Webmasters: Beware of Copyright Scams

A recent article by Michael Zhang at PetaPixel points to a problem that nearly every webmaster (or just web users) has run across, someone attempting to scam them.

However, this particular scam reaches something of a new low. Rather than promising free money or free stuff, the scam claims that the site committed copyright infringement and asks them to click a link to see the proof.

Zhang did not fall for the scam and, even if he did, the site in question was already down. However, it’s easy to see how others might have.

After all, being threatened with copyright infringement is very scary and there’s enough confusion about copyright that, even someone who is trying to follow the law, may be uncertain if they did commit infringement.

To be clear, these scams are nothing new. False threats of copyright infringement are almost as old as the internet itself. That said, this particular type of scam, which targets webmasters and focuses on the use of images on blogs, has seen a huge resurgence in recent months with blogger Eric San Juan reporting on a different version of it in December 2020 and 368 Durham reporting on the same version that PetaPixel saw in June 2020.

If you’re a webmaster, you need to be aware of these scams. Your money, your security and site are all at stake.

How the Scams Work

All the scams start roughly the same way, with an email claiming that an image (or some other content) hosted on your website is an infringement. However, the payloads of the scams can be different and include (but are not limited to).

  1. Direct Payment Scams: Sometimes, but rarely, scams will email you, claim that an image is a copyright infringement and demand a direct payment for settlement. These letters may look a lot like those sent by companies that do send such demands with the authorization of copyright holders. They will usually ask for some form of direct payment, usually through cryptocurrency or a sketchy payment processor.
  2. Spam Scams: Other times, the letter won’t be seeking money directly, but will instead ask for a link back to their (usually very spammy) website. Often, they will cite Creative Commons licenses as justification. In some cases, they will even edit attribution on images uploaded to various wikis to make it appear they are the creator when they are not. This is a form of link spam and nothing more.
  3. Click Here for Evidence Scams: Finally, as with the PetaPixel, 368 Durham case, and many, many more, the letter is not targeted at getting money or a link from you but, instead, getting you to click a link in the email itself, often for “evidence” of the infringement. This link may contain malware, an attempt at phishing or almost anything else.

In all the above cases, copyright is just the tool used to scare people into taking the desired action. From there, the scam takes a more traditional turn and targets your money, information or your site itself.

In all cases, the scams are riding on a wave of real-world fear. Image copyright infringement has become a hot topic and many websites are receiving very real demand letters from photographers and artists demanding payment for the use of their work on websites.

Scammers, it seems, have slipped into this niche and have tried to make themselves indistinguishable from those providers and exploit the very real fear for ill-gotten gains.

However, the good news is that you can easily protect yourself from these scams. All that it takes is a bit of foresight and some awareness.

Stopping the Scams

Stopping these scams is relatively easy. The first step is simply being aware of them but there is much more that you can do to ensure you don’t fall victim.

  1. Be Mindful of Where You Obtain Your Images: If you’re confident that all the images you used are licensed, it’s very difficult to fall for one of these scams. Only obtain images from legitimate stock photo libraries and open-licensed sources. This can include free stock photo libraries, paid libraries, Creative Commons-based sites and so forth.
  2. Google the Letter: If you receive a letter, there’s a good chance that it’s a stock letter and others have posted/talked about it online. Find a line or two from the letter and Google it in quotes. This will help you find out if the company and the letter is legitimate.
  3. Google the Parties: Take a moment to search out who sent the letter and who is the claimed creator. Find out if they are real entities or just simply made up for the purpose of the email.
  4. Evaluate the Claim: If you know where you got the image, confirm that it is still available in that library and check to ensure you followed the license to the letter. If needed, check the Internet Archive to look for prior versions of the page the image is on if you suspect something has been changed.
  5. Don’t Respond: If, after taking all the steps above, you think the email is suspicious, do not respond and do not click any links in it. Simply delete the email and move on.

To be clear, there are legitimate companies that do send legitimate complaints of copyright infringement via email. Those cases need to be taken seriously. However, with some due diligence, it’s usually very easy to distinguish between the scammers and those that are serious.

In short, be aware of these scams, be careful about where you get your images and always ensure that you have a license for anything you publish on your site. If you do that, you should be fine.

Bottom Line

These scams are unfortunate. Not only will they inevitably deceive many people, but they also complicate the copyright landscape even more.

How many will ignore legitimate copyright notices fearing that they are a scam? How many will think copyright itself IS the scam? All these scams will do is make people more suspicious of copyright issues, something there is already a great deal of suspicion over.

That said, these scams are fairly easy to avoid if you are confident in the legality of your images and take the time to evaluate any claims that you do receive.

Hopefully, these scammers will move on to some other grift, as they are wont to do on the internet. The sooner they do so, the better for everyone involved in copyright.