DMCA Scammers Exploit Sites Linked to Mental Health Issues to Boost SEO

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A fake law firm is currently sending emails to sites, many of them linked to mental health issues, claiming that copyright infringements have been found and need to be rectified. Recipients are told that by including a credit and a link to a domain, no further action will be taken. The entire scheme is a massive scam but could be facing its last few hours of life.

scamFor website operators trying to get information into the public eye, the last thing they need are legal threats claiming that they’ve infringed someone’s copyrights.

Copyright lawsuits have a reputation of being expensive to defend so, when threatened, most people take the easiest way out. A new wave of copyright complaints being sent out right now offer an extremely easy off-ramp for supposed infringers. That’s because the scammers behind it actually want people to take that route.

Alleged Infringement of ‘Copyrighted Images’

In March 2022, Richard Byrne of freetech4teachers.com uncovered a scam in which website operators were informed by supposed law firm Arthur Davidson Legal that they’d infringed copyright in an image and a lawsuit could follow. However, if the recipient simply linked to a domain and posted a credit on their site, the matter would be closed.

A similar scam optimistically targeted TorrentFreak last year but a couple of articles in response are unlikely to stop these schemes from spreading and claiming even more victims.

In a new article this week, Richard Byrne reports on an email sent to him by another fake law firm, this time calling itself ‘Nationwide Legal’ [nationwidelaw[D0T]org]. The email doesn’t mention Byrne by name (a red flag in itself) but attempts to achieve the same goals: link to a site, credit the ‘source’, and Byrne won’t get sued for copyright infringement.

nationwidelaw scam

The image referenced in the email as being the original, copyrighted image, is suspiciously hosted on Imgur. It took us less than 20 seconds to find that the image is offered on Pixabay and marked ‘Free for commercial use’ and ‘No attribution required’.

There is no copyright infringement and the scammers know it.

The Goals of the Scam

These scams have just one initial goal in mind – to have as many domains as possible link to a specific domain in order to increase its perceived value in the eyes of search engines. This time the scammers are attempting to drive traffic to [briandcruzhypnoplus[D0T]com], which claims to represent the business of a UK-based hypnotherapist called Brian D’Cruz.

As the screenshot below shows, reputable third-party sites are already falling for this bogus credit-and-link scam.

hypno plus scam

The [briandcruzhypnoplus[D0T]com] domain that people are being pressured to credit and link to was registered on January 1, 2022, and supposedly carries business information related to Brian D’Cruz and his hypnotherapy practice.

It will come as little surprise that there is nothing straightforward about the website or the person it claims to represent. But before we dive down the rabbit hole, let’s take a look at who this campaign has been targeting.

Victim Sites Are Mostly Linked to Mental Health Issues

One of the metrics used by search engines to determine the value of external links pointing to a domain is whether the content on the linking sites (those who received a fake DMCA notice) is relevant to the content on the target site, in this case the bogus hypnotherapy site.

From the available information, it appears the scammers are mostly focusing on sites covering mental illness and medical illnesses affecting the mind, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Given that they now all contain links to the scam hypnotherapy site, they aren’t hard to find.

Some of the sites targeted are listed below. The article title appears first with a link to the source page, which at the time of writing carry credits and links back to the bogus hypnotherapy site.

Trauma-Informed Pedagogy – Barnard College / Columbia University
Health and Counselling Services – Bard College Berlin
Occupational Therapists and Mental Health Interventions – Moving With H.O.P.E
In Grief: Nursing Student Struggle With Father Loss – Grief Healing Blog
Exhaustion and Overwhelm – Buddhistdoor Global
New Ai-Based Algorithm to Detect Brain Bleeds – NoCamels
Mental Health During Crises Like Covid 19 – Safe Communities Portugal
“Effective Treatment” for Alzheimer’s – EyesOnALZ
We Can Do Better – Association for the Chronically Mentally Ill
What is a Mental Health Crisis? – Jonathan’s Voice (UK-based mental health charity)

The above list is nowhere near comprehensive and appears to be growing over time.

DMCA Scam Misleads By Abusing Real Information

Identifying who is behind these scams is never easy but with the right tools and patience, shining light on the mechanisms is entirely possible. With that in mind, it’s worth drawing brief attention to Brian D’Cruz, who has been thrust into the spotlight (whether he likes it or not) thanks to this campaign. It turns out that Mr. D’Cruz, whoever he is, is a useful conduit towards finding additional information.

From everything we’ve seen thus far, Brian D’Cruz does exist. As the bogus website clearly states, he practices hypnotherapy in the south of England, or did at one point. However, if one cross-references the name Brian D’Cruz with listings on the General Hypnotherapy Register, the scammers’ website isn’t the one listed.

