Organized crime behind the surge in online course piracy: Internet Scambusters #1,008
Online courses have never been so cheap and easy to access, and with many of us spending more time at home, website classes and streaming tuition are enjoying a huge surge in popularity.
But you may be shocked to learn that much of what's on offer online are illegal copies, sales of which are threatening the livelihood of providers and could be putting buyers at risk.
In this week's issue, we reveal how course piracy has become so lucrative that crooks are franchising ready-built websites crammed with stolen course material -- and why buying this could land you in court.
Let's get started…
Buying Cheap Online Courses Could Land You in Court
Want to make more of your increased time at home by learning something new?
Looking for bargain-priced online courses? Beware the world of digital piracy!
Crooks and scammers are ripping off online tuition providers by stealing and reselling their courses. And people who buy them -- ordinary, normally-law-abiding consumers -- are breaking the law. If you're one of them, you could end up in court.
Illegal sales of cheap courses may only represent a small proportion of the global digital piracy market -- reckoned to be worth up to $100 billion a year -- but it's disproportionately hurting ordinary, self-employed folk who produce tuition materials including ebooks, audio courses, and videos.
In the past, and still today, courses and ebooks have been uploaded by individuals to torrent (file-sharing) sites where they can be downloaded, often for free, by anyone. It's illegal to do this because materials are usually protected by copyright laws, but many downloaders don't realize this.
Other crooks sell pirated digital downloads on auction sites.
But all of this is just the tip of a frightening iceberg.
Investigations by personal development guru and anti-piracy campaigner Andrew Austin warns that the business of online course piracy has now fallen into the hands of organized crime groups based in Europe and Asia.
His research suggests that course pirating is even being franchised. In this operation, one master site holds a database of nearly all stolen digital tuition programs. Those behind it are then selling all or part of their catalog to third parties as a complete package including a ready-made website. Austin estimates that franchisees may be paying around $10,000 for the full service.
When victims become aware of the schemes and demand sites are taken down or excluded from search engines, which they can do under American copyright laws, the franchisee simply shuts down and launches a new website offering the same materials.
Austin claims a dozen or more new sites peddling copied courses are being established every single week.
Pirates Are Brazen
For some providers, online courses and ebooks are their sole or main source of income, so it's reasonable to assume that consumers who buy these illegal copies may unwittingly be driving some of them out of business.
"If you're an online tuition provider, the pirates are probably selling more copies of your course than you are," Austin says. "They've become more brazen -- and professional.
"None of them look like fraudulent sites and, naturally, many people also don't know copyright laws."
Austin, a Brit, has been tracking some of the crooks for years and has pinned down the names of individuals he believes are involved in organized digital course piracy, based variously in Switzerland, the Czech Republic (Czechia), and Vietnam.
He's alerted the FBI, so far without a response. Likewise, the FBI did not respond to a request for comment from our Scambusters researcher.
Getting a grip on cheap course piracy is a challenge for law enforcement organizations, not least because some of the crooks operate outside American jurisdiction, while other countries don't even have copyright laws.
Online tuition providers do have one weapon at their disposal -- the ability to continuously search for infringements and demand their takedown from search engines like Google under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).
It's a tedious process but generally achieves the desired result, even if only for the short term, until a new site pops up.
As a result of piracy, Austin says he suffered zero sales of his courses for a period until he took action under the DCMA regulations.
The scale of the crime has now attracted anti-piracy software developers who have produced apps that do all the work. A program called Harvel is one example.
What You Can Do
But what about consumers? What can we do to help?
It's understandably tempting to download pirated cheap or free online courses rather than pay a fair price. But it's illegal! And it's potentially threatening the livelihood of experts who deserve to be rewarded for their expertise.
It can be difficult to identify whether a course you're considering buying has been pirated. Just because the price is below full cost doesn't mean it's a knock-off. Several leading course providers in the US are well-known for substantially discounting from their normal retail prices.
Even so, here are some of the actions you can take to try to ensure you're buying copyrighted courses from legal sources.
- Visit the provider's legitimate website. This may be a big course provider, an individual, or a small topic-focused group.
- If a course is being offered for free or what seems to be an unbelievably low price, then it's most likely either only worth what you're paying, performing a public service (such as first aid training), or pirated.
- Don't take a site's name as evidence it's legit. Many of the pirate sites use respectable-sounding and training-focused names. In other cases, legitimate but dormant sites have been hijacked without their owner knowing and used to sell courses illegally.
- If a site offers a vast number of courses but is not one of the big, established names like Udemy, The Great Courses, Coursera, etc, or its URL (web address) doesn't end in .edu, be skeptical.
- A high proportion of tuition ebooks, including textbooks, are sold by Amazon. If the book is available both on their site and at a lower cost elsewhere, there's a high chance the latter is pirated.
- Conduct a search on the course or topic you want to download. See who's offering it and at what price. Check what others are saying about them.
- Don't download courses from torrent sites and be wary of digital downloads being sold on auction sites.
None of these measures can ensure that you avoid pirated tuition sites. And, of course, the likelihood of getting caught and prosecuted for downloading illegal copyrighted material may be remote.
But the natural end-result of doing so will, in the long term, threaten the existence of worthwhile online courses. Some experts will just stop making them or the quality will fall.
This Week's Scam Alerts
Update Chrome: If you use Google Chrome as your web browser, update it now to the current version. The Internet giant has discovered a major vulnerability across all desktop operating systems that is already being exploited by hackers. Most users should have their browser set to automatically update -- but, just in case, go to "more/help/about Chrome" in settings and check you have the latest version there.
$7 Billion Scams: The FBI's Internet Crime Center (IC3) says Americans lost almost $7 billion from reported scams and other online crime in 2021. Newly published figures show that more than 800,000 Internet crime complaints were lodged with the agency, a rise of about 7 percent on the prior year.
That's it for today -- we hope you enjoy your week!