10
Dec 18

How Internet Savvy are Your Leaders?

Back in April 2015, I tweeted about receiving a letter via snail mail suggesting the search engine rankings for a domain registered in my name would suffer if I didn’t pay a bill for some kind of dubious-looking service I’d never heard of. But it wasn’t until the past week that it become clear how many organizations — including towns, cities and political campaigns — actually have fallen for this brazen scam.

Image: Better Business Bureau.

The letter I tweeted about was from a company called Web Listings Inc., and it said I should pay a $85 charge for an “annual web site search engine” service.

The first clue that this was probably a scam was the letter said halfway down in capital letters “THIS IS NOT A BILL,” although it sure was made to look like one. Also, the domain it referenced was “fuckbriankrebs.com,” which was indeed registered using my street address but certainly not by me.

The sad truth is plenty of organizations *are* paying the people behind this charade, which is probably why Web Listings has been running it continuously for more than a decade. Most likely that’s because some percentage of recipients confuse this notice with a warning about a domain name they own that is about to expire and needs to be renewed.

We know plenty of people are getting snookered thanks to searchable online records filed by a range of political campaigns, towns, cities and municipalities — all of which are required to publicly report how they spend their money (or at least that of their constituents).

According to a statement filed with the Federal Election Commission, one of the earliest public records involving a payment to Web Listings dates back to 2008 and comes from none other than the the 2008 Hillary Clinton for President fund.

The documents unearthed in this story all came compliments of Ron Guilmette, a most dogged and intrepid researcher who usually spends his time tracking down and suing spammers. Guilmette said most of the public references he found regarding payments to Web Services Inc. are from political campaigns and small towns.

“Which naturally raises the question: Should we really be trusting these people with our money?” Guilmette said. “What kind of people or organizations are most likely to pay a bill that is utterly phony baloney, and that actually isn’t due and payable? The answer is people and organizations that are not spending their own money.”

Also paying $85 (PDF) to Web Listings was the 2015 campaign for Democrat Jim Kenney, the current mayor of Philadelphia.

A fund for the New York City Council campaign of Zead Ramadan (D) forked over $85 to Web Listings in 2013.

Also in 2013, the Committee to Elect Judge Victor Heutsche (D) paid $85 to keep his Web site in good standing with Web Listings. Paul T. Davis, a former Democratic state representative from Kansas handed $85 (PDF) to Web Listings in 2012.

Image: Better Business Bureau.

Lest anyone think that somehow Democratic candidates for office are more susceptible to these types of schemes, a review of the publicly-searchable campaign payments to Web Listings Inc. uncovered by Guilmette shows a majority of them were for Web sites supporting Republican candidates.

The Friends of Mike Turzai committee spent $65 in 2010 on the GOP Representative from Pennsylvania.

The fundraising committee for Republican Dick Black‘s 2012 campaign for the Virginia Senate also paid Web Listings Inc. $85. The campaign to elect Ben Chafin as a Republican delegate in Virginia in 2013 also paid out

Robert Montgomery, a former GOP state representative in Kansas, paid $85 (PDF) to Web Listings in 2012.

Those in charge of the purse strings for the “Friends of GOP New York State Senator Tom Croci” fund paid $65 in 2011 to keep his political Web site full of search engine goodness.

Paying $85 each to Web Listings in 2012 were the judicial campaigns for Louisiana GOP Judge John Slattery, and Lynn Donald Stewart, who successfully got re-elected to the Nevada state assembly that year.

Perhaps the most reliable customers of Web Listings’ dubious services have been cities, towns and municipalities across the United States. Somehow, the people in charge of the purse strings for Simpson County, Kentucky paid $85 notices from Web Listings Inc. three years in a row (2016, 2017 and 2018).

Other state and local governments that paid Web Listings for their imaginary services include El Paso County in Texas; the city council of Watertown, S.D.; the City of Cudahy, Wisconsin; the Village of Bedford Park in Cook County, Illinois; the city council in Osawatomie, Kansas; the board of supervisors in Clarke County, Iowa; Lake County, Colorado; the Morenci Areas Schools in Morenci, Michigan. 

Guilmette even found a number of bankruptcy cases where a creditor named “Web Listings, Inc.” was listed, with an amount owed being either the old price of $65.00 or else the new price of $85.00, including a creditor in the University General Health System, Inc. et. al. bankruptcy (PDF); Blue Ridge Wood Products Inc.; and an organization called Advanced Solids Control LLC (PDF). 

A review of the complaints about Web Listings Inc. left over the past few years at the Better Business Bureau suggests that many recipients of this scam are confusing the mailer with a late payment notice from their domain registrar. As such, it’s likely this phony company has scammed a ridiculous number of consumers over the years, Guilmette observed.

“I’m sure they’ve conned a zillion other people who were spending their own money,” he said. “These are only the ones for which public records are available online.”

Stay tuned for Part Two of this story, which will look at some clues about who may be responsible for this long-running racket.

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64 comments

  1. Absurd. I wonder what other scams and nonsense our money is being wasted on.

  2. The Sunshine State

    I’ve received those phony domain name renewals by email , my domain registrar Easydns(.)com told be it’s for B.S. SEO submissions .

