Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Submitted for the Approval of the Midnight Society, I Call This Story . . .

The Tale of the Copyright Infringement Scam

I was originally going to post about this far sooner than now.  Like back when it originally happened because not only is it so incredibly insane but because the timing was epic.  Everyone was still in a tizzy about certain people and their plagiaristic ways so it fit.  But at the end of the day I needed to give it time.  If, on the off chance this wasn't a scam I needed it to come forth.  And there was a chance.  I also had a chance of winning the lottery.  While being hit by lightning.  While swimming.  And getting eaten by a shark.  But there was still a chance.  Well, it's been over a month and I haven't heard boo.  No emails, no phone calls, no letters.  Nothing.  I've officially filed this into the scam category.  That being the case now it's time to tell you a tale.

Back just before Memorial Day weekend I received a letter in the mail from an attorney's office.

This was all that this letter consisted of, claiming I had infringed on the copyright of this particular image on this post (since amended).  I was so incredibly dumbfounded that I did the first thing that came to mind: I called the number provided.  It was after five so I didn't really think twice about getting an automated message although I thought the general voicemail box thing was weird.  Not unheard of but still kind of weird.

Now even on my first reading of this my eyebrow was quirked up to my hairline.  That post is nearly two years old.  If I had indeed infringed on someone's copyright why, in all that time, had I never received a take down notice from the owner?  Why isn't the owner named in the letter?  Why is that letter automatically assuming my guilt without evidence?  Now I'm not the most tech savvy person in the world but I sure as shit know that showing me a random image I used on one of my blog posts does not actually prove infringement.  It just proves I used the image.  It was this guy's job to prove to me that the image was actually infringed upon.  Show me the copyright!

I'm still guilty of this.  I cull images from Google image searches for my posts without credit.  Horrible, I know but I just downright forget.  Not to mention when I use movie images, like with my Loki usage, for instance, I think it's fairly obvious I'm not claiming that as my own and we all know who it actually belongs to.  Duh.  But since getting on tumblr I've definitely been using their content source box and Pinterest links back automatically to where the images came from.  I have attributed credit to a piece of art I used for the same post I found in DeviantArt.  I'm aware of that.  But on known images I do forget.  It's not malicious or anything.  I just don't remember to do it.  Plus obviously I did not film Tom Hiddleston as Loki in THOR.  Duh again.

Not too long before this letter arrived I learned how to image search through Google by uploading it.  How handy!  Since this lawyer dude didn't give me an owner name I figured I'd do the research myself, find out who the person was and contact them on my own.  What happened when I uploaded the image?  This.  It's a stock image used across so many sites I'd never find the original owner.  Awesome.  Now that I've officially verified that this is a stock image (although it was pretty obvious from the beginning) and officially confirmed that the wording in that letter is incredibly stock and pulled from some kind of lottery-winning notification filtered to my spam folder I started to laugh.  How could I not?  This is pretty intense if it was a scam.

Seeing as how time sensitive the letter made everything out to be I figured I'd hear back from the lawyer the next business day.  No.  So I sent an email -

