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Website cloning: How to identify, prevent, and respond
How To's
10 mins

Website cloning: How to identify, prevent, and respond

Table of Contents:

    Website cloning itself is not a cybercrime and can be done legally by the original domain owner or by other users without commercial or malicious purpose. However, website cloning can also lead to breaking the copyright and trademark law, affecting the original brand and unaware users.

    Website cloning for malicious purposes refers to the creation of duplicate websites with a similar layout to deceive users. Users believe that they are visiting a legitimate website but fall for an online scam. Website cloning is most frequently used to steal someone else’s identity, financial fraud, and unauthorized data collection. With expanding digital footprints and a growing number of online interactions, several cloned websites are opened daily, growing risk to brands and users around the world.

    For business owners and consumers alike, malicious website cloning poses severe threats. In the case of consumers, the danger comes from unintendedly sharing personal information or financial data with scammers. It has the potential to cause severe financial troubles and long-lasting identity theft problems. In the case of businesses, the dangers are not limited to current financial damage or harm to the company’s reputation. Cloned websites can destroy consumer satisfaction and trust and hit hard on the legal and recovery costs.

    The growing threat of such cloned websites is that it’s getting harder to see the difference between them and original websites. Therefore, with the evolution of the digital environment, imitation and cloning practices advance as well. That is why it is essential to stay familiar with the threats to one’s reputation and competitive advantage and the ways to protect them.

    In this article, you will learn all you need to know about website cloning, how to protect your trademarked/copyrighted work from website cloning attacks, as well as:

    • What is website cloning?
    • Is it legal to clone a website?
    • How to prevent website cloning
    • How to take down a cloned website impersonating yours

    Without further ado, stay tuned with us throughout this guide to get all this information to prevent website cloning. 


    What is website cloning?

    Website cloning attack, in a nutshell, refers to the copying/duplicating of a website in order to create a new website that is exactly the same or with minor modifications from the website it’s copied from.

    A website is a rather complex entity involving three different elements:

    • Design: layout, images, typography, and so on.
    • Content: copywriting, blog posts, etc. 
    • Code: the programming code that is used to structure the website and its content

    Cloning can happen on just one or two elements of a website; for example, when a blog post previously published on a website is scraped and published on another (content cloning) or when a website design is stolen. However, a website can have all three of these elements cloned, making the cloned website an exact copy of the original one. 

    Why do people clone other websites?

    Website cloning may be performed for various reasons, both in good and bad faith.

    Here are some of the most common reasons people perform website cloning: 

    • A website owner may clone their own website for backup purposes 
    • A developer may clone a website and then use it as a template to create another website, so they don’t have to build the website from scratch, saving them time.
    • A cybercriminal (i.e., hacker) may create a cloned website while impersonating your brand or identity, attempting to steal your traffic. They can then perform other malicious attacks, like launching phishing scam attempts on the intercepted traffic.
    • Third parties who might like the content, design, code, or other details you published on the site and want to use these elements on their own website (can be malicious or otherwise.
    • A business may duplicate part or the whole of its competitor’s website to eliminate the competitive advantage

    Is it legal to clone a website?

    On its own, the act of website cloning is 100% legal, especially when performed for non-commercial and/or non-malicious purposes.

    However, the act of website cloning may also breach existing copyrights, trademarks, IPs, or patents of the original website owner, and this is when website cloning can be illegal. 

    Website content and copyright law

    Unless otherwise specified, the individual or organization who owns the website’s design (layout), code, and content also owns the copyright of these elements.

    In most countries all around the world, copyright doesn’t need registration and is a natural right of the website owner or a business/individual) who commissioned the website development from professionals (i.e., website developers.)

    To further strengthen the website owner’s position as a copyright holder, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) has established the legal foundation that materials published on the internet are protected by US copyright laws.

    The website owner, as the copyright owner, legally can decide who is permitted to access, distribute, modify, and copy/clone the elements of this website. 

    Meaning, that if you are looking to clone another website, in general, you are not allowed to publish this clone unless you’ve obtained the (written) permission to do so from the copyright owner. While copyright laws vary between countries, this basic principle is applied almost everywhere in the world. 

    There are websites that attach an open-source license on the website itself to permit others to use, clone, or even modify the website (or parts of its content). Typically this license will state what can and cannot be done without contacting and asking for permission from the website owner.

    Yet, while cloning an open-source website is perfectly legal, the generally accepted practice is to credit the original web developers for their work on the published cloned website.

