How to tell if you’ve received a scam DMCA copyright infringement notice

Have you received a scary sounding email citing a DMCA copyright infringement notice from a legal company? Find out why it might be a scam.

Every so often, we receive an email from a legal firm claiming they have “identified an image belonging to our client on your website”. These emails look and sound official, and can feel worrying when you first receive one.

However, many of them are scams. And in this article we’re going to show you some of the ways you can tell the difference between a genuine warning about illegal use of someone else’s photograph or image, and a scam.

Before we get into how you can tell the difference between a genuine DMCA copyright infringement notice and a scam, let’s quickly understand what a DMCA copyright infringement is.

What is a DMCA copyright infringement?

DMCA stands for Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It is used to request that hosting companies, Google and web site owners remove content that infringes on copyright. When someone makes a DMCA copyright infringement request, they will ask you to remove content or a web page due to copyright violations.

And there are genuine takedown requests that are issued. But there are also people who now appear to be abusing the law to scam businesses.

An example of a scam DMCA copyright infringement email

Here’s an example of a scam DMCA copyright infringement we received recently from a company called Commonwealth Legal Services:

The photograph they claim belongs to their client was actually downloaded from the royalty free site Unsplash, so we knew straight away this request was incorrect. A little more digging revealed that it was more than a mistake however, it was clearly a scam.

How to tell the difference between a genuine DMCA copyright infringement notice and a scam

Most websites today need images, and often rely on third party sources to provide them. It’s always important to avoid legal action by using reputable royalty free websites when choosing stock photos for your website.

But even if you are careful, you still may receive an email like the one above. And at first glance it can feel frightening, as it’s full of legal language and quotes a real law. So how can you tell if it’s genuine or not?

Let’s look at four of the giveaway red flags of a scam DMCA copyright infringement notice email:

  1. The office address on the email is wrong
  2. The people work work for the legal firm aren’t real
  3. The email asks for a link to their client’s website
  4. The legal firm doesn’t exist

1) The office address on the email is wrong

The DMCA copyright infringement notice email you are sent will contain plenty of clues as to whether it is legitimate or a scam. And one of the first things to check out is the address of the company, as this if often either made up or clearly not correct.

In the DMCA copyright infringement notice email we shared above, the address of the firm, Commonwealth Legal Services, was the fourth floor of a building in Arizona. However, when we checked out the address on Google Street View, this was what we found:

As you can see, the building appears to be insurance offices rather than a legal firm. But that isn’t the biggest problem. This is a single storey building – so how can their office be the fourth floor?!!

It also looks nothing like the offices on their website:

Even in these offices, there is visibly no fourth floor either. So the address must be made up – something a legitimate company would not do.

2) The people work work for the legal firm aren’t real

Another big red flag is that the lawyers who work for the legal company only exist on its website. You cannot find them (or the company, for that matter) on LinkedIn, and they have no digital footprint bar the firm’s website.

Here’s what the company claims of one lawyer in their on-site bio:

“He is a sought-after authority in matters concerning the protection of copyrights, distribution of digital content, crafting of licensing agreements, and the defense of creative outputs in diverse sectors such as publishing, music, cinema, and new media technologies.”

You would think someone with this kind of distinguished reputation would be easy to find online. But this lawyer is a virtual ghost.

When we conducted a Google image search on another lawyer, Sarah Walker, we discovered that ‘Sarah’ was also Paula Shaw, a Sales Development Representative for a marketing company in Canada.

Here she is on the Commonwealth Legal Services website:

Here’s what a Google image search revealed:

A Google image search for the photo of another employee, Max Evans, brings an even more surprising result. Here he is on the Commonwealth Legal Services website:

And here’s what a Google image search comes back with:

Not only is ‘Max Evans’ not a real person, but it appears he’s not a person at all, but an AI-generated image!

It’s clear from this evidence that the people on the Commonwealth Legal Services website do not exist, which, to us, is pretty obvious evidence that the DMCA copyright infringement notices they issue are a scam.

3) The email asks for a link to their client’s website

Why go to the effort of creating these fake DMCA copyright infringement notices? The answer lies in another clue that they are fake: their request.

