Nicole Palmer is a lawyer with a degree from Columbia University. Her profile states that she “specializes in the enforcement and protection of industrial designs” and that she “has been building her successful career for 30 years.”
The only problem is that it doesn’t exist. And she helped me uncover an online scam operation involved in shady activities, including extorting backlinks from bloggers and website owners.
I’ve spent much of the past week investigating Arthur Davidson, the so-called “law firm” Nicole works for. What I found was disturbing, a testament to how advances in technology have made it easy for scammers to create legitimate-looking outfits to prey on their victims.
I hope my findings will help others become more aware and protect themselves against similar scams.
DMCA Copyright Infringement
On April 13, Nicole sent me a “DMCA Copyright Infringement Notice”, identifying herself as an “Arthur Davidson Legal Services Trademark Attorney” and claiming that an image I had used in TechTalks belonged to one of its customers.
“Our client is happy that his image is used and shared on the Internet. However, appropriate image credit is due for past or current use,” she wrote.
I had seven days to add the image credit to the “offending page” with a link to the homepage of her client’s website, she added. “Otherwise, we are forced to take legal action.”
(I intentionally obscured the client’s name and website above for reasons I’ll explain soon.)
The email ended with references to DMCA Section 512(c) and a professional signature. It looked legit. The only thing that seemed a little off was a link to Imgur, an image sharing website where anyone can upload images without even creating a profile. (So it was perfectly possible that they downloaded the image from my website, uploaded it to Imgur, and then claimed their image was there before mine.)
I generally keep track of the sources of the images I use on my website and try to ensure that I am not using anyone’s intellectual property without permission. But mistakes do happen, and I was more than happy to double-check my source and provide attribution to the client if I had wronged them.
As I had guessed, the image was from Pexels, an unlicensed online photo library. I emailed Nicole back with a link to the image and the Creative Commons license stating that no attribution is required. I asked for clarification as to why she thought the image belonged to her client.
And then I waited.
A decent website with little depth
Having heard nothing, I came back the next day, asking her if she was dropping the case. At this point, I was beginning to suspect that this was an intimidation tactic to coerce me into inserting a link to his client’s website.
One of the methods to improve your site’s position in search engine results pages is to have links from high authority websites to your web pages. I had previous encounters with companies or individuals who had tried to sneak links into my website. But doing it with a legal facade was new to me.
I decided to take a closer look at the Arthur Davidson Legal Services website. Obviously, whoever had created the website had done a good job. First, the domain name (arthurdavidson.com) was well chosen, suggesting that the website and business have been around for a long time, perhaps since the early days of the dot-coms.
According to the website, Arthur Davidson has been working since 2009, has been involved in 420 cases, and has had 380 wins (about 90% success rate).
The website also lists a Boston phone number and an address at 177 Huntington Ave, a building that houses several other law firms.
The website has a blog with several posts, including one that conveniently says copyright infringement can result in a $10,000 fine.
The about page features profiles of 18 attorneys who graduated from Northeastern, Brown, Princeton, Harvard, and other top universities. But unlike other professional websites, none of the attorneys list their LinkedIn profile on the website.
A parked domain
Further investigation revealed many more red flags. First, I looked up the domain registration on the ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) website. Apparently, Arthur Davidson had been working for 13 years but just decided to create his domain in February 2022.
And then I looked up the website record on the Wayback Machine (archive.org). Apparently the estate had been parked between 2005 and 2022.
(To be fair, there could be a logical explanation for this: the law firm may have used a different domain name and recently purchased arthurdavidson.com from its previous owner.)
And then I googled the company name and looked up the news section. Logically, a firm that is home to so many high-profile lawyers and claims to have won “multi-million dollar” lawsuits on behalf of its clients should have at least been mentioned in the news a few times.
Faces of GAN
Almost sure it was a scam, I took a closer look at the “About Us” page. The photos of the lawyers seemed a bit out of place. I opened the full size photo of Nicole on a separate tab.
What I saw was an image created by a generative adversarial network, a deep learning model that can be trained to create faces, art, or anything else.
GANs have come a long way since their invention in 2014. Today, they produce higher resolution and more natural images than their previous versions. There is a website called This Person Does Not Exist that generates GAN faces. Some of them are strangely convincing.
But GANs still create unnatural artifacts that can be easily detected if you’re familiar with the technology. You can easily spot irregularities in places such as earrings, shades on the side of the face, the edge of the hair and beard, wrinkles, the edges of the eyebrows and the sides of the glasses.
With clear evidence that this was indeed a scam operation, I decided to investigate Arthur Davidson and report my findings. I contacted the client on whose behalf Nicole had contacted me on April 16, asking him to clarify his relationship with Arthur Davidson. On April 18, a support agent replied that he had no connection with the law firm.
Shortly thereafter, Arthur Davidson’s website was shut down. (You can still see a version of it on the Wayback Machine.)
Although I suspect that the client was in fact in contact with the so-called law firm, since I have no concrete evidence, I decided not to mention them.
I suspect Arthur Davidson was led by a gray SEO team. For now, they are down. But I’m sure they will appear soon under a different name. Looking back, what they did was not very difficult. All they needed was a web copy for law firms (easy to get on the web and rephrase), some DCMA email templates (available for free), some GAN generated faces (there is a website for it), knowledge of web design, and some money to buy a phone number and domain. And they used a social engineering tactic to induce a sense of urgency (seven-day deadline, legal action, etc.) in their victims to act without thinking.
I hope these results will help other website owners avoid falling victim to similar scams. All the tools I used to investigate Arthur Davidson are free and easy to use and you can do it yourself. Don’t panic. Do your research and you’ll be fine.
A note on anonymity: I have no problem with people who want to hide their identity online. There are dozens of legitimate reasons to do this, but scamming other people is not one of them.
As for companies considering using the services of such scammers, my advice is: don’t. The next person might not be as forgiving as me. In my own experience, there is no shortcut to gaining authority on the internet. Create great content, grow your network, and find legitimate ways to distribute your content, and people will give you backlinks. Shady shortcuts could end up doing more damage than good to your website and your business.
This article was originally written by Ben Dickson and published by Ben Dickson on TechTalks, a publication that examines trends in technology, how they affect the way we live and do business, and the problems they solve. But we also discuss the evil side of technology, the darker implications of new technologies, and what we need to watch out for. You can read the original article here.