In fact, the listing links D’Cruz to BeyondBoundariesHypnotherapy.com, an apparently dead site that carries much of the same information as the new one published in January. A copy from the Wayback Machine also reveals that the photographs of the therapist are drastically different when compared across sites, an indication of a deliberate switch.

Ghosts From the Past

Given that the email address available for Brian D’Cruz is linked to the now lost ‘Beyond Boundaries’ domain, contacting him there was impossible. However, we were able to establish that the original ‘Beyond Boundaries’ domain was created a number of years ago and registered to a Sam D’Cruz.

As the archive copy of the Beyond Boundaries website on the Wayback Machine clearly shows in the footer, the site was created by web design/SEO company i New Media. Sam is currently registered on their ‘friends’ page and appears to have strong connections with the company.

At the time of writing, we are yet to receive any reply from Sam following our requests for comment. We haven’t received any response from I-New Media either. That is a real shame, considering how many questions we have.

I-New Media Has Also Been Getting Image Credits and Backlinks

According to its website, I New Media offers Search Engine Optimization (SEO) services, as many companies do. However, we were surprised to learn that the company is also receiving backlinks from sites that appear to credit them for ownership of images they do not hold the rights to.

For example, there is this piece on the website WeGrowValue.com, where an image is credited to the company for no apparent reason. Alongside there is a link back to the URL i-newmedia.com/media.

wegrow - inewmedia

This next example of a credit-and-link back to I-New Media provides more irony than anyone could’ve hoped for.

Lewis Silkin is a major international law firm with undoubted skills in all areas of law, copyright included. In fact, Lewis Silkin worked in the UK to help identify alleged BitTorrent pirates so that they could receive a letter in the mail from rightsholders alleging copyright infringement. Of course recipients could choose to settle their cases by taking positive action, in that case paying a settlement.

In this case it appears that Lewis Silkin received a demand to link back to I-New Media and under the threat of a copyright lawsuit, decided to comply with the scammers.

lewis-silkin - inewmedia

Other sites crediting I-New Media for image content they don’t own include:

What is Social Media Marketing? – GetSocialGuide.com
Social Media Use May Contribute to Sleep Deprivation – HealthTechInsider.com
A Quick Guide To Tracking Social Media Followers – Bad Rhino Inc.

There are many more instances of sites crediting and linking back to I-New Media but the missing link is why they chose to do that. Did they do it under duress or perhaps they have a relationship with the company and did it willingly?

At this point it’s worth referring back to the email received by Richard Byrne of freetech4teachers.com. We mentioned it at the start of this article and it’s the reason we embarked on this mission. The email was sent by Nationwide Legal’s ‘trademark department’, it mentioned the DMCA, and warned that a copyright lawsuit might follow in the event of non-compliance. So we started contacting people who linked back to I-New Media to find out what prompted them to do that.

We received a number of responses and they all told the same story. An unsolicited email claiming copyright infringement in images instructed them to credit I-New Media and link back to a specific URL. In return, past and future ‘infringements’ would be ignored and no lawsuit would follow.

i-newmedia dmca notice email

As mentioned earlier, we requested comment from Sam D’Cruz and I-New Media but neither responded. That means we cannot get answers to some of these other questions either, which is a disappointment given the circumstances.

A Few Coincidences to Clear Up

Given that the scammy hypnotherapist website was copied from a website that I-New Media originally designed, we wanted to clarify the facts with the company. Is that one of those one-in-a-million coincidences that happen every now and again, or is there another explanation?

Equally, is it a coincidence that a person called Sam D’Cruz, who does work for I-New Media, is not only recorded as the domain registrant for the original hypnotherapy site, but also shares the same uncommon surname as the hypnotherapist? Stranger things have happened but we wanted to clear that up too.

So given the links above, coincidental or not, what are the chances of the exact same scammy law firm sending out identical legal threats to drive traffic to the bogus hypnotherapy site, while apparently doing exactly the same for I-New Media’s website too? Or is I-New Media an unfortunate victim in all of this?

These are questions that need to be answered but as we said, our emails aren’t being answered. If they were, we’d also ask about another coincidence. It concerns the choice of hosting for the I-New Media website and that of the scammy hypnotherapist website.

combine_images

Domain names and ages aside, their WHOIS reports look exactly the same and even though the IP address points to shared hosting used by a large number of other websites, there are an extraordinary number of IP addresses available online where one site (or the other) could’ve been located instead.

Throwing in the exact same DNS server for both domains on top of this IP address coincidence seems mathematically extraordinary but what will happen next is unknown.

TorrentFreak is informed that at least one of the companies targeted with a fake DMCA notice is already consulting its legal team and we wouldn’t be surprised if others were considering their options too.

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