  3. We first received Web Listings’ intentionally misleading snail mail in 2011. Back then, some bit of their registration traced to a UPS store in Niagara Falls NY. They’ve run the same scam since at least 2009.

  4. I get 2-3 of these a week – report as spam and delete

  5. I worry less about the money being scammed (OK to scam politicians, not so much taxpayer-funded entities) than I do about the amount of probable fraud from submitting checks and credit-cards to these thieves.

    Now, where is that bill from AOLine.com?

  6. I have clients that are lawyers, doctors, real estate, or some other professional capacity, and they are clueless not only about security, but about computers in general. I wouldn’t want these people to represent me. Wouldn’t you think someone bright enough to do brain surgery would know how to change the oil in their car?

    • I would be fine using a brain surgeon who didn’t know how to change their own oil. In fact, I would expect most surgeons to not change their own oil.

      But the oil change analogy is an interesting one. Probably just as many people who drive a car don’t know how to change their oil and just pay someone else to do it, most people who use a computer don’t know how to secure and maintain it.

      This does not reflect poorly on people using technology. This reflects on us as IT professionals, everyone ranging from technicians, analysts, and admins to policy writers and educators. It is our responsibility – and really our job – to make sure people use these devices safely. If people aren’t getting the message, it’s not because they’re stupid, it’s a failure of our outreach methods.

      • I’d go one step further and lay the blame at the engineers, programmers, and designers of the Internet and computers.

        End-users shouldn’t have to adapt to security holes, software errors, or hardware issues; the tech should work flawlessly and intuitively in their hands.

        Every time there’s a successful hack or trickery used, it’s not a failure of end-users’ educations. It is our failure to create systems that account for ordinary human behavior.

  7. “Which naturally raises the question: Should we really be trusting these people with our money?”

    Is this his first indication that we shouldn’t be?

  8. There was a similar issue a few years ago in CA, an actual fraud, as it DIDN’T say “Not a Bill”, where they had letterhead from the State, and it was for a “License Renewal” for $35. Ran for years.

    They arrested one of the father-son operators at LAX as he was boarding – they’d taken in millions, as it was such a small amount, the businesses just paid it. Never questioned the legitimacy or asked anyone. Moral: Keep it under the radar.

    With the disclaimer, albeit is still formatted like a bill, is it fraud? No services are actually provided.

    • If they’re clever, they’ll have a script doing some free nonsense, so that they can legally claim they provided a “service”

  9. Every year I receive a notification about renewing my US Coast Guard documented vessel registration from a similar scammer who wants $125 for registering my boat, the actual cost from the USCG is $25/year, the “bill” comes looking just like official mail from the government printing office, but has fine printing at the very bottom that admits it is a solicitation. I post this every year on my FB page so warn other boaters not to fall for it. The scammers are getting much more clever than the old days and the old quote by PT Barnum “A fool and his money are soon parted” is still as correct as it always was.

    • That adage goes back much, much further than the days of P.T. Barnum… check it out with your search engine of choice.

  10. This is a take-off from the old Domain Registry of America scheme that sends a “renewal notice” to every owner of an expiring domain.

  11. I worked for government for many years. you would be shocked to know how many employees barely can turn a computer on.

  12. Hey that whole DNC and Hillary got screwed over by Russians in a much bigger way through the simplest of online phishing. Do you think they would have enough brains to figure out this domain registration thing?

    • You phish everyone in the organization, hoping someone clicks a link. The people that pay bills are a subset of the organization, and thus could be a bit more savvy to scammers.

      IIRC, the email sent to Podesta from the IT was supposed to read don’t click the link, but autocorrect changed the message.

      While I’m at it, let me do a preemptive post that there is no evidence the Clinton server was hacked.

  13. The scammers could enhance their success by claiming that being listed by them puts their domain in a higher search level than average. No better than a lot of people know, they would love to have their web site prioritized during the average browser search. Some of these people might not have even read the whole letter and saw the word “listings” and figured that was the deal.

    Ignorance is sad! 🙁

  14. The American Medical Association sends out an “invoice” every year for a membership I don’t have. It’s formatted not as a solicitation, but as an invoice. They know that harried office staff will just pay it rather than disturb the busy physician.

    That should tell you everything you need to know about the AMA.

  15. Why domain registration info should be private by default. I know you have argued against this and GDPR’s privacy requirements in the EU regarding domains, but when domain registration info is public and available to all, this is one result. I used to get all kinds of rubbish, solicitations, and scam attempts to my domain-registration addresses a decade ago until I made it all private.

  16. Well, 2008 might be the first public record, but I was getting these long before that. I can’t recall, but likely it was 2005 or so. It did take me a while to recognize that this was not a renewal for my domain (which was with GoDaddy and was nowhere near its renewal date).

    I flagged it as similar to other junk mail (as we used to call paper-based spam), which pretended to be a bill or a notice from the IRS or something similar.