    Red Points' Domain Takedown Services

    Copyright law and fair use

    Even if a website doesn’t specify that the website’s content, design, or code can be used or cloned, copyright law allows fair use

    Simply put, fair use in copyright law allows the cloning of website content without the permission of the website owner or the author if the cloning is for the purpose of education, research, criticism, news reporting, or other non-commercial purposes that can be considered as “fair use.”

    Whether copying or cloning can be determined as fair use would depend on various factors and should be considered on a case-by-case basis. 

    If you are located in the US, you can refer to the Fair Use Index published by the US Copyright Office to get a clearer picture of whether a specific website cloning case could fall under fair use. 

    Malicious website cloning: All you need to know

    Above, we have discussed how website cloning can be legal and perfectly harmless, but website cloning can also be done in bad faith, and the worst thing is that website cloning attacks can be automated, thanks to today’s technology.

    As briefly mentioned above, malicious website cloning could be performed for three main purposes:

    • Cybercriminals trying to steal your traffic to launch other criminal attacks (i.e., phishing)
    • Your competitors who are trying to eliminate your competitive advantage
    • Other parties who simply like to copy and publish your content/design in an unauthorized way

    All three, when not managed, can harm your website and your business in a long-term or even permanent way.

    How automated website cloning works

    Cybercriminals may first purchase a misleading domain name that looks similar to your brand name, an act we know as cybersquatting

    Then, the cybercriminal will perform automated website cloning to mirror your entire website and publish it on the fake domain name.

    The main purpose of this cybersquatting + website cloning attempt is to steal traffic, tricking your site’s target audience into visiting the fake website instead. 

    The attacker can then monetize this stolen traffic in various different ways, including phishing, fooling these visitors into purchasing fake/non-existing products (counterfeiting), infecting the visitors’ devices with malware, and so on.

    There are many different tools and scraper bots available on the market (i.e., HTTrack,) that enable criminals to automatically generate a clone of a website that is also dynamically updated. Dynamic update here means that when the original website is updated (i.e., published a blog post), the new content is also automatically copied to the fake website.

    Unfortunately, a lot of these scraper bots and tools have become very sophisticated in hiding their identity, leveraging various technologies to disguise these bot traffic as legitimate human users. Thus, they are now very difficult to detect and block, and many website owners simply don’t realize that their websites have been cloned until it’s too late.

    The potential impact of a website cloning attack on your website and brand

    While website cloning can be totally harmless, website cloning made in bad faith can be very detrimental to your website and your business.

    Here are some of the most dangerous potential risks of website cloning that you should consider:

    • Duplicate content and SEO performance issues

    If your website’s content is stolen and republished on another website without your permission, it can create a duplicate content issue, which may affect your site’s SEO performance.

    Although Google (and the other search engines) are getting better at recognizing which content is canon during a duplicated content issue and most likely would be able to identify that you are the legitimate owner of the content, it’s still not a 100% perfect solution and may affect your site’s ranking in minor or major ways.

    When a cybercriminal impersonates your brand and your website to scam visitors who are actually looking to visit your legitimate website, it can hurt your brand reputation, potentially in a permanent way.

    The website visitors may think that your business is the one scamming them, and winning back their trust can be very challenging. Even if they understood that you’re also a victim in this, there would be those that will still blame you for not doing a good enough job in securing your brand’s online presence.

    When not identified and managed properly, website cloning may hurt your reputation and, ultimately, revenue.

    • Loss of competitive advantage

    Website cloning and content scraping can be very dangerous for businesses in a price-sensitive industry like travel or retail.

    Competitors can use scraper bots to continuously read your product listings and prices and then automatically adjust their prices to always be lower than your own.

    In the long run, this can lead to unfair competition for businesses that play by the rules. Imagine having invested a significant amount of time and resources in deciding on an optimal pricing strategy and keeping your product listing up-to-date, only to see competitors cloning your website and piggybacking off your efforts.

    Without comprehensive website cloning protection, protecting your brand from such attacks can be very difficult, if not impossible.

    How to identify whether your site is being cloned

    If you suspect your site is being cloned and/or your content is being stolen by others in bad faith, you’ll need to first identify whether there’s an actual website cloning attack and confirm your suspicion.

    A viable approach is to use a plagiarism/duplicate content detection solution. While this tool won’t be effective in identifying whether a site has copied your site’s code or design, it’s very effective in identifying text-based content cloning.