To Whom It May Concern; 
I am in receipt of your letter dated May 18th (received May 23rd) regarding an alleged matter of copyright infringement.  Your letter insists upon monetary compensation for the intended owner of the image allegedly infringed upon.  However prior to that discussion I'm going to require the following information -
  • Proof that copyright infringement has taken place.
  • Name and contact information for the owner of the allegedly infringed image (alluded to but not named in your letter).
  • A link (or further documented proof) to the original image with applicable copyright information attributed.
  • Explanation as to why, in the nearly two years this image has been on my site, no attempt has been made by the owner, a representative of the owner, nor anyone else to contact me regarding the removal, credit attribution or payment of applicable license fees regarding said image.  This would have been the expected, and far more logical, first step for the owner to make if he/she felt that their copyright had been infringed upon.
  • Explanation as to why, in the nearly two years this image has been on my site, I'm just now hearing from an alleged third party lawyer representing, through a chain, a phantom owner, effectively stating that I will be paying compensation, the amount of which is to be discussed, written in a seemingly threatening letter using general, "stock" copyright language and littered with intimidating multi-digit figures with no more proof than one's ability to photocopy and screen capture my own website.  The reality is I received an unnotorized, uncertified letter from someone making allegations against me with no proof and the full expectation that I pay based on nothing more than an anonymous word.
  • Explanation as to why a photocopy of an image of my post containing the alleged infringed image represents proof of my alleged infringement to such an extent that one would assume, as does your letter, that I am guilty and will, without a doubt, be paying.  Your letter makes numerous statements to such a degree: "Contact us within 10 days at [number] or [email] so that we can offer you an appropriate settlement." and "It is essential that you or your attorney contact our office within ten (10) days in order to take advantage of the available settlement offer."  These are bold statements that assume my guilt when it has yet to even be proven, based on the information I've received.
  • A copy of the Copyright Revision Act (as noted) as so stated as being included with the letter.  It was not.
  • A copy of the FAQ sheet as so stated as being included with the letter.  It was not.
  • Explanation as to why, based on this inherent lack of professionalism, I would be so inclined to arbitrarily write you a check for a sum of your choosing based on nothing more than your insistence of my guilt and an image from my website.
  • Explanation as to why, on such a seemingly time sensitive matter, as so stated in your letter, my call of 5/23 has yet, to date, to be returned.
Once these issues are addressed and if it is deemed that there is any basis to your claims then we will discuss how to proceed at that time.  At this time I have made one phone call and now sent one email to your office.  I feel I have now performed an appropriate level of due diligence considering the circumstances surrounding this letter.  As it stands this letter appears to be no more than an intimidating tactic to extort money from me in a rather creative scam.  If your lack of response continues I will consider it just that and will disregard any allegations and threats you have made. 
If this is indeed a genuine concern that needs to be addressed then I believe I will be hearing from you soon.  In case you misplaced the number I left in my voicemail yesterday, I can be reached on my cell phone at [redacted].

I don't think I'm making egregious demands.  Because let's face it: if you think I'm just going to hand over money because you say so and use nominally threatening semi-legal jargon you're seriously trying to scam the wrong person.  I work with legal contracts all day.  I'm well aware of the language and fancy words don't scare me, especially when they don't make sense in context.

What made my scam-o-meter go a little more wild was when the guy responded, after hours.  Um, no.  I've dealt with lawyers before.  Unless they're crazy criminal attorneys or something they're not answering anything after five.  So imagine my surprise when I get a response at 8 o'clock that same night -
Dear Ms. [redacted, surname misspelled]: 
I will be happy to supply you with the link to the infringing content:
Attached please find the copies that were inadvertently omitted. 
I am happy to schedule a time to discuss; please let me know when you are available.

Wow.  You've answered so many of my questions.  Kudos to you for sending me yet more stock information that would have originally been included with the letter.  It just further proved to me that you're a piece of crap.

Imagine my laughter at that.  In the interim I was searching the New York State Bar Association website trying to verify that this guy was actually a lawyer.  His website was less than impressive, giving no more legal experience than "experienced lawyer" on a Wordpress template even I could have manipulated better.  It's as scant as you can get and after searching some local lawyer websites it was clear that it was a sham.  Lawyers need to prove who they are on their websites.  They need to be registered with the state.  Not so much here.  And the Copyright Defense League?  Look.  SO HELPFUL.  And people actually fall for something like this.  There are so many things wrong here even Helen Keller could see them.

So I responded -
As a lawyer you should be well aware that a link to my website does not constitute proof that an image is copyrighted nor does it confirm infringement of said image.  A link to my own website is not the information I required from you.  Address my requirements below or we have nothing further to discuss. 
Additionally, forward your bar registration number and year admitted so I can perform a more detailed search on the NYSBA website.  A cursory search using your name and location issued no results and your website is lacking such information.

Listen dude, if you expect me to pay a penny you need to prove you are who you say you are. Since my own searches through the obvious channels are showing nothing I have no choice but to think you're nothing but a scammer.  I did confirm through Soldier Boy's lawyer friend that asking for a bar number is a bit much but a lawyer's credentials should be displayed on the website.  Year of bar entry?  Not overstepping bounds.  Plus, like I said above, lawyer websites need to be registered with the state.  Also public.  If I can't find this, what would you like me to think?