  17. My wife has a business with a trademarked logo. Every time it comes up for renewal, we start getting email solicitations warning that if I don’t mail $$ to the sender pronto, the trademark will expire. These start about a year before expiration. One year we got several, a month apart, each more ominous than the previous one. I was concerned enough that I called her trademark lawyer. He laughed. Apparently everyone gets these. And the renewals are required sufficiently infrequently that it’s easy to forget what has to be done by when. So I actually need to thank the people who send these spam notices a year in advance so I can put down in my calendar to make sure our TM attorney has it on his calendar….

  18. A note on the bankruptcy filings: The Debtor (the person or entity filing for bankruptcy) is supposed to list all claims, even if they are in dispute, or outright bogus. This way the claimant gets the notice required by constitutional Due Process and will therefore be bound by the eventual bankruptcy discharge, unless they timely intervene in the bankruptcy case and convince the judge that their claim is both valid and entitled to exception from the discharge. Thereafter, if a claimant with a disputed or bogus claim ever tries to collect in the future, the Debtor can confidently say, “It doesn’t matter if I ever owed you money. I don’t now. And now I’m going to sue your ass for violating the discharge injunction.”

    So, it’s possible, and maybe even likely, that the the bankruptcy lawyers preparing these cases realized that these letters were bogus and then included them in the bankruptcy filings anyway. And they were 100% correct to do so.

  19. Why is this criminal outfit still cheating people – when all its members should have been in prison long ago?

    Perhaps Mr Robert Mueller might consider taking up this challenge, rather than wasting his time and that of hundreds of other highly-paid government employees.

  20. It’s as if being an idiot was a prerequisite to being involved in politics.

  21. This is not a “scam”. It is an offer to provide (worthless) services in exchange for payment. They are not impersonating a government agency and using color of authority to intimidate people into payments.

    This is pure speech. The terms are clear. There is no fraud. Good luck drafting a law that bans the speech in this letter but not any other protected speech. There’s already laws against fraud, including impersonating a third party to whom the recipient may owe money. To the extent a letter like this involves fraud, use fraud laws. No fraud no problem.

    Actual scams like this include: Impersonating a national patent or trademark office and asking all registrants to pay a maintenance fee; Impersonating a motor vehicle department and asking vehicle owners to pay a registration fee; Impersonating a lender or bank in letters to debtors.

    Not a scam: Intergalactic Star Registry sends a letter offering to register a star in your name in exchange for a payment. Just because the ISR is not published and isn’t legally binding anywhere doesn’t mean it’s a scam to offer registration.

  22. Lots of comments mention email spam. But this scam is done via postal mail.

    It’s easy to see how busy people would just chuck this thing-that-looks-like-an-invoice in the bills-to-be-paid folder.

    The good news: the US federal police don’t have a sense of humor about mail fraud. Go after politicians? Get busted. (The line “this is a solicitation” is probably intended to slow down mail fraud charges.)

  23. Really? Are SEO companies still a thing?

  24. The first time I received one of those domain scam letters was around the year 2000. That’s an oldy, but could definitely dupe someone in larger companies where there might be too many layers of communications between purchasing and the web admin.

  25. I wonder if the offices/people who have paid this have actually received their “monthly search engine position and ranking reports”

  26. Reminds me of the phone bill slamming that GoInternet (Mercury Internet, Venus Internet…. and a billion other subsidiaries) used to do for this on business phone bills in the 2000s.

    Almost every company I came in to do work at was getting nailed by them for $30 a month

    I hope their president/owner Neal Saferstein is still in PMITA prison.

  27. I used to work for a large local government. Much bigger in size and funding then most of these. IT would take more then $85 in time and resources for these organizations to vet this. For starters it would take a sitdown meeting with at least 5 director level employees, that make at least $30-$40 per hour, to discuss who is going to do the research. If they decide to move on from there, then if the IT department has time for this, then it would probably take a week to get results. Paying the $85 dollars is much more cost effective for organizations that do not have the bandwith for this type of work.

  28. Brian,
    About the political and government groups – pretty much, the person in or running for office isn’t reading that email, it’s their “social media” people, who don’t know diddly, and a manager there, who knows even less, probably approved it.

  29. I feel left out I haven’t received any snail mail like this for the single domain I own. I have received other snail mail thinking I’m some sort of big business associated with the niche the domain is in (dogs and puppies), mostly catalogs that are fun to look at but probably charge a premium for their products.

    I wonder if the Web Listings Inc does provide those “monthly search engine position and ranking reports” promised if you pay?

  30. Here’s a quick question which I don’t think the article answered.

    Are these people doing anything at all in exchange for payment?

    If they’re just pocketing the money, then that’s clearly a case of fraud and is probably criminal.

    If on the other hand, they are doing something (no matter how ineffective) to attempt to improve a site’s search results, then it’s sleazy advertising, but not necessarily a scam.

    I bring this up because I could easily see the less savvy users realizing that the statement is not a bill, but deciding nevertheless that they would like to subscribe to a service that (if real) promises to improve search results. Especially when the annual fee is so low compared to the cost of hiring actual consultants. These people would have a legal case of they aren’t doing anything in exchange for payment, but they would not have a case if they are doing something for that money.