One of the oldest traffic-grabbing tricks in the internet book is to pick a popular website and register your own variants of the address, hoping that web users typing in the address will get it wrong. An easy way to do this is by swapping in a new top-level domain (TLD), which is the suffix of a URL—like .com, .net, or .gov.
While you need to be part of an official government organization or program to use .gov, anyone can register a .com. This leaves government sites vulnerable to impersonation by people who want to flip the domain for big bucks or just rake in money by displaying ads and links on it.
A prime example of a not-quite-government site is Whitehouse.com, the rogue version of the official Whitehouse.gov. The imposter site was originally purchased in 1997, back when people all across the internet were just figuring out how to troll. The owner of the site set it up as a “parody and commentary site of the White House and U.S. politics,” according to a CNET article from ‘97. Unfortunately this didn’t earn the kind of money the site’s owner was hoping for, even with the similar URL, so he added an element of porn, linking to adult sites and featuring images of politicians Photoshopped onto naked bodies. This resulted in traffic rising from 10,000 visitors a day to 30,000, according to CNET.
In 2004, the site was finally sold off after the owner ironically became worried that his children would get teased about the content on it. Since its sale, Whitehouse.com has hosted everything from real estate searches to free speech forums to a search engine to find personal injury lawyers, all of which were undoubtedly hoping to get some of that sweet accidental traffic.
With the advent of search-engine-based web browsing, manual URL input is not what it used to be, and thus the chance of mistaking a .com for a .gov isn’t as common as it once was. But that doesn’t mean that people aren’t still trying to take advantage those mistakes. Here are what is sitting at the .coms of many high-profile government .govs.
Many government knock-off sites are parked, like Whitehouse.com, to display shady-looking search engines or links. Some of them actually link out to the related government website, but most are just hoping someone without much internet savvy will give them some clicks.
Some of these .coms are looking to sell their popular domain names. CIA.com is supposedly for sale, although when we tried to contact the email address provided, our message was immediately bounced back.
Some of these .coms are legitimate businesses that just happen to have chosen basic names that happen to overlap with those used by .govs.
Some of these .coms are are neither mistakes nor for sale. For instance, FBI.com states that it is “Coming Soon.” The site’s operators, Digimedia.com, did not respond to our request for comment. The mystery continues.
These sites seem to have been built in the hope that someone will accidentally stumble on them and end up staying..
Lastly, at least one agency is not putting up with all this internet tomfoolery.