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CLONED: Invasion of the Website Snatchers

oldfootballshirts.com has fallen victim to a new tactic by cyber criminals called website cloning.

The title of this post might sound like a witty reference to the 1950’s classic Sci-Fi movie but the reality is this is far from funny.

These are not little green men, they are evil malicious criminals who are copying our website, misleading our visitors and damaging our reputation in order to cheat and con people into visiting their website to sell what are often illegal and counterfeit products.

What is website cloning?

People find websites which have a great following of visitors and lots of content and create what appear to be complete copies of them but at a different web address. They do this to generate traffic to their own website for financial gain and we’ve recently discovered they started doing it with oldfootballshirts.com.

Unlike phishing scams the cloned websites are not designed to fool people into thinking they are the real websites. They are created to generate lots of visitors by confusing search engines – and that’s where the problems begin.

Should you be concerned?

If you happen to click on a link to a cloned version of oldfootballshirts.com one of two things is going to happen. You’re either going to end up at a very poorly laid out copy of the website which will be difficult to interact with or you’ll be immediately transported to a website selling counterfeit and most likely illegal products. If you come across a website selling replica football shirts at prices a fraction of what you’d expect to pay it is likely to be one of the many slick, professional, online shops selling knock-off fake shirts which are not official in the slightest. These sites, mainly operating from the far east, China etc. look like they are mainstream Western and European in origin. You should be very wary of sites like these especially when you consider the kind of tactics they are using like this to get you to their websites!

Phase one: Cloned Search engine results pages

The clone websites are often automatic ‘mirrors’ of the real sites so when the real site gets updated, the clone site also appears to get updated. Search engines like Google cannot always differentiate between the real site and the fake site.

We have spent a lot of time and effort to make sure that football fans can easily find their way to oldfootballshirts.com through our search engine optimisation. A Google search for Old Arsenal Football Shirts will most likely bring up oldfootballshirts.com near the top of the search results:

Fake copies of our website are effectively taking all our hard work and putting it to their advantage. Our reputation with Google as a great source of content is also penalised.

Once Google finds the cloned sites it begins crawling all the pages to add to the search engine’s databases. When Google discovers a website with duplicate content on another site it can reduces it’s ranking of either site. This is because Google doesn’t like people simply re-publishing other peoples content. If the other site is a complete clone of all the content it will find it difficult to know which is the original. So, our score with Google goes down yet the cloned website now has all it’s pages logged in the Google databases and when people search for old football shirts and ways to buy football shirts the cloned site may appear.

Here is an actual result from a Google search showing a link to the fake, cloned, website.

Now the criminals have managed to get entries into Google search results by stealing what we have spent over 10 years building. In this first phase of the crime when people click on the fake links they will see a copy of the real oldfootballshirts.com page with all of it’s content although the layout may well be messed up – that doesn’t matter to them, Google will also see the content.

Were we hacked?

No, we weren’t hacked but as you can see in the above actual example the cloned site appeared to be part of a website called themorganfoundation.co.uk which itself is an regular website that has been hacked with malicious code embedded in a file called meta.asp which was serving up stolen content on-the-fly from oldfootballshirts.com. We are in communication with The Morgan Foundation in order to eliminate the compromise to their website. That particular clone has moved onto phase two. The reason for hacking an existing website to ‘host’ the cloned site rather than setting up a new website is because the existing website is already known to search engines so getting all the cloned pages added to the search results databases is quicker and more effective.

Phase two: Promoting fake, counterfeit and illegal websites

So what’s the gain for the people setting up these fake websites? The answer, it appears, is phase two according to what I’ve discovered.

After Google has catalogued many of pages on the cloned website the owner makes a change so that all their fake links now get redirected to a commercial site selling stuff. In the case of the clones of oldfootballshirts.com these commercial websites are the kind that sell rip-off counterfeit fake shirts.

This is an incredibly dishonest and malicious way to quickly generate huge amounts of traffic to website for the financial gain of some unscrupulous businesses.

How does it affect us?

We earn a little beer money from oldfootballshirts.com. As well as paying our hosting fees it motivates us to keep the website going! The way we make money is through commissions from companies we carry advertising for or provide links to buy their products. We are very strict and only allow such affiliations from companies associated with football shirts. We try to never lose track of our ethos which is to provide football fans with a real user-generated photographic history of football shirts from teams all over the world. But if you do want to buy football shirts we provide links to the best deals we can find from our selection of affiliated sellers. Cloned websites affect the amount we earn because they can damage our ranking with search engines which means fewer people visit us and instead end up at fake websites or websites selling counterfeit products.

What are we doing about it?

It is difficult to prevent the content of our website being copied or replicated. There are some techy things we can do under the hood that help a little.

What we can do is be alerted the when Google discovers a new website with content identical to ours. This is done be creating Google Search Alerts for exact phrases which exist on our website and are unlikely to appear on other sites. When we get an alert, if it is a clone, we can block it from replicating our content.

Once a cloned site has reached phase 2, where all the links appearing in Google go to the commercial website, the only way to kill it off is to get the malicious file removed from the website that was used in the clone attack. Eventually search engines will revisit the links, realise they are broken, and remove them from their databases. We are now tracking down the various websites that have been used in these cloning attacks to contact the owners and try and get the malicious files removed.