This past Thursday, Dylann Roof went on a racially motivated, cold-blooded killing spree in Charleston, South Carolina. He shot and killed nine innocent people inside of a church using a .45 caliber pistol, which he received as a 21st birthday gift from his parents.
Roof's horrifying actions have re-opened debates in America around hatred, racism, gun control, the confederate flag, and the treatment of white criminals by police officers.
But apparently, the massacre also provided one New York-based e-cigarette store with a massively distasteful opportunity to sell vape pens online.
Like many of America's most scarring massacres, the perpetrator of the Charleston murders left behind a manifesto. Roof's was published to a website, which lives at the URL: lastrhodesian.com.
The title, Last Rhodesian, is a reference to Rhodesia, which was Zimbabwe's name under a leadership that allowed only British citizens to vote—isolating its native black population. Roof apparently looked to this racially oppressive society as a model for a new America.
Roof, however, did not also own thelastrhodesian.com. It appears that domain got snatched up by an e-cigarette store in New York state 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 VICE News first reported that Dylan Roof's website, Last Rhodesian, 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 in Bohemia, New York.
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 the mantle of Dylann Roof is a dreadfully misguided PR strategy.
More likely, though, this is a matter of Fluid Vapor 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 typo-domain can skim 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.
If enough people mess up and click, the typosquatter (and the owner of the banner ad) can make decent coin.
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.
That's right, half a billion dollars off of typos and clicks. And that's only their share of the money. The typosquatters out there are banking off clicks too.
Trying to make money from the flood of people going to say, NeoPets on a daily basis through typosquatting is annoying at worst. The impulse to profit off of people's morbid fascination with the tragedy in Charleston is deeply problematic at best.
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 New York state e-cigarette vendor for unknown reasons. But 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.
Follow Patrick McGuire on Twitter.