Fight Back Against Cybersquatters

The story you are about to read is true. The names have been changed to protect the #$&%$ pond scum who hijacked the name of a not-for-profit animal rescue group. Not that they deserve protection.

This morning, I was at a meeting of a group I'll call Pet Rescue of Carbona, a fictitious name chosen for this example. This is a perpetually struggling group that saves of the lives of cats and dogs near where I live. We were discussing what to do about a bank balance hovering in the $500 range.

The group is redoing its Web site, and I asked whether I'd find it at petrescueofcarbona.org, the logical name for such a group. "No," I was told, "we have dot u-s for our domain." (Disclaimer: I am not an officer or spokesperson for the group).

I went home and checked to see whether I could register the .org version of the name. The domain reg system at my hosting company, 1&1, told me it was taken. I guessed that there most be another group with the same name as ours that got the domain first.

Running a WHOIS on the domain failed to turn up an owner for it, so I opened the browser and typed in the domain URL.

Up popped one of those "This domain for sale" pages that also included a bunch of paid links to various pet-released services. It looks as though these are Google AdSense placements, though I could be wrong. The page doesn't even have a listing for our actual site, a small courtesy that is too much to expect from cybersquatters.

Now, I am all for free enterprise and own a couple of hundred domain names, including a few .orgs (so people can't hijack traffic to the .com version of the same name). And, yes, I'd be happy to sell a few of them, all originally reserved for business ideas I toyed with.

But, holding onto a domain like "americanwarning.com" is far different than squatting on the domain of a real, not-for-profit that couldn't afford to ransom the domain if it wanted to.

Having been raised a good Methodist, I wrote an offered $100 for the domain--which I'd pay from my own pocket. I got back a note telling me to submit a "significantly higher" offer. I think I concluded my response with the words, "you scum."

These people have hijacked the good name of our organization and are holding it for ransom. I hope they are proud of making it just a little more difficult for 2007's "Community Organization of the Year" in our town to do its good works.

You think these people can sleep at night?

My understanding of what happened is that at some point in the past that the group owned the .org domain name, but a volunteer innocently let it lapse.

What usually happens here is the squatter looks for expiring domain names and grabs them, figuring the former owner will sooner or later be willing to pay good money to get it back.

Now, I'd have limited sympathy if Coca-Cola were to lose the "coke.com" domain name this way. Big companies are supposed to be able to protect their intellectual property.

But, here we have a tiny charity where a well-meaning volunteer (or two) screwed up because they didn't understand the nature of the people who populate some of the Internet's darker corners.

Question: Are you sure your company's important domain names are set to autorenew? Is the credit card or other payment method current? Have you considered paying for your domain well into the future, to avoid having to renew? Do you have a "future proof" way for your company to remember when the renewal dates for domains will eventually come around?

If you find an answer to the persistant corporate memory problem that would work for small business, drop me an email.

Meanwhile, what can be done about cybersquatters?
We could significantly reduce squatter activity if the paid search companies would simply refuse to provide ads to sites unless they could verify the site was actually legit. To its credit, Google doesn't show the .org hijacker anywhere in its first two pages of search results.

It should also be possible for a "legit" claimant of a domain name, especially a .org, to be force a squatter to give up the name. I wonder if there is a way to do this that doesn't involve attorneys?

Not so, according to my online research.

Wired's How-To Wiki has a useful article on dealing with cybersquatters, from which the following was taken:

"The Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (also known as Truth in Domain Names Act), a United States federal law enacted in 1999, is part of A bill to amend the provisions of title 17, United States Code, and the Communications Act of 1934, relating to copyright licensing and carriage of broadcast signals by satellite (S. 1948). It makes people who register domain names that are either trademarks or individual's names with the sole intent of selling the rights of the domain name to the trademark holder or individual for a profit liable to civil action. It was sponsored by Senator Trent Lott on November 17, 1999, and enacted on November 29 of the same year."

The How-To Wiki also offers useful information on how to avoid typo bandits and other ill-mannered behavior in the first place.

It's also no secret that cybersquatters will do things like immediately register domains when someone merely searches to check their availability. The searcher then returns to find the domain grabbed by someone who will happily sell it to them for an inflated price.

As I said, these people have no shame and will do anything for a buck.

The broad Internet community needs to do everything it can to put these people out-of-business. Stopping advertising on their sites would be a big help. Google and other can add a "no squatters" clause to their terms of service and simply refuse to pay for ill-gotten traffic.

You can help by never anteing up for a domain that a squatter is hoping to cash in on. But, Google and other paid search providers could take the wind right out of these so-and-so's sails.

God has a special plan (and place) for these people.

(POST-SCRIPT: After writing this piece, on a hunch I went back to 1&1, and was able to register the .com version of the group's name, which is what most people would guess the domain name to be anyway. Win one for the animals.)

David Coursey has spent 25 years writing about technology and is a volunteer "cat coordinator" for the group he didn't actually name in this story. Write him at david@coursey.com with your cat tales.

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