Taking Down a Black Hat SEO Extortion Scammer

The next post on the blog will cover a variety of negative SEO and black hat SEO issues you should be aware of as a freelance writer.

But as a preview, I’ll share a story about how a colleague and I recently had two fake law firm sites taken down, and how they were used to target a freelancer and her client.

The Background

Fellow freelance writer, Philippa Willitts, reached out to me about an email she received.

In that email, someone claimed she wrongfully used and misattributed an image in an article on a client’s site. The image was sourced from popular free image site, Pixabay, and she’d actually gone above and beyond their attribution rules.

The email claimed to have come from a law firm. They demanded she change the image attribution to include a specific link.

Philippa felt something was off, but she wanted another opinion.

The Scam

I confirmed to her that this was a known SEO scam.

If you’re not all that familiar with SEO, what matters in this case are links. The more links from high-quality, reputable sites (like Philippa’s client), the higher another site can rank in search results.

That’s the over-simplified version.

Shady SEO folks sometimes pretend to be lawyers in the hope of scaring people into linking to their “clients” or other sites they own. That’s what happened here.

Not only was this a known type of scam, but the law firm website linked in the email was full of red flags.

So we did a bit of detective work.

One of the biggest red flags was the photo collection of attorneys supposedly working at the firm. Something just didn’t feel right.

Sure, they all had the same background. But that could be explained by a professional photo shoot on-site.

No… It was the angle of the headshots. Three, in fact.

For a page full of lawyers, their heads were in only three positions. Not similar angles. Exactly the same angles. And one in particular didn’t feel natural.

It didn’t take long to figure out what was going on. These were fake, AI-generated photos of people who don’t actually exist.

They were created by this site if you’re curious. You’ll note there are, indeed, only three head poses for those photos.

At that point, we were confident it was a scam.

But this law firm was supposedly based in Texas. So we ran the attorneys’ names through the state Bar Association’s website. And, as suspected, this confirmed they were not real lawyers licensed to practice in the state.

The next step involved running a reverse IP search to find all sites hosted with the fake law firm one on a particular server.

Now, if they’re using a shared server, you could find 1000 or more sites, and it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re owned by the same company.

In this case, there were plenty, but far fewer than that.

And there was a trend to them — high-spam niches, a clear tie to a particular person claiming to do SEO, and yet another fake law firm website following all the same patterns.

What We Did About It

Now, personally, I don’t have much patience for people who engage in black hat tactics. But when they directly impact my business (in most cases this involves stealing my content), I don’t play.

I have a long history of not only having stolen content pulled offline (through DMCA requests), but entire websites of the offenders taken down. And I’ve been successful at this even with non-US-based hosting companies (which scammers often avoid to prevent DMCA takedowns).

So this was routine for me.

But I’ll let you in on a little secret…

If someone steals from you, or tries to scam you like they did with Philippa’s client, or they threaten you from a likely fake law firm’s address to extort links or anything else…

Don’t file a DMCA takedown request. File a TOS violation abuse report with the host. I like to use this site to identify hosts.

Even hosting companies that don’t have to honor DMCA requests have terms of service for their customers.

There are almost always terms barring them from hosting copyright-protected content without permission as well as using their services for scams or illegal activities.

After all, they don’t want to end up in legal hot water over their customers’ behavior.

So Philippa and I reached out to the host. They were provided with the original email and headers. They were pointed to the AI image site and notified about the Bar Association results showing these were fake.

And, in short order, POOF! Both fake law firm sites were yanked offline. Completely.

When scam accounts like this get suspended, not only does it pull the site offline, but they’re often hosting their own email there as well. So it can put a stop to any future extortion emails from the fake law firm’s domain.

Why Black Hat SEO Scams Should Matter to Freelance Writers

We’ll talk about this more in the next post on the blog, but understand black hat and negative SEO efforts can directly impact you as a freelance writer.

In Philippa’s case, the scammer targeted her client through her and her content.

Had she given in and included that link (to a super-sketchy supplement site), it could have hurt her client’s own search visibility if Google determined they were linking out to poor quality sites.

Plus, in a case like this, do you or your clients really need the stress of thinking an attorney is coming after you, accusing you of copyright violations you didn’t commit?

Probably not.

But what if they’d gone to the client instead of the author?

Depending on your relationship and work history with that client, you might be accused by them of using copyright-infringing images. That certainly wouldn’t be good for the relationship.

We’ll soon look at other negative SEO and black hat SEO scams that could impact you or your clients, and how some shady clients even try to recruit freelance writers to do this dirty work for them.

In the meantime, be aware of this particular scam and what you can do about it to protect your own site and those you contribute to in case you or a client becomes a target.

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Jenn Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous publications, a few including Freelance Writing Pro's sister site All Freelance Writing, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has over 20 years' experience as a professional writer and editor, 20 years' experience in marketing and PR, 18 years' professional blogging and digital publishing / web development experience, and around 16 years' experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.