Educators beware: Some sleazy internet opportunists have set out to scam children who accidentally misspell the addresses of popular web sites. The Federal Trade Commission’s claim that one cyber-scammer is using common misspellings of internet addresses to target unsuspecting visitors with a barrage of pop-up pornography and gambling ads has K-12 decision makers discussing what should be done to prepare students for such internet traps.

The FTC issued a preliminary injunction against John Zuccarini of Andalusia, Pa., last month for his alleged violation of the agency’s regulations regarding unfair or deceptive acts in commerce.

The complaint argues that Zuccarini—who reportedly has lost 53 similar cases in the past two years—continues to use more than 5,500 web site addresses to trap internet users in several advertisements for pornographic, gambling, psychic, and lottery sites. Zuccarini is accused of using common misspellings of web addresses from popular culture, including several variations of teen sensation Britney Spears’ web page and the Cartoon Network’s site, to bait visitors to his own sites by mistake.

The complaint is similar to many lodged in the past against Zuccarini. Courts already have forced him to turn over domain names such as www.encata.com, which exploited anyone who mistakenly left out the letter “r” from the web address for Microsoft’s Encarta Online encyclopedia.

While Zuccarini already has turned over several of his web site addresses and been fined numerous times for damages, the FTC is contesting that he continues to operate web sites under similar circumstances.

For educators, Zuccarini’s case and others like it pose serious questions about the safety of students online.

Nancy Willard, project director for the Responsible Netizen at the University of Oregon’s Center for Advanced Technology in Education, says these web sites are designed with the intention of fooling individuals into visiting them.

“Folks who are involved in this type of activity are trying to trick people into going to their sites. We, as educators, have an obligation to teach kids how to deal with these kinds of people,” Willard said.

One way to avoid internet scam artists, Willard says, is to teach students always to double-check the correct spelling of a web site address and never to guess about a web address. But caution isn’t a foolproof means of protection, and mistakes do happen. That’s why educators need to teach kids what to do when they encounter these internet traps.

“If kids get to one of these places by mistake, their first reaction will be shock. Their second reaction—the more damaging reaction—will be fear,” Willard said.

According to the FTC, many of these sites use a technique called “mousetrapping,” which makes it very difficult for mistaken visitors to exit the sites once they have entered them. Mousetrapping works by disabling a user’s ability to close the browser window or retreat to a previous page. If the web surfer attempts to close or leave a page, this attempt causes a new advertising window to pop open. Many of these sites also open with a hidden timer that causes new pop-up windows to open the longer a user stays on the site.

Once a user encounters these pop-up sites, the only known way to combat the advertising assault is to close the open browser and exit the program.

It’s important for students to understand these courses of action so they aren’t helpless if they encounter a mousetrapping site, Willard said: “We need to empower these kids. In most cases, I don’t know of a real significant effort to educate kids about these issues.”

Educators also might want to clear the cookie files of computer systems used by students, Willard said. Cookies are short pieces of data that help a server identify a user. The data each cookie collects can then be used by the scam artists’ servers to identify internet users’ browsing habits. If the cookies are cleared from the system, servers cannot monitor where users have been. If a cyber-scammer cannot determine which web sites have been visited, it will be harder for that person to decide which web addresses to target.

The only other defense against these cyber schemes in schools is the use of internet filtering technology, which blocks student access to inappropriate sites. But the problem with web filters is that cyber-scammers just move to new, yet-to-be detected web address and continue operation.

The FTC has no evidence that web-scammers are setting out to target children specifically. But, said Willard, they are setting out to target people who make mistakes and “children make the most mistakes.”

It is estimated that Zuccarini makes $800,000 to $1 million a year on commissions, which he receives from companies that experience hits on their sites as a result of his ads.

According to FTC attorney Marc Groman, the agency views Zuccarini as a major contributor to the existence of these types of scams on the web. To date, he is the only person the FTC has cited for violations. Groman says the FTC hopes to use Zuccarini’s case as a deterrent for others who already do or might consider participating in similar internet practices.

If Zuccarini’s cyber scheme is found to be in violation of the law, the FTC will seek forfeiture of all of his more than 5,500 web addresses and any profits that he has made from his operation. “Schemes that capture consumers and hold them at sites against their will while exposing internet users, including children, to solicitations for gambling psychics, lotteries, and pornography must be stopped,” FTC Chairman Timothy Muris said in a statement.

Links:

Federal Trade Commission
http://www.ftc.org

Responsible Netizen
http://netizen.uoregon.edu