothing else. In other instances, they received a downloadable Adobe .pdf document with publicly available information on how motor vehicle services.
Other websites operated by the defendants offered public benefits and fishing licenses. None of the websites had the ability to deliver any state-related goods or services for any locality. The websites collected payment information for motor vehicle services but only delivered a .pdf document with information if anything at all. Other websites collected highly sensitive personal information, birthdates, employment status, income range, Social Security eligibility, health insurance, credit card debt information and health condition data.
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Hunting and Fishing Websites
The defendants also operated hunting and phishing websites including httpx://hunting-license.org and httpx://fishandgamelicenses.org. The websites offered to sell fishing licenses in various states. One of these sites, httpx://fishinglicense.org, offered “hassle free” fishing license sales. The sites sold fishing license “assistance guides” for $29.98 if the consumer tried to buy a license.
Public Benefits Websites
Another type of misleading website operated by the defendants offered government programs like Medicaid and Food Stamps. One such example was a Texas themed website, httpx://texas-benefits.org.
Consumers seeking assistance with or applying for public benefits who accessed these websites were asked for their personal information including full name, physical address, birthdate, gender, telephone number, and email address to supposedly check their eligibility for public benefits. Instead the information was sold to marketers.