McAfee released a research report that spotlights a dangerous cyber practice known as typo-squatting. "What's In A Name: The State of Typo-Squatting 2007," exposes how typo-squatters register domains using common misspellings of popular brands, products and people in order to redirect consumers to alternative Web sites.
These squatter-run sites generate click-through advertising revenues, lure unsuspecting consumers into scams and harvest email addresses to flood users with unwanted email.
To quantify the scope of the study, McAfee reviewed 1.9 million variations of 2,771 of the most popular domain names.
"Typo-squatting illustrates the Wild West mentality that remains dominant in major portions of the Internet," said Jeff Green, senior vice president of McAfee Avert Labs and Product Development.
"Even at its most benign, this practice takes consumers to places they never intended and penalizes legitimate businesses by siphoning customers away or making them pay a charge to re-acquire customers. At its worst, typo-squatting leads to online scams, 'get-rich-quick' offers and other risks."
The study cites the iPhone mania as a recent example of typo-squatting, noting that even though Apple's new phone appeared on the market just a few months ago, there will likely be at least 8,000 URLs using the word "iPhone" by the end of this year.
Some will be fan sites or rumour sites, while others will be run by hackers and scammers. What most have in common is that they have no affiliation with Apple.
"What's In A Name: The State of Typo-Squatting 2007" quantifies both the significant scope of the overall problem and also the differences among major Web categories.
Among the key findings:
- A typical consumer who misspells a popular URL has a 1 in-14 chance of landing at a typo-squatter site
- Children's sites are heavily targeted: More than 60 of the most squatted sites are designed to appeal to the 18-and-under demographic, with squatters targeting domains like webkinz.com, clubpenquin.com and neopets.com
- Some typo-squatters take advantage of typing errors to expose children to pornography. In fact, 2.4 percent, or more than 46,000 of the typo-squatter sites tested, include some adult content, and some of those sites are squatters of children's properties.
- The five most highly squatted categories are:
- Game sites (14% likelihood of being squatted) such as miniclip.com, runescape.com and minijuegos.com
- Airline sites (11.4% likelihood) such as ryanair.com, united.com, and lufthansa.com
- Mainstream media sites (10.8%) such as vh1.com, globo.com and qvc.com
- Dating sites (10.2%) such as plentyoffish.com, true.com and singlesnet.com
- Technology and Web 2.0-related sites (9.6%)
- Automated ad syndication services enable many typo-squatter sites to make money; in fact one search engine's ads show up on 19.3% of all suspected typo-squatter sites in this study
- The five non-U.S. countries most likely to have popular sites squatted are: the United Kingdom (7.7%), Portugal (6.5%), Spain (5.9%), France (5.4%), and Italy (4.1%)
- The five non-U.S. countries least likely are: the Netherlands (1.5%), Israel (1.1%), Denmark (1.0%), Brazil (0.9%) and Finland (0.1%)
The study notes that typo-squatting is not a new phenomenon - cyber-squatting cases filed with the World Intellectual Property Organization's arbitration system increased 20% in 2005 and another 25% in 2006-but it is increasing.
The emergence of new, top-level domains, automatic registration tools, and the proliferation of parking portal sites that make it easy to generate pay-per-click revenue from squatted sites are all contributing to its growth.