    However, this approach will not be practical for monitoring content that would be dynamically updated, like prices and product listings, and the larger your website is, the more limitations you’ll face.

    Taking actions against identified cloning attempts

    Identifying website cloning and stolen content/design/coding is only the first step, and identification alone won’t help protect your business and prevent website cloning attacks from stealing your valuable digital assets.

    Here are some actionable tips on how to deal with a website clone once you’ve identified them:

    1. Block the website from accessing your site

    The basic approach you can take once you’ve identified a clone website is to block it from assessing your website.

    First, identify whether the clone is static or dynamic (whether it is dynamically updated). 

    To do so, update your site with trivial changes (i.e., add a number in your site’s footer) and then check the clone website to assess how frequently the clone is updated.

    If it’s a static clone (not updated at all), then skip the rest of this step and move on to the next.

    If it’s a dynamic clone, then you’ll need to block the IP from accessing your website, which should be fairly effective in also blocking web scraper bots or other tools they are using to crawl and copy your website’s content/design/code.

    Obviously, first, you’ll need to determine the IP of this clone website, and there are a wide variety of solutions (including free options) that can help you with this.

    Keep in mind that the attacker can launch their web scraper or other tools from another server, so IP-based blocking might not be effective. You can try to identify IPs that frequently crawl your website and block them, or you can use automated monitoring/blocking solutions to prevent future website cloning attempts (more on this later.)

    2. Taking down the clone website

    Identify the clone website’s hosting service, domain provider, and/or CDN, then send them a domain takedown request.

    In this takedown request, provide a brief (but adequate) explanation about the website cloning attack while including screenshots and other relevant evidence.

    You should also share your copyright and trademarks in the takedown request, which can significantly help in convincing the hosting provider to perform the takedown faster.

    3. Invest in a website cloning management solution

    A more effective approach both in terms of accuracy and cost-efficiency is to use a dedicated website cloning and Domain Takedown Solution like Red Points’. 

    Red Points leverages state-of-the-art technology to conduct real-time domain research and monitoring, so you can use your time to focus on your core business tasks instead. 

    Once it identifies a clone website, Red Points will also automatically take the necessary steps to take down the fake website and collect data that might be used as evidence if you are taking legal actions against the individuals or organizations performing the website cloning attack.

    Preventing website cloning attack: best practices

    While above, we have discussed how to effectively identify, block, and takedown clone websites, taking adequate preventive measures is always better.

    When implementing preventive measures against website cloning, there are some key principles you should consider:

    • Ensure the website cloners need to put in as much effort as possible before they can clone your website.
    • Establishing strong foundations to improve your site’s ability and speed in identifying clones
    • Make sure your site is still optimal for your target audience and that it’s easy for them to identify your legitimate site from the clone(s)

    Here are what you can do to achieve these and prevent your website from being cloned:

    • Have a strong brand. This is the best possible defense measure you can have against cloners. If you have a strong logo and distinguishable brand elements, your website visitors will have an easier time recognizing these details when they reach a fake website impersonating yours.
    • Leverage Google Analytics and other analytics tools to continuously monitor incoming traffic to your website. Look for signs of malicious bots, and also for domain names similar to yours (cybersquatting).
    • Maintain frequent internal links between your pages. The cloner might not be meticulous enough to change these links. This can help you identify the clone website by monitoring inbound links to your pages.
      • Intact internal links on the clone website can also help in a different way: visitors that visit the clone website can click these links and arrive at your legitimate website instead (and potentially save these visitors from phishing attempts or other scams.)
    • If your website has multiple domains (i.e., multiple TLDs like .com, .org, etc.,) try to link between different domains within your pages. Even if the cloner uses means to replace the internal links, these links to different domains (that are still pointing to your canon domain name) will possibly not be replaced by the cloner.

    What’s next

    Website cloning attacks can be a major threat to businesses with a website and can cause major financial and reputational damages, as well as potential legal repercussions.

    While 100% prevention of website cloning is very challenging in practice, the actionable tips we’ve shared above can help you protect your website and prevent cyber criminals from cloning your content, design, or code. 

    Additionally, by showing you the steps you could take in the event of website cloning attempts targeting your website, you should now be aware of how to take the right actions to take down the cloned website and protect your own.

    Nonetheless, proactive prevention and protection of your brand by implementing real-time anti-cybersquatting protection like Red Points’ Impersonation Removal Solution remains the best bet to protect your website’s integrity without disrupting the user experience.

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