Scam Artists: How Local Domain Squatters Con Clients

“It is the responsibility of businesses to market and conduct themselves themselves in a legal and ethical manner.” -My marketing professor and mentor

I generally don’t bother to discuss scammers, con artists, and thieves. They’re not worth my time and if I made a habit of discussing every scammer I’ve either tangled with or had to rescue somebody from I’d be here all day. Though this one particular incident is part of a pattern that actually does tend to hit even more cautious businesses, so I do see something worth talking about.

I started working with a very small local business in my area back in April. I happen to frequent them for business reasons and noticed that they had an under construction splash page dating back to 2007. I casually asked them if they needed help, was promptly introduced to the owner, and a few weeks later I had a simple but clean and functional website ready to go. The only problem was the owners had no idea where the domain was, and a whois pointed to GoDaddy.

Given that the splash page had the name of the company, I decided to start with them. Some digging pointed to a freelancer who had since shuttered his business (for reasons that will become apparent very quickly) So I called and asked if this business owner had the domain name. He said yes. Great, I thought! Problem solved. I asked this web designer, who I will refer to as Bob (I was going to refer to him as “Shithead” but that’s probably too much), if he would be willing to transfer it to this local business because they wanted a new website. The response?

“I can sell it to you.”

We left the conversation there because he was with a client in his new business, but even with my familiarity of scam artists, this response left me momentarily shocked. The business owner would later insist to me that she never agreed to work with Bob and that she had instead considered his offer but ultimately declined it all those years ago. I came to the conclusion that Bob had registered the domain name on the business owner’s behalf (which is a bad idea unless you are trying to scam somebody, but we’ll get to that later) before the deal had even been closed and set up a splash page under the assumption that the job was going to go forward (another bad idea, this one skirting on business identity theft).

I E-mailed Bob suggesting the courteous thing to do would be to simply give this business back the domain name, since he had already tacitly admitted it was theirs, albeit not legally. Bob replied that he had accumulated registration renewal fees over the years and would like to earn that money back. My eyes nearly rolled back into my skull. I considered asking if someone had pointed a gun to his head and forced him to continue renewing the domain but decided he’d have gone to the police if that were the case.

Bob had offered $275 to sell the domain name at a “discount” because he frequents this business to this very day; I’ve seen him in there myself. Suffice to say, the business owner declined when I passed this message along.

Bob and I had a follow up call where I asked why he wouldn’t be willing to let this business have their domain name. Bob responded by asking me if I would work for free. I questioned the relevance of that question, and thus began a slightly tense back-and-forth during which Bob admitted over the phone that he’d “registered hundreds of domain names.”

I was able to confirm this by way of a nameserver lookup, in which Bob’s nameservers were associated with a variety of different domain names tying the names of local towns to alumni groups, SAT prep and computer repair services. He wasn’t registering domains so much as spamming them in a vain hope that he’d eventually be able to make some quick cash. What’s worse, to this day he maintains domains for businesses despite having seemingly left the media industry; so this business I work with isn’t his only victim.

When I subsequently pointed out that he was a domain squatter, he evasively said that was “one way of putting it.”

When I asked him how else he would put it, he accused me of having an attitude. I shifted gears and asked what amount of work is involved in “maintaining” a domain name, and was promptly hung up upon. I guess in some ways that’s an answer in and of itself.

This story, unfortunately, is not an isolated incident. When people think of domain squatters they probably think of shady Eastern European companies that buy domains and redirect them to exotic porn sites. While that certainly happens, a more nefarious local breed of domain squatter is the type that simply buys any number of local domains for no other purpose than to cash in. It’s low effort, anyone can do it, it requires zero talent or work of any description and it’s the lowest common denominator of web work.

Domain squatting is, according to the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act in the United States, is registering, trafficking in, or using an Internet domain name with bad faith intent to profit from the goodwill of a trademark belonging to someone else. Though if you’re a smart con artist, you go after the types of local businesses who don’t have a registered trademark or who are small enough to either pay you off to get their domain back or won’t have the money or time to legally challenge you.

It’s a form of psychological warfare; established businesses need to either start from scratch with a new domain name and will be constantly resisting the temptation to relent and buy the domain name back. When they do, the price just might have doubled courtesy of the squatter’s desire to make as much money as possible out of this situation. The whole purpose of “local” domain squatting is that the squatter acquires the domain, and then mentally fights you. You know that the domain is available, if only you were willing to just fork over that $275.

Make no mistake: This isn’t about legal issues. If you have to rely on “Well, I’m not technically doing anything wrong!” because your moral compass is so broken that you don’t see a problem with registering domains and then selling them back to your own clients, your presence in this industry is poisonous.

The worst part about these types of domain hostage takers (because that’s what they are) is that they’re taking advantage of an inherent trust a business places in you when you’re also local. They’re more willing to let you register a domain on their behalf because hey, you’re local, you’ve gotta be good for it! If only. The reason I’m talking about this is that one business learned the harsh lesson that scammers are far closer than some far off foreign country with lax trademark laws.

It may sound obvious by now, but I’ve seen it happen to enough businesses who to remind everyone: Keep your domain name under lock and key. Make sure auto renew is on.

Lastly, let me pose a question to the local domain squatters who register on behalf of customers and then sell them back. Is some short term cash really worth the annihilation of your credibility and trustworthiness? Because if it is, I’d ask what you’re doing in this industry.