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Internet Scam Threatens Armenia’s Image

By Emil Danielyan

Armenia may be gaining the reputation of a safe haven for Internet blackmailers, apparently having little or no connection with them. The country where poverty still places the Internet beyond the reach of most citizens increasingly figures in press reports on unscrupulous people using pornographic material to extort money from owners of popular web sites across the world.

The practice, which some describe as “cyber-squatting,” has already caused an outcry in various parts of the world.

The most recent of such cases was registered as far away as in New Zealand earlier this month. Owners of a hardcore pornography site with a contact address in Yerevan reportedly demanded $6,000 in return for abandoning its domain name, which is similar to the address of an on-line learning center run by New Zealand’s ministry of education. Teachers access the ministry’s web site every day to get classroom resources and ideas for planning lessons. But by accidentally leaving off the dot nz from the address they face a picture of a naked teenage girl in a pornographic pose. It links to a Dutch pornographic site called “Euro Teen Sluts.”

The same graphic image has appeared in at least a dozen other domains with addresses that are either close to existing popular web sites or are simply named after prominent people. Targets of the allegedly Armenian cyber-squatting are amazingly diverse: a Hollywood actress, an American football star, a top Indian politician, a rugby club in London and a city in Canada.

The sites abusing their names are registered with different Internet companies but have the same content and owner -- an apparently fictitious organization called Domain for Sale. Its contact address in Yerevan, as it turned out, is also a fake one. That the cyber-squatters are not based in Armenia becomes almost certain after a special computer program traces their server to Glendale, California. The Los Angeles suburb is home to the largest Armenian community in the United States, and it’s a safe bet that some of its members are involved in the scam. Theoretically, they might be Armenian nationals.

Tom Samuelian, a Yerevan-based American business lawyer, believes that the law-enforcement authorities in the country where the cyber-squatters operates have all the legal grounds to bring a commercial libel or unfair competition case against them. He was alerted to the Internet scam earlier this year by one of his clients, another victim of the cyber-squatting. Ironically, the office of Samuelian’s consulting firm Arlex and the porn site’s registered address, which contains a non-existent apartment number, are on the same street in downtown Yerevan.

“We don’t know whether they are actually in Armenia,” he said in an interview. “But wherever they are, they are using a name that is similar enough to the legal name of a company or organization, and are therefore doing harm to its reputation.”

But some Internet providers in Armenia disagree with this assertion. “The sale of domain names that are popular or easy to remember is a widely accepted business in the world. There are even countries that will sell their national domain suffixes to anybody willing to pay,” said Vahram Mkhitarian of the Armenian Computer Center.

The case of N. Chandrababu Naidu, chief minister of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, is noteworthy in this regard. Internet users searching for information about Naidu are referred, among other sites, to www.nchandrababunaidu.com, the exact copy of the site which dismayed education officials in New Zealand. An Indian newspaper reported in August that the Andhra Pradesh leader rejected the webmaster’s offer to buy the domain carrying his name for $4,000. He instead lodged a protest with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit group that helps Internet users set domain-name policy and resolve disputes. But, judging by the controversial site’s continuing existence, to no avail.

Mark Perry, who teaches a course on law and the Internet at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, argued in a local newspaper recently that while the presumably Armenian blackmailers may be acting unethically it will be very difficult to win a lawsuit against them. Appeals to ICANN are therefore unlikely to be successful, he said.

Yet the fact that the cyber-squatters register under a false address suggests that they feel vulnerable to legal action. A phone number beginning with 208, the area code of the US state of Idaho, seems to be their only valid contact information. The answering machine asks callers to leave a message. An inquiry by this correspondent never got a reply, however.

Samuelian said the persistent news reports implicating Armenia in the dubious practice could prove damaging for its image and its emerging Information Technology sector in particular. He called for an official investigation into the reported cases but admitted that tracking down the Internet abusers is not an easy task. “It’s a kind of hooliganism, like throwing a rock through a window. If you don’t get caught [on the spot], it’s hard to catch you,” he said.

If the law-enforcement authorities eventually launch an inquiry they may get valuable clues from an Armenian student reportedly studying in California on an exchange program. The 18-year-old Emil Lazarian faced a lawsuit last summer for opening a porn site bearing the name of Joe Montana, a retired American football star. Montana sought $5 million in compensatory damages for the unauthorized use of his name. The US media reported that the web address, www.joemontanafanclub.com, was just a link to other Internet locations featuring explicit sex scenes.

The site has since been shut down and it is not clear if it looked just like the other allegedly Armenian domains promoting pornography. But judging from newspaper descriptions, they may well have been identical.

Lazarian’s links to Armenia are by no means certain though. The Yerevan office of the American Council for International Education, a government agency which selects young Armenians for studying at US universities and high schools, said it has never dealt with a student with such a name.

So far there have been no reported cases of a celebrity or an organization paying the cyber-squatters a “ransom” to protect their good name. The New Zealand government, for example, decided against buying the web address on the advise of police and moved to block access to the site from local schools. Likewise, an amateur rugby club in London, whose former web site has been turned into a porn link by the same persons, said in a statement late last month that it “will not accede to blackmail.”

The money-for-address scheme is not the only source of income for the cyber-squatters. They, after all, advertise pornographic sites for less than altruistic purposes. And that may be more lucrative a business than the blackmail. The infamous “Euro Teen Sluts” is one of the numerous hardcore porn sites belonging to the H & H Internet company registered on the Caribbean island of Curacao, an overseas Dutch territory. A notice on its main Internet page offers webmasters to advertise adult material. That is, to put a link to its domain addresses so that more people from around the world know of their existence. The company pays between 10 and 40 US cents for every click on any of its sites coming via an advertiser. It claims to have more than 10,000 such middlemen.

The latter are thus interested in having as many people visit H & H Internet sites as possible. Cyber-squatting is an effective way of ensuring that. The other way is to create a web site that is famous and popular enough to re-direct scores of visitors to the advertised locations.

An Armenia-registered site involved in that type of Internet commerce is said to be hugely popular, particularly among computer specialists. At www.cracks.am they can download so-called software security programs or “cracks” which make pirated computer software usable. It does not take long to understand why the Armenian site should offer thousands of “cracks” free of charge. Its customers get bombarded by porn ads as they search for and download the desired software.

Mindful of the fact that the distribution of the “cracks” might be in conflict with Western copyright laws, the owner of the site, a Yerevan resident identified as Gurgen Hakobian, informs surfers that the software is “not prohibited in Armenia.” “Any license agreements, included with any software, have no legal force in Armenia in case they contradict our laws,” reads the warning.