There are a lot of scams out there, but one that’s been plaguing bloggers like me lately is a novel twist: A fake DMCA takedown notice that’s actually a link insertion scam! Beware: The notices I’m getting are very convincing-looking, complete with a fake law firm website!
Check out the discussion on this post over at Hacker News!
Copyright Infringement and Link Insertion
As publisher of Gestalt IT, Grail Watch, and this blog, I’ve received quite a few copyright infringement notices over the years. Although some were mistakes or misunderstandings, most are a scam of some sort. The most common are “shakedowns” for cash, but the link insertion scam seems to be on the rise.
As a content creator, I’ve always been careful to carefully check rights on images I use and use proper attribution. I’ve been on the wrong side of these issues, with large sites using my photos without permission or credit, so I encourage my staff to go the extra mile and verify all content on my sites. That’s why it’s so galling to get an email suggesting that I have improperly used someone else’s work!
Link insertion is a long-standing “black hat” practice which seeks to manipulate search results by adding links to a low-quality site from higher-quality domains. That’s why editors of long-running and high-quality blogs like me are bombarded by offers for guest blog posts, pseudo affiliate programs, and outright paid link insertion. I literally get 5-10 such offers every day across my various properties, and I imagine the problem is much worse for larger sites. Be warned that these scams can cause catastrophic damage to your site’s hard-earned search engine ranking if you accept them!
Anatomy of a Fake DMCA Notice
Now let’s take a look at a recent scam that combines these two categories: A fake DMCA notice that’s actually a link insertion scam!
I received the following email on January 23, 2022. It was sent to the former editor of Gestalt IT, so the email ended up in my inbox. This is not unusual: Scammers usually send to every email at the domain, so I often get multiple copies of such emails.
Let’s take a walk through the email and spot all the warning signs of a scam:
- Most obviously, the request for a link rather than a monetary payment is a blatant sign that this isn’t a real copyright claim but a link scam.
- The use of the term DMCA is another giveaway: Real copyright infringement emails refer to specific laws, but the DMCA is more recognizable (and scarier) to the general public.
- The supposed owner of the copyright to the image in question is another giveaway, since the name and site belong to a phone app, not a publisher or photographer.
- The use of consumer-friendly third party sites Imgur and Archive.org rather than a legitimate case management system is another giveaway. I’ve dealt with lawyers and they don’t use Imgur!
- It was a very old post (2009) that strangely actually didn’t use that image at all!
- This particular scammer did a pretty good job impersonating a lawyer, including a (too short) case number and reasonable-sounding name and address for the firm. More on that in a minute!
The combination of these five telltale signs reassured me that there was no cause to be alarmed by this scary-sounding email. But the rise of these scams made me want to share the alarm with my readers, many of whom run their own blogs and might be fooled by a well-constructed scam like this!
Chris Donnelly, Taylor Wilson Smith Legal
One thing this scammer did well was their use of a convincing-sounding name and address for their alleged law firm. Indeed, they even built a reasonable-looking website to go along with it, and used that domain (taylorwilsonsmith . com) for the email. This is a big step beyond the lazy approach most scammers take. So I thought it was worth a moment to investigate them.
The “Taylor Wilson Smith” website is extremely convincing. All of the links I clicked work as expected, most of the writing is moderately well done, and it looks better than some actual businesses. I assume that most of the text is copied from a legitimate law firm somewhere, which is pretty ironic for an alleged intellectual property law firm!
There are some mistakes, though:
- The alleged lawyer who sent my DMCA notice, “Chris Donnelly”, is called “George” in his bio, and is noted to have graduated from the “University of San Columbia,” which I urge you to look up for yourself.
- Another lawyer is noted as having joined “Davis Robbins” rather than this firm.
- A quick google search shows that these bios are pieced together from text lifted from actual law firms, mostly located in Hong Kong.
- The phone numbers and some of the text also comes from MaiTheme, a pre-made WordPress theme.
- While searching, I noticed that websites for “Davis Robbins” and “Scott Hill Young” follow the same pattern and contain much of the same text, suggesting that these are other sites owned by the same scammer.
- Archive.org and WHOIS records show that all of these websites were first registered in 2021 and all use Namecheap registration and hosting.
These websites are extremely well-crafted, thanks to the work of MaiTheme and judicious use of text copied from other firms. But they completely fall apart when examined closely, with bogus information and phone numbers. It is likely that the photos are AI generated, since they didn’t appear in Google’s image search.
I perhaps could have unmasked them further, but lost interest.
Be careful out there! Scammers are getting better and better at impersonating legitimate businesses and using scare tactics like the DMCA. If you get a request for a link insertion, even if it looks like a DMCA notice, use caution!
I’m curious what should be done here. Would Namecheap help taking down the scammer? Was any law broken? What would a legitimate copyright lawyer do about their text being ripped off? I imagine the answer is nothing but say “caveat emptor.” Such is the state of the internet in 2022.
Check out the discussion on this post over at Hacker News!
Full Text of the Taylor Wilson Smith Email
One of the commenters on Hacker News suggested that I include the full text of the Taylor Wilson Smith email here to help others find this post. Great idea! Here it is!
Dear owner of <URL>,
My name is Chris Donnelly, I am a Trademark Attorney of Taylor Wilson
Smith Legal Services.
I am reaching out to you as your website features content that has
infringed on one copyright image owned by our client, Ling Languages.
The use of this image – <Imgur URL> is featured
on your web page – (<URL>),
without proper image credit attribution.
The Wayback Machine – https://web.archive.org/, a permanent public
archive of the web, shows the image being used on your website.
Our client, is happy for their image to be used and shared across the
internet. However, proper image credit is due for past or ongoing usage.
The image credit to Ling Languages must be added either underneath
the image or at the foot of the offending page with a link to <Spam URL> within 7 days. Otherwise, we are required to take legal action.
I have assigned case ID #0418 to track this dispute, which should be
quoted in all correspondence. Once you have added an image credit to the
page, the case against you will be dropped.
This letter is an official notification under Section 512(c) of the
Digital Millennium Copyright Act (” DMCA”). If this is unresolved immediately
we’ll have to proceed with filing a DMCA legal case.
I am providing this notice with authority to act on behalf of the
owner of the copyright(s) involved.
Taylor Wilson Smith Legal
One Penn Plaza,
New York, NY 10119
www taylorwilsonsmith comChris Donnelly | Taylor Wilson Smith Legal
” that this isn’t a real copyright claim but a link farm.”
For what it’s worth, a “link farm” is any group of Websites that all link to each other. So the scam isn’t link farming. It’s more like link trawling (although that isn’t a term you’ll find many SEO specialists using).
Thank you! You are correct. I was jumping mentally to link farm and that’s not really what this is.
Ventura Estate Attorney says
I’m a legit copyright lawyer (and estate planning lawyer) and I use archive.org all the time in order to have third-party independent proof of copyright and dmca violations.
Kerem Kacel says
Quick note re: reasonable sounding address…
One Penn Plaza is a large office building in Manhattan. I would expect a Suite 104 or something added to the address for a serious business.
Sam McElwain says
We the same email today. It’s very convincing. Good job debunking it!