As reported in the BBC recently, the National Cyber Security Centre (“NCSC”) has released its Active Cyber Defence Report for 2020. In that report it has stated that ‘celebrity endorsement scams’ are a relatively new type of scam in relation to which it has started performing takedowns.
It recognises that respected celebrities such as Sir Richard Branson are used in website content (often fake news articles) to lend credibility to cryptocurrency investment schemes. It characterises the scams as a global issue and notes that the websites may display different content to users from different geographical regions, including a relevant foreign celebrity.
Between April and the end of December 2020 the NCSC took down 286,322 campaigns (representing 731,080 URLs), but it is a ‘numbers game’ in which constant vigilance and action is required.
As Sir Richard Branson said:
“We have dealt with hundreds of instances of fake sites and fraudsters impersonating me or my team online. We are working in partnership with organisations such as NCSC to report these sites and do all we can to get them taken down as quickly as possible.”
Due to the large numbers involved and the ease with which scammers can proliferate content, it is necessary to take a multi-pronged approach to dealing with these sorts of situations. The NCSC is one important strand; it receives reports from the public to its Suspicious Email Reporting Service (via firstname.lastname@example.org), but there are websites which can be missed or which rely on web traffic (rather than emails) to reach their intended audience.
An important additional method is for the relevant celebrity / endorser to take direct action to remove the scam website. There are various options for this direct action including contacting the scammer themselves (or the registrant of the scam website), and contacting third parties that have some involvement in the content appearing on the internet. Any relevant intellectual property rights can be asserted and increasingly effective is highlighting various other consequences of these IP infringements by drawing attention to other ways that third parties can assist in removing scam content. One of the most important rights in this respect is a registered trade mark and most high profile brands and celebrities will have secured a number of these which can be used.
We at AA Thornton have been highly successful with this approach for Virgin and Sir Richard Branson and have found that the responsible hosts will be willing to act to remove the troublesome sites once a clear basis for that removal has been set out for them. We have experience in dealing with a large number of different hosts and have encouraged compliance by looking to them to enforce their terms and conditions which usually prohibit intellectual property infringements or unlawful conduct.
There may be additional lines of attack which may be used depending upon the nature of the scam and the website content. For example, the City of London Police’s Intellectual Property Crime Unit (“PIPCU”) may look to seize domain names which are directing to unlawful content (https://cityoflondon-self.achieveservice.com/service/pipcu_referral) or a complaint may be made to the relevant registry body to obtain transfer of a domain name. Similarly, intermediaries who are notified of intellectual property infringements (such as breach of copyright) which occur using their services may be persuaded to take action. As a last resort it may be possible to obtain a court order to force the internet service providers to block a particular website from being accessed in the UK, which can be useful if the infringer is acting from abroad.
While the NCSC has recently become active in the area of celebrity endorsement scams these sorts of scams have been around for a while. Sir Richard Branson himself released a statement in May 2018 to warn people about this trend and to inform people that Virgin has a tool to allow suspicious endorsements to be reported (https://www.virgin.com/branson-family/richard-branson-blog/beware-fake-bitcoin-scam-stories).
He noted that one of the main recourses to a remedy has historically been to use lawyers to take action directly:
“Our legal teams work hard to take down these fake stories or companies misrepresenting us. In the last year we’ve dealt with hundreds of instances.”
The NCSC’s recent involvement is welcome in strengthening the options available for clients and providing additional resources to tackle such widespread and pernicious scams. As the NCSC also says in its report: “the template could be used to promote any type of fake investment opportunity and we expect this theme to change over time”. It is therefore necessary for high profile people and brands to remain vigilant and to use all the tools in their arsenals to limit the effectiveness of these sorts of scams.
If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this article please contact Geoff Hussey or Dan Byrne, experts in our IP Litigation and Legal Team.