Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - Dr. John Lott, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the most widely cited research on civilian use of firearms against criminals, has been targeted by an online identity theft scheme, he disclosed Friday.
Lott operates his own website through which he makes available the raw data for the research cited in his most famous book "More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws."
Running a search for Lott's name on the Google search engine Friday morning, CNSNews.com found hundreds of links to pages talking about Lott and dozens of links to pages containing material written by Lott. The search even, if pursued long enough, yielded a link to Lott's official web page.
But the Google search also displayed "a sponsored link" for the web page "AskJohnLott.org."
"Ask John Lott: You can ask him any question you have about gun control or his books www.askjohnlott.org," the paid advertisement claimed, followed by a graphic indicator showing high interest in the website.
The only problem with both the advertisement and the website is that neither was authorized by Lott.
"I think 90-some percent of people who look at it will probably think it's done by me," the real Lott told CNSNews.com Friday. "When you look at the front page, it's not exactly my writing style, but it ... has my picture, it has a letter on the introductory page that [purports to be] signed by me."
The former senior researcher at the Yale University School of Law believes the creator of the website is committing a civil violation, if not a crime, by appropriating Lott's identity.
"They're using my name, they're taking it and using it in a way that I don't agree with," Lott said. "I think stealing is what it is."
The home page of the fraudulent site greets visitors with the salutation, "Dear fellow gun owner."
"I find that gun owners are usually pretty good at keeping themselves informed about the politics and issues surrounding gun control and gun rights. However, many of us just don't have the time - or the ability - to keep abreast of every new twist and turn in the fast-changing - and confusing - world of politics," the unknown creator of the fraudulent website writes. "That's why I decided to have this site made."
The page provides a link to "Click here to ask me a question" and is signed "John Lott." The biographical information on the "John Lott's Background" page is mostly accurate, with the exception of an apparently sarcastic reference to the pseudonym "Mary Rosh," which Lott began using in Internet chat rooms discussing his work after receiving harassing and even threatening telephone calls from participants in the chats.
Lott surprised at 'effort and expense' to discredit him
Lott believes the motivation for some person or organization to create the fake website is apparent.
"The person or the group, whoever it is that's doing this, wants to use my name to advance causes with which I disagree, by directly saying that I support things I don't support" Lott said. "The person is also using it to try to discredit me in some way, by putting out into the public debate statements that will be attributed to me that were not made by me."
Lott believes whoever is responsible for the site must be extremely angered by his research, considering the cost of designing and maintaining a website, subscribing to a commercial email response service and purchasing advertising from the most popular Internet search engine in the world.
"It's not only the effort, but they've gone to some expense with regard to this, too," Lott observed. "Some of these ads and stuff that they've put up ... these are not cheap things to do."
Fake site's creator responds to questions, claims to be Lott
Questions sent using the link provided received an automated response:
"That was a great question. Thanks for taking the time to ask me," the creator of the fake website wrote. "This email you're receiving right now is automatic, just to let you know that I know you exist. I will reply to your email shortly."
The reply went on to falsely imply that Lott had reconsidered his support of the right of law-abiding individuals to sell personally owned firearms to other law-abiding citizens without government permission, repeating claims of "anti-gun lobbyists" and attributing to Lott the conclusion, "it suddenly appears that maybe we need to check our assumptions." The email is signed, "Good luck. John Lott."
In other email messages reviewed by CNSNews.com , the unknown author claiming to be Lott inaccurately stated Lott's position on the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act currently under consideration by the Senate. Lott supports the legislation, which would block lawsuits against gun makers, distributors and dealers when criminals misuse a lawfully sold firearm.
"This is not John Lott's website," one angry reader familiar with Lott's true positions wrote to the site's author. "Why are you pretending to be a website actually run by Dr. Lott?"
The reader was even angrier when he received what he called an "outrageous" response.
"Why are you pretending not to believe this site? I believe, if you look at my track record, you'll see that everything i've [sic] done in my entire career has been upfront and straightforward," the Lott imposter wrote. "Why have you decided now to question me?"
Again, the email written by the creator of the fraudulent site claimed to be sent from, "John Lott."
"I've tried talking to the Internet Service Provider to try to get information on who's running the website and they have been unhelpful," Lott said. "They basically said that I would have to get a criminal subpoena to find out who is doing it."
Bogus website operator may be guilty of federal crime
A "whois" database search for the domain name "AskJohnLott.org," revealed that it is fraudulently registered to "Mary Rosh" at the nonexistent "Center for Truth." The alleged organization's mailing address is listed as "380 Main Street, Washington DC, New York 10012."
When CNSNews.com called the telephone number listed for the domain registration, an unidentified female answered the phone. When asked about the website, she placed her hand over the mouthpiece of the telephone and said, "It's somebody asking about the John Lott website. What do you want me to tell them?"
A male voice responded, "Just tell them you asked around and no one really knows anything about it." The female repeated the response as she had been instructed and terminated the call.
Because the Internet, by its very nature, is an interstate entity, federal laws govern its civil or criminal misuse. A former Justice Department attorney, who spoke to CNSNews.com on condition of anonymity, said the operator of the website may intend it as a "little prank, but he could be in for a big surprise."
"Fraud by wire, radio, or television" (18 U.S.C. 1343) is a federal crime:
"Whoever, having devised or intending to devise any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises, transmits or causes to be transmitted by means of wire, radio, or television communication in interstate or foreign commerce, any writings, signs, signals, pictures, or sounds for the purpose of executing such scheme or artifice, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned ... or both."
Depending on the circumstances involved, the crime is punishable by fines of up to $1,000,000 and imprisoned for up to 30 years.
The former prosecutor said the intentional misappropriation of Lott's photograph and name, combined with the emailed responses attempting to convince readers that the site is really run by Lott most likely also constitute identity theft and could be subject to both criminal and civil prosecution for those acts, as well.
"This person or persons could end up bankrupt, in jail for years, and barred by the court from ever even touching a computer again as long as they live," he speculated.
Lott would not say if he has contacted law enforcement authorities directly about criminal prosecution of the website's operator or operators, but he is taking action.
"Things are moving a little bit more slowly than I guess I'd like," he admitted. "I'm going to talk to some lawyers, to see what other options I have, next week."
Google apparently removed advertisement, but would not comment
Michael Mayzel, public relations representative for Google's advertising department, said the company will not discuss specifics regarding any advertiser's account for privacy reasons. But Google does, he explained, have a standing policy to protect individuals, such as Lott, whose names are being misused.
"When we receive a complaint from a trademark owner, our review is limited to ensuring that the advertisements at issue are not using the trademarked term as a keyword trigger," the policy states. "If they are, we disable those keywords from the ad campaign."
Google considers an individual's unique name to be that person's trademark in the same manner that the unique name of a business would be considered the property of that business.
Mayzel would neither confirm nor deny that Google had taken any action regarding the advertisement, but more than a dozen searches conducted Friday afternoon for variations of "John Lott" and "Ask John Lott" did not result in the ad being displayed.
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