I actually expected it to end there.  I'd like to think that I've proven myself as someone that this scammer  won't be able to manipulate but oh I was wrong!
Ms. [redacted]: 
I have to say that the bullying and demanding tone of your past two emails does not appeal to me (to say the least). We have all the proof we need (including metadata) and will not cave in to strongarm tactics. Litigation has not been commenced and thus you have no right to demand anything from us. You asked me for information, and I provided it as a good faith gesture to facilitate settlement. 
If you want to set up a time to negotiate in good faith, and in a tone that is respectful and professional, I would be happy to speak with you and try my best to alleviate your concerns. If not, I will pass the file on to our litigation department and you can contend with them. 

Ahahahahahahahahahahaha!  Oh yes, the bolding was his.  And surely you jest when you say you have metadata!  NOT METADATA!  Oh noes!  Whatever will I do?  Yes, buddy, you provided SO MUCH information I don't know what to do with it.  I'm amused by the threats that are still being made along with the "pay me and this will all go away" attitude that he insists on exuding throughout the exchange.  Um, no.  And your litigation department?  Does it look something like this?

Do you clean your own toilets too?  Did I respond?  What do you think?

Mr. [redacted], 
I have every right to demand you produce the proof you claim to have against me.  I have every right to demand answers to the questions I've asked.  If you actually expect me to hand over a sum of money based on nothing more than your word while being unable to even verify you are who you say you are, you have grossly underestimated me.  By all means forward this to your litigation department.  Maybe there I'll get the answers I'm looking for.  Perhaps these tactics would have worked on someone of lesser intelligence but that is not me.  I find your notion of professionalism ironic considering  you are expecting me to pay without question simply because you have accused me of something without proof to back it up.  Again, I'm not going to sit here and just take your word for it.  And considering you're unwilling to provide your bar information, which other lawyers of respectable standing would provide on their websites, it only further solidifies my notion that this is merely an extortion tactic to prey on the more gullible who would be more willing to pay immediately to make it all go away. 
That will not be me.  So until you are willing to answer my questions and provide the information I'm looking for, I have nothing else to say to you.

FUCK OFF.  This was my final say on the matter.  If I kept getting pestered by this douchenozzle then I had a very real lawyer waiting in the wings ready to send a very real cease and desist letter to this rather unbelievable "lawyer," whose standing I couldn't prove and who actually refused to provide me information of my supposed guilt and just expected me to write a check.  AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!  I was named empress of the world that day too.  How lucky am I?  Not to mention he had an aversion to the telephone.  You want to discuss something?  Stop responding through email and call me.  I already tried that on my end.  It didn't work.

And that was the end of it.  I haven't heard from anyone since.  Not a peep.  I half expected something to crop up but nope.  If you Google things like 'copyright infringement scam' you'll see they're everywhere for everything.  Like the sick person email scams, phishing, YOU'VE WON THE LOTTERY or whatever else, this is just the next wave.  More forceful, slightly scarier yet just as dumb if you think about it for more than half a second.

So be aware.  Not only of crediting your images (I need to take my own advice there) but of things like this.  On a cursory glance it does look legitimate.  The envelope had the lawyer name and address printed right on it, the letter is on lawyer letter head, the language seems official and yes, it does point to my site.  Except I can do the exact same thing with stationary via VistaPrint, the wording is stock and can be found in numerous other places on the internet, the websites for the lawyer and the entity he supposedly works for are jokes at best and me using the image is not, in and of itself, proof of infringement.  So if this does happen to you, don't panic.  Just THINK.  If it doesn't make sense then it probably doesn't actually make sense.

And keep your IP information as private as possible.  I pay to keep my info hidden but it lapsed and I didn't realize it.  I went for a few weeks with my information exposed.  I think that's where this dick got my address from.  Slightly horrifying.  But lesson learned.

And amusement had by all.
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