Panel Hears Fraud Schemes Involving Porn

Rhett Pardon
WASHINGTON, D.C. – A House panel was told Thursday that the “early adopters” of the Internet have seized on opportunities against consumers – and most of the fraudulent activity involves online pornography.

Howard Beales, the Federal Trade Commission’s director, also said that peer-to-peer software can expose consumers to unwanted pornography, as well as games, videos and music that may be inappropriate for children.

Beales told the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce that although the Internet has empowered consumers with instant access to a breadth of information, “fraud artists also have proven adept at exploiting this new technology for their own gain.”

He spoke at a hearing titled, “Online Pornography: Closing the Doors on Pervasive Smut.”

Beales, citing numerous incidents involving deceptive and unfair practices in the distribution of online pornography, said it has brought over 300 Internet-related enforcement actions.

In one example, Beales said the FTC sued John Zuccarini, who registered some 6,000 domain names that were misspellings of popular websites for “mousetrapping” consumers.

Beales said that in a ploy designed to capture teenage Internet users, Zuccarini registered 15 variations of the popular children's cartoon site, www.cartoonnetwork.com – for example “cartoon netwok” instead of “cartoon network” and 41 variations on the name of teen pop star Britney Spears.

Beales said that surfers who looked for a site, but misspelled its web address, were taken to the defendant's sites.

“Once consumers arrived, Zuccarini’s websites were programmed to take control of their Internet browsers and force the consumers to view explicit advertisements for pornographic websites, as well as websites advertising gambling and psychic services,” Beales said. “The obstruction allegedly was so severe in this case that consumers often were forced to choose between taking up to 20 minutes to close out all of the Internet windows, or turning off their computers, and losing all of their ‘pre-mousetrap’ work.”

After being sued, Beales said Zuccarini disappeared but was later found and convicted.

As for file-sharing programs, Beales said filters that block access to materials that contain adult-related or offensive content, “operate by only examining language found in the title or descriptor of the file, rather than the content of the file.”

Moreover, Beales said, the filters “may not be effective when users label files inaccurately, which can result in the transfer of files with pornographic or other unwanted content.”

The FTC was one of many federal agencies or groups asked to testify before the subcommittee.

Beales was joined by the FBI’s Kevin Lourdeau; Linda Koontz of the General Accounting Office; Charlie Catlett of the Senior Fellow Computation Institute; Martin C. Lafferty of the Distributed Computing Industry Association; Norbert Dunkel of the University of Florida; Penny Nance of the Kids First Coalition; and Ernie Allen of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.