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What if Your Internet Domain Was Hijacked?

To most of you, talk about Internet domains is a lot of obtuse nonsense. It has nothing to do with you, or does it?

You see, whenever you want to set up a personal or business site on the Internet with a unique name, you immediately get involved with the domain business. Consider a domain more than just a sign on your front door, but the online equivalent of your physical address. If that disappears, your friends and/or customers can’t find you. Suddenly, domains seem a lot more important, right?

If a company is hosting your site, you’ll probably let them set up your domain as well, although you’ll sometimes choose different companies for each service. Either way, setting up a new domain is cheap. if your host doesn’t offer it to you free of charge, figure on paying anywhere from $7 to $25 per year, depending on the company you’re dealing with and the options they offer, such as privacy.

But the business is a whole lot more complicated than that. You see, there are some folks out there who regard Internet domains as akin to a real estate investment. They buy up lots and lots of names, hoping that ads or perhaps a sale to someone who lusts after that name will yield a profit. Some folks refer to such people in less complimentary terms, such as squatters.

Regardless of why you want a domain, you assume that the company with whom it’s registered is honest and that you will have full control how to use that name. Alas, this isn’t always the case, and sometimes the situation can result in chaos.

I can cite one example in which a company tried to hijack one of my most popular domains, all because of a single errant letter that never actually went through their email servers. The tale is detailed in an issue of our Tech Night Owl Newsletter, so I’ll keep this brief. Basically, Go Daddy wanted to exact a $199 penalty if they decided to freeze the domain, or $70 if I decided to just move it to another host. Fortunately, I talked them out of this draconian measure, reminding them that there was real spam out there that required their attention. I also moved my business away from them over a period of several weeks. Enough was enough.

However, there are more serious offenses out there. Take the case of Registerfly.com, which was accused of taking money, sometimes more than once, and then not properly registering domains. The entire sad affair has become a soap opera of sorts, but it’s not terribly funny for the thousands and thousands of customers who risk losing domains because of that company’s ongoing malfeasance.

After a long period of inactivity, the agency that accredits registrars, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), finally decided to pull the rug from under Registerfly.com and remove its status as an authorized dealer.

There have been some court actions as well, but as of this writing, Registerfly.com is still in operation, and still taking orders for domain registrations and Web hosting. What do you get if you mistakenly order one of their products or services? Well, I have no idea, and, frankly, I’d rather not test it for myself.

In the end, ICANN is reportedly in the process of moving all these domains to another company, but it may take months or years to sort out this mess, with hundreds of thousands of domains possibly up for grabs on the open market.

I hope it turns out all right in the end. However, this sordid affair demonstrates how poorly ICANN has been managed up until now. Even though the assets of Registerfly.com will be, one hopes, eventually sorted out, what about the next time? How many other registrars are out there that are capable of hijacking or mistakenly releasing your domain into the wild west of the Internet?

How do you protect yourself from such a catastrophe?

Well, one way is to check the reputation of the company to whom you register your domain before you give them your business. Some suggest it’s also a good idea to separate your domain from your host, by using a different provider for each. That way if your Web host doesn’t deliver speedy and reliable service, you can easily go elsewhere and not risk having them lock your domain down so you can’t change it to point to your new host.

Here we use both DreamHost for our sites and our domains, and service has been first rate. There are lots of other choices, but this is something you’ll want to investigate for yourself. You may also want to read up on how the domain system works, and I recommend a terrific e-book, “Take Control of Your Domain Names,” for more information.

If you want to learn more about the situation at Registerfly.com, you might want to visit a site set up to assist its former victims, at Registerflies.com.