A court approved a preliminary injunction pending a full trial.
The Federal Trade Commission successfully shut down hundreds of websites pretending to offer or assist with getting government services in a scheme to get credit card numbers and other sensitive personal information from U.S. citizens.
The websites are currently offline, per a court order, while the defendants in the case await trial.
“In numerous instances, defendants misrepresented on their websites that they would provide government services—e.g., a driver’s license, car registration, or eligibility determination for public benefits—to consumers who paid money and/or provided personal information,” according to the preliminary injunction.
The sites asked users to provide the necessary personal information to receive those services but only gave publicly available PDF documents in return. The documents merely provided general information about the government services that users could have gotten directly from agency websites, according to the FTC.
The fraudulent sites mimicked government websites’ branding, language and styles in order to seem legitimate.
The alleged fraudsters operated a number of schemes simultaneously, including several sites that purported to help with federal benefits, such as housing assistance, Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps. Through these sites, users were asked to provide “core pieces of personal information,” including names, address, birthdates and phone numbers.
“According to the complaint, the sites also asked consumers about various sensitive topics, including their employment status, income range, social security eligibility, health insurance, credit-card debt and health conditions,” FTC said. “The FTC alleges that consumers who provided all the requested information on the defendants’ public benefits websites did not receive the promised eligibility determination.”
The defendants also operated DMV.com, which “presents itself as a clearinghouse for many types of DMV-related services,” FTC stated, including renewing driver's licenses and registrations for all 50 states.
“After consumers submitted payment, in some instances, the sites simply linked back to the landing page, and the consumer received nothing. In other instances, the consumer received an email containing a link to a downloadable PDF with general, publicly available information,” FTC said in a statement Wednesday. “The FTC alleges that the defendants’ sites did not deliver the promised services.”
Users who gave their information through these sites reported an immediate increase in receiving marketing emails and text messages, both from the defendants and third parties that purchased the information.
“The complaint alleges that the defendants received millions of dollars from selling the personal data they collected from consumers through deceptive marketing,” the FTC said in the statement.
The FTC complaint includes five defendants who control more than 50 companies. Wednesday’s release notes the FTC intervenes “when it has ‘reason to believe’ that the named defendants are violating or are about to violate the law.”
The case is awaiting trial.