What to Do When Your Website is Stolen
You are searching for information on your own website and start checking out the search engine results. Your website shows up in that hard fought number one spot. Congratulations. Then you notice one result a couple of spots lower than yours. In big bold print it has your website or company name. You click on it and are taken to a third party site where, much to your horror, your copyrighted page has now become part of the content of their page. Your website has been stolen.
Stolen may sound like a harsh word, after all, you can still get to your own website's URL, but your content is now available in someone else's website. You can click on your links and they all work, but they are trapped within the confines of another webmaster. Even links to outside pages suddenly get owned by the evil son-of-a-bitch who doesn't mind ignoring your copyright. His website is now displaying your website in its entirety. Logos, favicons, content, web forms, database results, even your shopping cart are available to the entire world through his website. It happened to us and it can happen to you.
Unscrupulous webmasters, website owners or other third parties think nothing of violating copyright law to derive financial benefit from your work. They can argue that it is still your site, but it's just being harmlessly displayed on their website, stuck in frames. Heck, your site name may appear in the title bar, your favicon is in its rightful location and all your content is right there, it's just under control of the evil SOB I mentioned earlier. Who knows, if someone tries to login through the embedded site maybe their credentials can be captured, maybe even credit cards. It all depends on the sophistication of the evil SOBs.
Two questions you should ask yourself:
- Why is someone risking the penalties associated with criminal copyright infringement to display my content in their website?
- What can I do about it?
The answer to the first question varies. The hijacker may want to grab some of your search engine juice. When it happened to us the perpetrator was listed as number 3 on the first page of search engine results on blekko.com. They got all that juice for free by stealing our content and displaying it in their page without our permission. Heck, their website has absolutely nothing to do with web security, access control lists or anything related to Country IP Blocks.
Perhaps the perpetrator is attempting to steal logon credentials and passwords. We have no idea if this is the case, but it is possible.
Regardless of their motivation, your business can be affected by this type of identity theft. Yes, when your website is taken it can become confused with an entirely different brand, thus cheapening your product, your company and those who put in the hard work developing something unique.
What can I do about it?
There are several courses of action you should consider taking.
Copyright your website. While a copyright is technically no longer required to protect your content it does add extra value. The first type of copyright is the typical warning, Copyright © 2007-2012 Country IP Blocks. This is important to have displayed but it does not give you all the benefits you need. You can certainly sue when someone infringes on this copyright, but you may find, unless you have lots of money or a lawyer in the family, you will be hard-pressed to find affordable counsel. If you really want to protect your copyright, register your entire website with the US Copyright office. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work. (http://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-general.html).
For cases of criminal copyright infringement you should always contact law enforcement authorities and file a report. Before you rush out and do this, let me give you a little insight. The FBI is going to want a police report before they even consider investigating. Your local police force will try to avoid creating a report for many cyber-crimes, including copyright infringement (it is a crime as well as a civil tort). Most police departments are ill-equipped to handle cyber-crimes. They lack the training and resources to adequately respond to your complaint. They are often short-staffed and the available staff specialize more on crime in the streets, burglary, assault, homicide, etc. But don't let them turn you away. Document your copyright infringement, gather screen captures and other evidence, place it in a file with any other documentation including an overview and history of the alleged crime, and deliver a copy to the police. Make them give you a report number.
Once you get your police report, you can now file a complaint with the FBI. Let me warn you in advance of two issues. I have been told firsthand by an FBI field agent that unless you are a Fortune 500 Company, the likelihood is that the FBI will not investigate your cyber-crime case. Secondly, the FBI will usually not take your report directly. Instead, they will pass you off to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (http://www.ic3.gov/default.aspx) to file your complaint.
When you file you should provide them with the description of the alleged crime, witness information and that all important police report.
Once you file, your complaint may be seen by certain groups to ascertain the merit and jurisdiction of the crime you are reporting. Then your report goes off to die in that great government wasteland known as bureaucracy. Hopefully it will resurrect in the hands of someone in law enforcement that can and will do something about the alleged crime. But you may never know.
After you have filed your criminal reports file a DMCA copyright infringement claim with the major search engines and the ISP where the website is hosted.
When it comes to personally contacting the alleged perpetrator should you write or call? You can send a formal "cease and desist" letter asking them to stop infringing your copyrighted materials. But if you do, they may grab your content and file a copyright on it with the US Copyright office. Then turn around and file an infringement claim against you. Make sure you are protected first. If you do send a cease and desist, send it after your content is fully protected and use a professional cease and desist letter or have one drafted by an attorney. If you send it yourself do so using cheap stationery so you don't lose much money when they laugh and throw the letter away.
If you choose to call, don't. We tried that once and received a whacko email from the copyright infringer claiming we made physical threats (nonsense) against him and he was going to file a police report. If the perpetrator has so little character he or she won't think twice before stealing, borrowing, scraping or claiming your content as their own, do you really think they won't file a false police report? We are not lawyers, but we have one. From now on we have him deal with these situations.
Contact the media. If you expect the media to come riding in on white horses you are in for a big letdown. I spent a huge portion of my life as a talk radio celebrity and know how most in the media think. If it bleeds it leads is still true. If the cyber-criminal didn't shoot you or blow you up, chances are you will be ignored, unless you are in a tiny town on a very, very slow news day. The big question for the media is this: is it compelling? It's compelling to you because your company identity has been destroyed, your content was stolen and your search engine juice has dried up. But is it compelling to the general public? No, probably not. My talk show producers spent more time turning stories, guests and show ideas down than accepting great show material.
I recently shared our personal copyright infringement experience with a producer at KFYI radio in Phoenix; a great station and a great producer. He wasn't interested in the least. "Not compelling," he said. And he was right.
Your cyber-crime experience may only be compelling to you. But, that doesn't mean it's unimportant. In order to slow down criminals and those who think they can use your content and intellectual property without permission or payment, you must act to protect yourself. Remember, this is not a compelling problem until you personally experience cyber-crime. Chances are, those who haven't yet, probably will.
Check out Part II. Snatch Your Website Back From Copyright Infringers