A US federal court shut down more than 5500 Web sites yesterday after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed a motion last week accusing the sites of illegally diverting Web surfers from their intended destinations and bombarding those users with pop-up ads. A Pennsylvania man owns all the Web sites; he purchased thousands of domain names that resemble popular Web sites but are one or more characters different from the correct URL. The man was attempting to capitalize on misspellings by diverting surfers to page after page full of ads, most of which promote pornography or gambling.

"This scheme prevents consumers from controlling their Internet browsers, invades their privacy, robs them of their time, exposes kids to ads for pornography, and violates trademark rights," said FTC Chairman Timothy Muris. "And this scam, and ones like it, undermine consumer confidence in the Internet." The FTC wants the Pennsylvania man to return all the profits he's made on the sites--approximately $1 million a year--since setting them up in 1998.

The FTC says that celebrities, corporations, or other trademark owners have sued the man more than 60 times in the past 2 years, and that he has lost more than 50 of those cases; the courts ordered him to return more than 200 domain names to the rightful owners. The man allegedly owns more than 40 domain names that are close misspellings of pop star Britney Spears' name.

"After one FTC staff member closed out of 32 separate windows, leaving just two windows on the task bar, he selected the Back button, only to watch as the same seven windows that initiated the blitz erupted on his screen and the cybertrap began anew," the complaint reads.