A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
The horrifying shooting at a historic black church in South Carolina and its aftermath have reopened debates in America around hatred, racism, gun control, the Confederate flag, and the treatment of white criminals by police officers.
But according to website registry records, one New York–based e-cigarette vendor may have responded to this tragedy with a bizarre attempt to bring in extra visitors to its online store.
Dylann Roof, the alleged perpetrator of the Charleston massacre, apparently left behind a manifesto on a website with the URL lastrhodesian.com. (The homepage of the site features a massive photo of what looks like a man lying in his own blood, so visit at your own risk.) The name is a reference to Rhodesia, the old name for what is now Zimbabwe, which was run by a racist, white-dominated government. Roof was apparently a fan of the country's system—in one widely circulated Facebook photo, he was wearing a jacket with flag patches for both Rhodesia and Apartheid-era South Africa.
Roof did not own the thelastrhodesian.com URL—but it appears that domain got snatched up by an e-cigarette store in Bohemia, New York, called Fluid Vapor. The company's slogan is: "Join the Fluminati."
According to a GoDaddy WHOIS search, thelastrhodesian.com was registered on June 20, the same day it was widely reported that Dylan Roof's website existed. While GoDaddy quickly suspended the copycat domain name, citing it as "spam and abuse," a Google Cache version of the page shows that whoever registered thelastrhodesian.com set it up so that it would automatically redirect the user to the website for Fluid Vapor.
To be clear, Fluid Vapor does not appear to have any connection to white supremacy, white nationalism, or racism of any sort. Although attaching one's brand to Roof, if that's what it was trying to do, is a dreadfully misguided PR strategy.
It's possible that Fluid Vapor was trying to monetize a spike in internet traffic from people reading up on the Charleston murders. It appears as if Fluid, or possibly someone who registered the domain without the company's knowledge, was hoping some of those people were into vaping as well.
This technique is commonly referred to as "typosquatting" or "URL hijacking." Basically the goal is to find an available URL that is close enough to a very popular established URL (like googel.com, which Google has apparently bought) so that the owner of the incorrect domain can skim off part of the real site's traffic. Once a user has gone to the typosquatted site by mistake, the hope is that they will be convinced into buying whatever the typosquatter is selling—or at the very least, maybe they'll click on some banners and generate ad revenue.
This is a surprisingly profitable scam: According to a Harvard study from 2010, Google makes about $479 million a year from having their AdSense advertising program running on websites that are nothing more than a page full of ads and a typosquatted domain—meaning that the typosquatters themselves are making major money as well.
Of course, it's possible the owner of Fluid Vapor did not register thelastrhodesian.com, and it was a third party who took over the domain and sent traffic to the e-cigarette vendor for unknown reasons. Three phone calls to Fluid Vapor, where a clerk said she passed on an urgent message to the company's owner, along with two emails and a Facebook message from VICE went unreturned.
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