FTC, Courts Nail Cyberscammer

A federal court and the Federal Trade Commission have closed the door on an online scam designed to snag lost Web surfers and subject them to pop-up ads.

The scam, run by one John Zuccarini, revolved around registering Internet domain names that were misspelled versions of popular, legitimate domain names. For instance, Zuccarini registered 15 variations of CartoonNetwork.com, and 41 variations of pop star Britney Spears’s name. The ploy involved more than 5,500 Web addresses altogether.

In an Oct. 2001 suit, the FTC alleged that once a Web user arrived at one of Zuccarini’s sites, he “pelted” their screens with a barrage of pop-up ads promoting adult-oriented services like gambling and pornography.

In some cases, Zuccarini’s domain name linked back to the legitimate site, so consumers might have believed the deluge of ads came from the site that they originally had been intending to reach, the FTC said.

Most of the ads also were coded to spawn new pop-ups if a user began closing them — a practice known as “mousetrapping.”

The FTC alleged that the practices were unfair and deceptive, in violation of federal law.

Zuccarini did business as “The Country Walk,” “JZDesign,” “RaveClub Berlin,” and as more than 22 other entities that, inexplicably, incorporated the word “Cupcake” into their name — including Cupcake Party, Cupcake-Party, Cupcake Parties, Cupcake Patrol, Cupcake Incident, and Cupcake Messenger.

Because practices like Zuccarini’s are often looked down upon by affiliate programs and service providers, persistent scammers typically register under different names to continue participating in affiliate programs, which pay for each time that surfers click on ads.

In such cases of pop-ups being delivered through affiliate programs, it’s unlikely that advertisers knew of Zuccarini’s ploy, although the FTC said he garnered $1.9 million in affiliate payments.

The court order, made at the request of the FTC by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, bars Zuccarini from redirecting or diverting Web surfers in connection with any sort of advertising or promotion, and from launching legitimate Web sites that belong to other parties.

The court also barred him from participating in any online affiliate programs, and has ordered him to give back what the agency called his “ill-gotten gains.”

The success of the FTC’s “Cupcake Party” crackdown comes as the federal agency is also looking to stamp out a number of commonplace Internet practices derided by consumers, and criticized by legitimate marketers for detracting from honest online direct marketing efforts.

For instance, the FTC earlier this year announced successful action again distributors of unsolicited e-mail that hawked non-working domain names and illegal pyramid schemes. The agency also is looking into cracking down on spam with deceptive subject lines or with “unsubscribe” links that are either broken or that confirm to the mailer that a recipient’s address is valid.

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