FBI unplugs candidate copycat site

Lookalike online contribution page took donations from supporters of US presidential candidate John McCain

The FBI Friday shut down a Web site collecting political contributions for US presidential candidate Senator John McCain hours after ZDNet partner MSNBC began making inquires into its legal status.

The site, run by MediaKing International, a California based Internet services firm, had exactly copied McCain's online campaign contribution Web page and hosted it on its own servers, without permission and with no official affiliation to the McCain campaign.

Unwitting McCain supporters going to the unauthorised site had no idea they weren't directly donating to the McCain campaign. Like the official McCain site, the unauthorised site collected donations via credit card.

The Federal Trade Commission has dubbed such practices "page jacking" and has already pursued one huge case in which millions of unsuspecting Web surfers were redirected to porn sites as a result of being snagged in the page-jacking scam.

The unauthorised McCain scheme was more nefarious because it was directly taking money from consumers; the previous page-jacking scheme only stole traffic from the rightful sites, robbing them of all important "eyeballs", which are used by Web sites to set advertising rates.

A Federal Election Commission official said the scheme would fall under federal election campaign laws only if the MediaKing operators were in some way affiliated with another campaign or if it were found out that the site was being run by a member of McCain's own campaign to siphon off money for personal use.

In other cases the Department of Justice has prosecuted people under the wire fraud laws for running unauthorised sites that collect money under fraudulent pretences.

But the unauthorised McCain contribution site now appears to be a case of good intentions gone bad. "The McCain campaign was rapidly dwindling and we wanted to do something to help raise money," Douglas Knell, director of MediaKing International, told MSNBC in a phone interview. Knell said he wasn't trying to rip anyone off. "If I were trying to hide something, I could think of better scams, like selling phony real estate," Knell said.

Knell said he made a pitch to the McCain campaign weeks ago, asking how he could help raise money for the Senator's presidential bid. Knell says the campaign never returned his calls or email.

"If I had to wait for all the bureaucratic red tape, it would all be over," Knell said.

So instead Knell simply copied the official McCain online contribution site, changed a paragraph on the page to read that it was being "sponsored by" MediaKing International and hosted it on his company's servers. Knell said he did that so that "it wouldn't look fraudulent."

"We were just going to get the money and give it to [McCain's campaign] after the fact," Knell said.

In all, Knell said about $180 (£110) was donated via his Web site.

Knell sent out an unsolicited email to various mailing lists and newsgroups asking people to support McCain and directed them to donate via his unauthorised site; however, the email never made any mention that his site wasn't approved or affiliated with the McCain campaign in any way.

Knell's email pitch said in part:

" Dear US Cyber Citizens (Netizen), Make the difference now! Support Senator McCain, the premier underdog of the current political scene, who truly intends to make a difference. Make YOUR difference today by visiting to donate what you can. "

The McCain campaign was investigating Knell's site Friday afternoon as MSNBC began asking questions about it. The campaign then contacted the FBI. Knell said he received a call Friday afternoon from the FBI and was advised that his service provider was being told to shut down the site. As of late Friday, the offending site had been closed and was still offline.

A McCain campaign spokesman told MSNBC that it wasn't going to take any legal action against Knell. Asked if the McCain campaign believed it was an honest mistake and not a real Web site hijacking scam, the spokesman said, "Yeah, to call it 'hijacking' is a bit rough."

"When [Knell] was contacted he was genuinely apologetic," the McCain spokesman said. "He's promised to return the money he collected and ask people to donate directly to the McCain campaign."

Knell told MSNBC that he "has all the receipts" and will comply with the campaign's wishes to return the money. Knell said he didn't intend to profit in any way from collecting the donations other than "having McCain as president, a guy that is against Internet taxes, would be good for us."

McCain's official campaign contribution site is being run by "Campaignsolutions.com," which is operated by Hockaday-Donatelli, a Virginia-based campaign firm. Becky Donatelli, of Hockaday-Donatelli, told MSNBC that she was alerted to the unauthorised site by the McCain campaign on Friday. "I know they're looking into it," Donatelli said. This isn't the first time Donatelli has run up against a page-jacking incident. An earlier campaign the group ran, the "Hillary No" Web site, also was hijacked. Those people "weren't trying to make money," Donatelli said. The "Hillary No" page-jackers were told to take the site down because they were violating the company's copyright, Donatelli said.

In the McCain incident, Donatelli said she wasn't sure if the phony site was impacting the campaign, but that "I would also have a cause of action because they are taking my system," Donatelli said.

The success of fund-raising efforts on the Net during this presidential election cycle has given indications that political campaigns have begun to tap into what has, to date, been thought to be a generally apathetic attitude toward organised politics, said Mike Cornfield, director of the Democracy Online Project at George Washington University.

Cornfield is now studying people that are contributing online in an effort to see if a sea-change is happening among online users, a move that could dramatically shape the political landscape in coming years.

When advised of the McCain site incident, Cornfield said: "It speaks to the biggest single concern that we've seen in surveying online users. The No. 1 thing they wanted to see was a clear directory so they could tell the difference between official and non-official Web sites."

Cornfield said that without some kind of official campaign directory, where people could go and know they were visiting authorised sites -- and not some parody, or worse -- online users would continue to be confused. "And this [McCain site incident] would be the biggest alarm bell yet about why we need a standardised directory that needs to be publicised so people can know what the real addresses for a campaign are," Cornfield said.

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