Letting the registration lapse on your domain name can have disastrous consequences, and be tough to correct
With identity theft on the rise, it is no surprise cybercreeps might go after your business’s online identity. Domain-name hijacking, or the taking of a web address, is fairly common in cyberspace, and although hijacking is a crime in the tangible world, it can be perfectly legal on the Internet.
On the web, domain names are stolen, traded, bought and sold every minute. And, if you are not paying attention, your business’s identity may cease to exist on the Web.
Fortunately, safeguarding your domain name is easy as long as you protect it during registration, maintain your account properly and watch out for some common scams.
Your domain name defines your business on the Web — it is part of your image.
Letting a domain name expire is the most common way people lose their site’s name, said Aaron Booker, president of Hardlines, a Bellingham Web-hosting company. When a business’s sole identity or transactions rely on a Web-site, the loss of a good name is especially devastating, he said. Once a domain name expires and is released, anyone can register the name. Sometimes the new owner wants to use the name, while other times they may look to hold it or resell it, he said.
Booker said anyone with a Web-site should always know when the name is set to expire. If you don’t know your domain name’s expiration date, he suggests checking online at www.whois.sc.
It is also a good idea to enter a long-term contract to secure rights to a domain name, said Booker. Often people register a domain name for only one or two years, he said. Instead, it is a better idea to buy five or ten years, so there are fewer opportunities for the site to expire.
Although you should never wait for a site to expire, Booker said, an indication a site may have expired is when the site itself and/or attached e-mail accounts stop working. If this happens it may not be too late to renew the site. Sites will usually sit on a domain registry company’s to-be-deleted list for several weeks before the name is available to the public, potentially giving an owner a last chance to renew the name, he said.
Don’t accidentally sign your rights away
Signing a bad deal with a Web-hosting company or Internet service provider can leave you without control.
Most people have a Web-hosting company or Internet service provider (ISP) register their domain name, instead of doing it themselves. While going this route is perfectly acceptable, those buying a domain name should watch what they sign.
According to Booker, some Web-hosting companies or ISPs will register a client’s domain name under their business’s name. Without having the domain name registered to your business, you don’t have any rights to it. Although this practice is legal, Booker believes it is immoral.
To safeguard yourself when registering a name, make sure to tell the company to list you as the owner of the domain name and request some form of confirmation for your records.
If you’ve already registered a site you might want to check the ownership, because that information may not have been disclosed when the site was registered, said Booker; www.whois.sc is a good resource for this task as well.
Use a company that cares about you and your business
It will cost you a little more, but having an ethical Web-host or ISP will help protect you from glitches.
According to Booker, the low end of the Web-hosting market is almost totally automated. If a problem comes up, he said, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to resolve.
Also something to watch out for are fake bills. Booker said some companies, especially in the cheaper end of the market, will send out what looks like a bill for registering your domain name. Paying one of these false bills will change the company your name is registered with, but leave your name and registry intact.
Just remember, you get what your pay for — and you can’t reason with a machine.
Your bodyguard from the teeming, lawless masses
Just like a 300-pound bodyguard, protecting you from the outstretched hands of a pick-pocket, it is important to have some muscle in cyberspace as well.
Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, can help those involved in domain name or registry disputes. ICANN, found on the Web at www.icann.org, is an internationally organized nonprofit that oversees the domain-name system. Although ICANN is not all powerful, it can resolve certain issues. And, according to Booker, if your domain name is attached to a trademark, ICANN will almost always rule in your favor.
Remember the moral of this story
In 2003, there was a locally publicized domain-name hijacking story involving John Servais, owner of Fairhaven.com and publisher of the Whatcom Independent. The story contains a valuable lesson.
Before he launched Fairhaven.com in 2002 in conjunction with the Fairhaven Association, a woman, whom Servais would not name, also launched a site for the association called historicfairhaven.com. When registering the site, Servais said the woman cut some corners, listing herself as the site’s owner and using her e-mail as the contact point.
After a year-and-a-half of running the site, Servais said, the woman left town. Six months after her departure, Servais went to the association and proposed the launch of Fairhaven.com. Although Servais had nothing to do with historicfairhaven.com, the association asked him to monitor the site. Servais said he eventually wanted control of both sites, so he could link them for visitors.
Servais said he and the woman came to an agreement so he could get the domain name, but the necessary changes could not be made via e-mail, as she did not have access to the account anymore. Servais said he tried going to the ISP for help, but didn’t get any response.
The site eventually expired, and was placed on a to-be-deleted list, at which time Servais said he called repeatedly to see when it would be available for purchase again.
According to Servais, when the site did become available it was taken by a porn site within minutes.
Servais, who used to work for an ISP and has registered several domain names, said porn sites can get domain names before others, because they often bribe domain- registry technicians (not employees of ISPs or Web-hosts) to release the names at an agreed upon time, usually late at night.
These in-demand domain names, or common misspellings of the names, are then turned into porn sites, and visitors searching for the real site name hit porn, causing embarrassment for the legitimate site. So, in his case, anyone who attempted to visit historicfairhaven.com was greeted with a decidedly unhistoric display.
Another example of this is the former porn site www.whitehouse.com, which has a similar name to the official government site www.whitehouse.gov. As part of the scam, Servais said, porn sites will offer to sell the sites back at inflated prices.
Despite the site being taken, Servais said, he did try to get it back by appealing to ICANN. Eventually, he said, his request was denied. He said ICANN is failing to enforce fair domain name registry practices.
Now when you type in historicfairhaven.com it is a tourist site for Fairhaven, Mass.
The lesson from all this is to make sure to use an e-mail within the business when registering the domain-name, said Servais. That way an e-mail contact attached to an employee won’t disappear if they quit, the registry billing can be tracked, and contact with your Web-host or ISP will never be lost.