Armenia is earning an unwanted -- and undeserved -- reputation as a safe haven for perpetrators of a type of Internet crime called "cyber-squatting." The name describes a practice by which people purchase website domain names similar to those of legitimate companies in order to blackmail them.
Yerevan, 13 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Armenia is figuring increasingly in press reports of people using pornographic material to extort money from owners of mainstream websites around the world.
The most recent case of so-called "cyber-squatting" was registered in New Zealand earlier in November. Owners of a hardcore pornography site with a contact address in Yerevan reportedly demanded $6,000 in return for abandoning the site's domain name, which was virtually identical to the address of a site belonging to New Zealand's Ministry of Education.
Visitors who mistakenly left off the dot and two-letter country suffix -- in this case, dot nz -- found themselves looking not at education resources and classroom itineraries but at a Dutch pornographic site.
The same has happened with at least a dozen other domain addresses that are either similar to popular sites or simply named after prominent people. Targets of the cyber-squatters are amazingly diverse, ranging from a Hollywood actress, to a top Indian politician, to a rugby club in London.
The "cyber-squatting" sites are registered with different Internet companies but have the same content and owner -- an apparently fictitious organization called Domain For Sale. Domain For Sale's contact address in Yerevan is also false. The company has been traced to Glendale, California. That Los Angeles suburb is home to the largest Armenian community in the United States, so there is some reason to believe that Armenian nationals could be involved in the Internet scam.
Tom Samuelian is a Yerevan-based American business lawyer. He believes law-enforcement authorities in both the U.S. and Armenia can bring a commercial libel or unfair competition case against the perpetrators. He was alerted to the Internet scam earlier this year by one of his clients, another victim of the cyber-squatting-and-blackmail scheme.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Samuelian said: "We don't know whether they are actually in Armenia. But wherever they are, they are using a name that is similar enough to the legal name of a company or organization, and are therefore doing harm to its reputation."
But some Internet providers in Armenia disagree with this assertion. Vahram Mkhitarian of the Armenian Computer Center had this to say: "The sale of domain names that are popular or easy to remember is a widely accepted business in the world. There are even countries that will sell their national domain suffixes to anybody willing to pay for them."
Mark Perry teaches a course on law and the Internet at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. He argued in an Armenian newspaper recently that while the blackmailers may be acting unethically, it will be difficult to win a lawsuit against them. He said appeals to ICANN -- the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers -- are therefore unlikely to be successful.
Samuelian said persistent news reports implicating Armenia in the dubious practice could prove damaging to Yerevan's image and particularly to its growing information technology sector. He called for an official investigation into the reported cases but admitted that tracking down Internet abusers is not an easy task: "It's a kind of hooliganism -- like throwing a rock through a window. If you don't get caught [on the spot], it's hard to catch you."
If law-enforcement authorities eventually launch an inquiry, they may find clues by talking with an Armenian student reportedly studying in California on an exchange program. Eighteen-year-old Emil Lazarian faced a lawsuit last summer for creating a porn site bearing the name of Joe Montana, a retired American football star.
The U.S. media reported that the web address -- www.joemontanafanclub.com -- linked visitors to pornographic sites. It has since been shut down, and it is not clear if it is linked to the other allegedly Armenian domain names promoting pornography.
The Yerevan office of the American Council for International Education, a government agency that selects young Armenians to study at U.S. universities and high schools, denies ever dealing with Lazarian.
So far, there have been no reported cases of a celebrity or an organization paying the cyber-squatters a "ransom" to protect their good name. The New Zealand government, for example, decided against buying the web address on the advice of police and instead moved to block local school access to the false site.