Mousetrapping: The art of capturing and keeping you on a web page: Internet Scambusters #867
Mousetrapping is the term for a rogue Internet programming tactic that stops you from leaving a web page or even from shutting down your browser.
It feels like there's no escape, but there is, as we explain in this week's issue.
We also have a warning about the reappearance of a home driveway resurfacing scam.
Let's get started...
Caught in a Browser Mousetrap? Here's How to Escape!
Have you ever landed on a web page and discovered you can't leave? You feel like you're caught in a mousetrap and there's no escape.
It's a trick many scammers (and even some legitimate organizations) use to hold your attention. Not surprisingly, the tactic is called mousetrapping.
Going back many years, there was a famous case in which an alleged scammer trapped visitors to his pages. And whenever they tried to escape, they simply launched a barrage of new pages and pop-ups.
He used more than 5,500 websites with similar names to legitimate sites to catch out people who were misled by the official-sounding names or mistyped the correct names. For example, he had 41 sites using variations of the name of pop singer Britney Spears.
And once they were in, the trap snapped shut. The back button didn't work. Nor did any attempt to close the browser.
Instead, new windows opened and victims, including children, were bombarded by pop-ups and new pages, some of which promoted or redirected to gambling and porn sites.
An investigator from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), keyed in a misspelt version of the name of former tennis star Anna Kournikova and was confronted by 29 browser windows that opened automatically.
In another case, an investigator managed to close 32 windows, leaving only two on the taskbar. When he clicked on the back button for one of these, all the pages and windows reopened.
In addition to the frustration that the mousetrapper caused, he also infringed many trademarks of the legitimate companies whose names and brands he was ripping off.
The FTC alleged the operator of these sites was earning up to a million dollars a year, mainly by charging for ads that appeared on pages and in pop-ups and by redirecting users to other sites who paid the trickster 25 cents for each click-through.
Partly as a result of his activities, a new law - the Truth in Domain Names Act - was passed.
It created an offense for "whoever knowingly uses a misleading domain name on the Internet with the intent to deceive a person into viewing material constituting obscenity" and "whoever knowingly uses a misleading domain name on the Internet with the intent to deceive a minor into viewing material that is harmful to minors on the Internet."
In this case, the perpetrator, who had 63 prior lawsuits against him, was arrested and jailed after pleading guilty to infringement of this Act.
Of course, that won't stop crooks from carrying out the same sort of action. Breaking the law doesn't bother them.
Furthermore, the new Act didn't make mousetrapping illegal, and it continues to be used to keep visitors on a site against their will.
Even if a legitimate company uses the tactic, you've got to be concerned that they find it necessary to force people to stay on their sites. What kind of unethical behavior does that imply?
The online marketing glossary, MarketingTerms.com, describes mousetrapping as one of the most extreme marketing tactics on the Internet, with the goal of attracting maximum value from one-time visits.
"Aggressive forms of mousetrapping are often found on the 'red-light district' (adult sites) of the Web, where precious little consideration is given to the user experience," it explains. "Since these sites cannot count on repeat visits from satisfied visitors, they often resort to deception to acquire new visitors."
How to Escape
So, is there anything you can do to escape the mousetrap?
Yes. In rising order of desperation, here's what you can do on a Windows PC:
- Try the back key in case it hasn't been disabled.
- Try to close the page by clicking the 'x' in the tab at the top.
- Try to close your browser.
- Use the ctrl/alt/delete key combination to call up the task manager and close the program from there.
- Shut down your computer in the normal way.
- If that doesn't work, shut the machine down by holding the computer's power button down until it turns off.
- If the browser reopens in mousetrap mode after you reboot, you may have to reinstate an earlier backup (which you do have, don't you?), or resort to resetting/reinstalling Windows.
Of course, you should also take care when keying in the name of a site you want to visit or check names carefully that show up in a Google search.
You may also be able to install a browser extension that automatically stops mousetrapping code from running. These mini-apps actually stop scripts on every page except those that you manually allow it to (a process called "whitelisting").
One such extension is NoScript Security Suite, which can be installed from the extensions library for Firefox or Google Chrome browsers.
In addition, after you've escaped a mousetrap, shut down all other programs on your PC and run your virus scanner - and be grateful that, unlike a mouse, you escaped with your life. That was a narrow squeak!
Alert of the Week
Old scams renewed are one of the most common con-tricks because they've usually stood the test of time.
"Renewed" is the appropriate word for the recent reappearance of a scam in which hucksters offer to renew or resurface your driveway to "make it look like new again."
The scam clue is a request to pay, often a very large sum, upfront. Just don't. Politely refuse and shut the door.
That's all for today -- we'll see you next week.