Court grants FTC’s request to halt scheme that offered fast government services through hundreds of fake websites
Defendants operating hundreds of websites that promised a quick and easy government service, such as renewing a driver’s license or determining eligibility for public benefits, were ordered by a federal court to temporarily stop their activities.
The FTC alleges that consumers provided information because they believed the websites would provide the services. Instead, consumers received only a PDF containing publicly available, general information about the service.
The FTC alleges that the defendants’ sites used similar language to get consumers to give up their credit card information, personal data, or both.
State licensing sites
The defendants operated sites such as DMV.com, which offered links for driver’s services in 50 states and presented itself as a clearinghouse for many types of DMV-related services, such as licensing and driving records, under the heading “Online DMV Services,” according to the lawsuit. Other sites operated by the defendants included floridadriverslicense.org, coloradodriverslicenses.org, californiadrivers.org, and texasdriverslicenses.org.
The defendants used search-engine advertising and search-engine optimization to target consumers who searched for state motor-vehicle or licensing services online. The FTC’s lawsuit alleges that in the spring and summer of 2019, entering the phrases “renew Florida drivers license online” and “get fishing license” into online search engines brought up the defendants’ sites as either the first- or second-listed link.
After consumers submitted payment, in some cases, the sites linked back to the landing page, and the consumer received nothing, according to the lawsuit. In other cases, the consumer received an email containing a link to a downloadable, general-information PDF.
The FTC alleges that the defendants’ sites didn’t deliver the promised services.
Public benefits sites
The FTC also alleges that the defendants operated dozens of websites that promise to verify consumers’ eligibility for public benefits. These sites appeared high in search results or sponsored links when consumers searched for ways to get public benefits.
The defendants’ public benefits sites offered to help consumers seeking government programs, such as housing assistance, food stamps, Medicaid, or unemployment benefits. The sites asked for personal information from consumers, including their name, address, date of birth, gender, telephone number, and email address, according to the lawsuit.
The sites also asked consumers about sensitive topics, including their employment status, income range, social security eligibility, health insurance, credit-card debt, and health conditions, according to the lawsuit. The FTC alleges that consumers who provided the requested information on the defendants’ public benefits websites didn’t receive the promised eligibility determination.
After providing information on the defendants’ public benefits websites, consumers almost immediately began receiving marketing emails and texts from the defendants and third parties, according to the lawsuit. They contained marketing offers, including job-search assistance, free gift cards, and homebuyer grants.
The lawsuit alleges that the defendants received millions of dollars from selling the personal data they collected from consumers through deceptive marketing.
The FTC lawsuit names as defendants Burton Katz, Brent Levison, Robert Zangrillo, Arlene Mahon, and Elisha Rothman, along with more than 50 companies they own and control.