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U.S. gov’t seizes 70 more websites for copyright infringement — not the digital kind

US government, ICE seize websites

United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has seized 70 more websites for allegedly hocking counterfeit goods online. Part of an operation known as “Project Copy Cat,” this most recent batch of seizures brings the total number of websites snagged by ICE over the past two years to 839.

The sites’ URLs are currently being held by the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (IPR Center) until further action takes place. 

The newly seized sites, which sold fake physical goods like knock-off sports jerseys, jewelry, and other luxury goods, “closely mimicked” legitimate websites, which tricked customers into buying the counterfeit products without knowing it, according to ICE. Anyone who tries to visit these sites now will be met by the increasingly prevalent ICE “seizure banner,” which the Department of Homeland Security-run agency says has now been viewed a total of 103 million times since the launch of “Operation In Our Sites” in 2010.

“This operation targeted criminals making a buck by trying to trick consumers into believing they were buying name brand products from legitimate websites when in fact they were buying counterfeits from illegal but sophisticated imposter sites located overseas,” said ICE Director John Morton, in a statement. “The imposter sites were simply a fraud from start to finish and served no purpose other than to defraud and dupe unwary shoppers.”

Here is an example of what one of the fraudulent websites looked like:

Fake Beats

ICE says that the recently seized websites not only copied legitimate sites so closely that “even the most discerning consumer” could not tell the difference but also employed a “new twist” by pretending to have legitimate Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificates. Any legitimate website that handles customers’ financial information uses SSL certificates. But certificate providers only issue SSL certificates to trusted websites, like Amazon.com, for example. These websites looked as though they had the SSL certificate, making their con that much more difficult for consumers to detect.

While the takedown of sites that sell counterfeit goods, or potentially steal Web users’ identities, is a positive thing, the authority claimed by the U.S. government to do so is more troubling. The federal government says it has the right to seize ANY domain that ends in .com, .net, .org, .cc, .tv, or .name – even if that website operates outside the United States. Why? Because all URLs that end in those generic Top-Level Domains (gTLDs) are issued by a company called Verisign, which is a U.S-based company that has close ties to the U.S. government.

Back in 1999, President Bill Clinton established the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which oversees all gTLDs. At the time, ICANN, the U.S. Department of Commerce, and a company called Network Solutions Inc. (NSI) signed an agreement that gave NSI a no-bid contract on all .com and .net addresses. (This was later expanded to include the others listed above.) In 2000, Verisign purchased NSI, which gave it control over these most-popular of gTLDs. Nearly anytime ICE (or other U.S. law enforcement) issues Verisign a court order to hand over a domain under its control, Verisign readily complies.