All DMCA copyright infringement notices that we have received ask for the same thing: “We require that you credit our client [name] for this image. Please add a direct and clickable hyperlink to…” They do not ask for the image to be taken down, and nor do they request compensation.

The real aim of these emails is to scare websites into ‘crediting’ the alleged true owner of the image by linking to their website. This gives them valuable SEO backlinks. So it’s a scam for links.

It doesn’t take much to discover the clients this firm is apparently representing have no connection to the photos they claim belong to them. The images can usually be found on multiple royalty free websites, and credited to the true photographer. There is absolutely nothing to indicate they were taken by, owned by, or often even used by the companies these legal firms claim have a right to them.

4) The legal firm doesn’t exist

Further digging on this particular email revealed that – no surprise! – the firm Commonwealth Legal Services itself did not appear to exist. A search on the State Bar of Arizona website showed no company with that name registered.

The website’s copyright is dated 2018, indicating the website has been around that long. However, there’s no record of it on Wayback Machine, and the Whois Record for the URL shows that it was only created 13 days before:

On their website, they claim their business name is “Commonwealth Ltd”, but there is no record of this company. However, interestingly, when searching for the company, we did come across an identical website for a company of the same name but under a different, also new, URL:

It’s clear that this ‘company’ was created solely for the purpose of giving legitimacy (or attempting to) to these scam emails, and does not exist beyond these fake websites.

When we reviewed similar DMCA notice emails from other legal companies, we also noticed a few odd things. To start, their websites were no longer online, which is strange. All of their URLs were created very shortly before we received emails from them, and Wayback Machine shows the websites as being live very briefly – maybe because Google are catching up with the DMCA scammers.

Wayback Machine also reveals that their websites are almost identical. Here’s the header from the Commonwealth Legal Services website:

And here’s the header from the website of another company called Nationwide Legal Services (this company too are accused of being AI scammers):

Here are the services offered by Commonwealth Legal Services:

And here are the services offered by Nationwide Legal Services:

They even lazily recycle the same blogs. Here’s a blog on the Commonwealth Legal Services (notice the date this blog was allegedly published – 2018, as we have established, this website did not even exist then):

The same blog can be found on the Nationwide Legal Services website:

Clearly whoever is behind this scam just rolls out the same website template each time, just changing the photos and team bios.

How to avoid falling for a DMCA copyright infringement scam

So how can you avoid falling for a DMCA copyright infringement scam? The best way to avoid it is not to fall foul of the law in the first place by ensuring that any images or content on your website have been legally created or obtained, and that you have the right to use them.

If you need images, always source them from a reputable royalty free website like Unsplash, Pexels or Pixabay. And ensure you give any appropriate credit for images you have been given to use. You can read more about protecting yourself when using photos here.

It’s also wise to educate yourself about the scam, and what a scam email may look like, as you have by reading this article. If you do receive a DMCA copyright infringement notice email, do some due diligence and check the things we looked into in this article. This includes:

  • Is their office address real? Check out the office address on Google Street View. Does it look like the one on the website? Does it even look like an office? And are there clear giveaways, like claiming to be on the fourth floor of a single storey building?
  • Are their lawyers real? Do they have LinkedIn profiles or any other proof they exist? You can also look them up on their local State Bar website.
  • What are they asking for? Genuine DMCA notices usually ask for removal of the image and/or financial compensation (this doesn’t necessarily mean these requests are always genuine either). The scam emails we have seen usually ask you to add a link to their client’s website on your site.
  • Is their website legitimate? Does the website look substantial, as you would expect from a reputable legal firm? When was the URL registered and by who? And does it have a record on Wayback Machine showing it’s established?

If you do believe a DMCA copyright infringement notice email is a scam, and you are confident that you have legally sourced and used the image concerned, you can usually do nothing. The email will probably have been one of thousands sent out using AI, and doesn’t require a response.

However, if you have any doubt that the email may not be a scam, do treat it seriously and take the appropriate steps to ensure you are legally protected. You can read advice on what to do if you receive a DMCA notice here.