Attorney General James Shuts Down Websites Impersonating NYS Department of State
Company Misled Small Businesses and Overcharged for Services | AG James Offers Tips to Help New Yorkers Identify Real Government Websites
NEW YORK – New York Attorney General Letitia James shut down two websites that impersonated the New York State Department of State (NYSDOS) and significantly overcharged users for services provided by NYSDOS. The misleading websites, created by Thomas Romano and his company, Steamin’ Weenie LLC (Steamin’ Weenie), closely mimicked NYSDOS’ Division of Corporations site by using the agency’s official seal and logo, and allowed users to file various business-related documents with federal, state, and local entities for much higher prices than NYSDOS offered. One of the websites charged $135 for a certified copy of a certificate of incorporation, which cost only $10 from NYSDOS at the time. The NYSDOS helps individuals file paperwork for their businesses, such as corporate registry documents, or start a limited liability company (LLC). There were no disclosures on the websites that they were operated by a private third-party agreeing to file documents on behalf of their users. In addition to shutting down the websites, Attorney General James secured $44,387 in penalties from the company and its owner.
“Misleading consumers is not a smart business plan, it’s unethical and illegal,” said Attorney General James. “These websites deceived hardworking New Yorkers who were simply trying to open up their own business and file the necessary paperwork to do so. Scam artists may think they are savvy, but breaking state laws and conning New Yorkers will get you into hot water with my office. I encourage everyone to be vigilant and ensure the websites they are visiting to conduct government business are legitimate.”
“Impersonating the New York Department of State as a way of defrauding business owners out of their hard-earned money was not only deceptive, unfair, and misleading, it was illegal,” said Secretary of State Robert J. Rodriguez. “Attorney General James shares the Department’s commitment to protecting New Yorkers and we thank her for her perseverance in holding these bad actors accountable.”
The NYSDOS alerted the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) of the fraudulent websites. The websites, which the company has since taken down, adopted significant elements of the look and feel of the official website from 2021 and copied graphical elements. For example, the homepage of one website had a logo substantially similar to the one displayed on the official website, a slightly modified version of the state’s Great Seal, and a customer support phone number was listed with an Albany area code, although the sole operator of the website lived downstate. The website also referred to itself as the “Corporation Services Division,” a name similar to NYSDOS’ Division of Corporations.
Today’s agreement requires Thomas Romano and his company to pay $44,387 in penalties and prevents the company and its owner from using any government logos, seals, or other similar iconography to deceive consumers into believing that they are dealing with a government entity. They will also be required to clearly and conspicuously disclose to consumers that they are a private third-party and not affiliated with the government.
How to Identify a Government Website
New Yorkers should be vigilant of websites that may appear to be government sites but are not. Here are some recommendations for how to spot a legitimate government website:
- Check the URL. Government websites typically utilize a ‘.gov’ domain name and a secure connection, which can be spotted when the URL begins with “https” instead of http, and/or the browser displays a padlock icon next to the URL.
- Avoid selecting sponsored links. Typically, government websites will not appear as sponsored links after a web search.
- Find the agency you’re looking for on the state’s main website. All the states’ agencies and services can be found on www.ny.gov. For New York City agencies and services, visit www.nyc.gov. Most localities will also house all their services and agencies on their main site.
- Check the contact page. Legitimate websites have important information where web users can find how to reach a government agency, where to find that agency and social media links. The absence of a legitimate (or any) address and a working phone number should be a cause for concern.
- Review your costs before paying. If a service fee appears to be too high, make sure you are on a legitimate government website using the tips above before making a payment.
If New Yorkers detect a website that is trying to pass itself off as an official government resource but is not, they are encouraged to file an online complaint with OAG’s Bureau of Internet and Technology.
This matter was handled by Assistant Attorney General Ezra Sternstein and former Assistant Attorney General Noah Stein of the Bureau of Internet and Technology, under the supervision of Bureau Chief Kim A. Berger and Deputy Bureau Chief Clark P. Russell. The Bureau of Internet and Technology is a part of the Division for Economic Justice, which is overseen by Chief Deputy Attorney General Chris D’Angelo and First Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Levy.