Everyday, when we open our electronic mailbox, we get our fair share of unsolicited email. Of course, the unsolicited offers have gotten a lot more subtle and duplicitous. A few years ago, dozens of marketeers tried to get us to post badly sourced and designed infographics.
Now they’ve moved on to something that, in my opinion, looks a lot like deception.
In today’s email box, we found an email from “Jeffrey Redd, Project Outreach Director” with an email address of [email protected] sharing with us “a guide about finding treatment, free of cost.” Wow, really? A new fantastic resource from the folks over at SAMHSA?
But wait, hold on a minute. That email address doesn’t look quite right…
Here’s the, in my opinion, seemingly deceptive email:1
SAMHSA stands for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration — an arm of the U.S. federal government’s Department of Health and Human Services. The official SAMHSA website is at: www.samhsa.gov
SAMHSA.net, on the other hand, is a domain owned by a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) firm, Website Consultants Inc. of North Fort Myers, Florida:
The email address “Jeff” sent from — [email protected] — is meant to invoke a government association with these three words: SAMHSA, “gov” (which is where all the government domains reside), and “va” which might stand for Veterans Administration (or Virginia). After I spoke with Beachway representatives on Wednesday — but before I spoke to the SEO firm — this domain’s ownership was hidden behind a proxy service.
SEO firms work to improve the search engine rankings of their clients’ websites. SAMHSA.net had a single page of content (since removed, but here’s copy of it) that had been rewritten from SAMHSA.gov’s legitimate content. The title of the deceptive page was “The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration” and there were no disclaimers to suggest that it was not an official federal government resource.
In this case, the client was a firm called Beachway Therapy Center, located in Delray Beach, Florida. I first spoke with the COO of Beachway, to understand who Jeffrey Redd was, and why he was telling me — unsolicited — about a “white paper” (about how to receive “free” treatment) that resided on Beachway Therapy Center’s domain.
The COO didn’t know anything about it and referred me instead to Stephen Howley, the admissions director of Beachway. During a brief telephone conversation, he also said he didn’t know any Jeffrey Redd, and at first suggested that this was a work of a competitor trying to steal or infringe upon Beachway’s branding.2 He also suggested perhaps it was something sent out by his SEO firm, but he thought it unlikely.
Then I asked Mr. Howley for the name of his SEO firm. “Website Consultants Inc.,” he replied.
I pointed out that the exact same firm is responsible for registering the domain name, samhsa.net, and so it was unlikely this email was sent out by a competitor. “I’ll have to have a talk with them,” said Mr. Howley.
When asked if he knew of this apparently deceptive email being sent, Mr. Howley replied, “I can assure you 100% that we had no prior knowledge of this sort of thing.”
We contacted the SEO firm and spoke via phone and emails with Sean Callahan, the president and co-founder of Website Consultants. He also didn’t know who Jeffrey Redd was, so he asked for a copy of the email. After reviewing the email, he pegged the errant email on a link-building firm that he said had leased the domain SAMHSA.net: “They are obviously abusing the domain we leased to them, so we have terminated the agreement effective today.” Mr. Callahan refused to name the link-building firm, citing a non-disclosure agreement.
I understand it’s hard to get your name out there if you’re a treatment or rehab center. It’s even more difficult to appear higher up in search results. But good content gets indexed by Google and Bing, plain and simple — there are no tricks you need to employ in order to get it indexed. Yes, it takes time, and yes, it takes even more time to build up an online reputation for your domain. Seeking ways to circumvent the system or hurry up the process may work (at least temporarily, until the algorithm changes yet again) — but also may bring you unwanted publicity.
Sometimes rehab centers get a bad name because of their aggressive strategies for trying to attract new patients. It’s no wonder.
- I left off the legally-meaningless confidentiality notice that nobody reads — including me — from this email copy. But the SEO guy pointed out that buried in the middle of it was this sentence, “We are in no way related, or representing any government agency.” [↩]
- Which can be a legitimate concern in this cut-throat industry. [↩]