The Federal Trade Commission didn’t know who was buying sponsored links for the search term "Making Home Affordable" and then redirecting traffic from the Web site of the Obama administration’s free mortgage relief program to their own commercial sites. But the FTC wanted them to stop.
So on Friday, the government obtained a temporary restraining order against "one or more persons who are unknown to the agency at this time because the defendants have cloaked their practices in the anonymity of the Internet," the FTC said in a press release.
According to the FTC’s complaint, the defendants purchased "sponsored links" for their advertising on the results pages of Internet search engines including Yahoo, MSN.com, altavista.com and alltheweb.com.
When consumers searched for "making home affordable" or similar search terms, the defendants’ ads displayed the Web site address "makinghomeaffordable.gov," the official Web site for the Making Home Affordable program.
But consumers who clicked on the advertised hyperlinks were instead diverted to commercial Web sites that solicited visitors for paid loan modification services, and required them to enter "personally identifying and confidential financial information."
The joint action by the FTC and Treasury Department investigators "demonstrates our joint resolve to stop in its tracks any individual or organization that attempts to fraudulently profit off of a national crisis," said Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), in a statement.
The restraining order issued by Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C., requires the four search-engine providers to identify those who paid them to place the ads, and to refuse ads that contain active hyperlinks that are labeled "MakingHomeAffordable.gov" or any other domain name containing ".gov."
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