08/02/2011

Until recently, most of us discarded rogue emails from Chinese domain name service providers about another company registering a website domain similar to yours as little more than spam. Hayden Sutherland, All About Brands’ digital specialist, explains why cyber-squatting or domain-squatting is a problem and what you should do.

If, like me, you receive emails from Chinese domain name service providers helpfully letting you know that a company in Asia has bought a series of domain names which are similar to your own company’s web domain name, you’re probably inclined to discard it as spam.

But the problem of cybersquatting, also known as domain squatting, i.e. when someone deliberately registers a domain name that is relevant to your brand (product, service, organisation or even person) appears to be on the rise. They do it in a deliberate act to either deny you of it, to make money from your brand equity, or with the intention of selling (read: ransoming it) it back to you.

The actual issue of whether this activity is actually illegal depends upon your country of residence. In the US, there is in fact a federal law which outlaws this under the American Anti-cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act.

However most countries have no legislation to cover this and therefore they have to resolve the issue through the Uniform Domain Name Resolution Policy (UDRP). This is an international process set up by ICANN, however the chances of getting a name back varies from situation to situation and is trickier if your cybersquatter resides in another country, especially places such as China and Russia.

What you can do about it really depends on a number of questions.

1. How close to your brand is the domain that is registered?

If it uses the exact name (and correct spelling) then there's obviously a strong chance it’s your organisation that has been targeted. If it is a common top level domain (TLD), then expect that many users will type this URL into their browser, an action known as "domain dipping".

2. What does this domain offer?

Is there an actual website there, if so what does it say or do? Are they attempting to pass themselves off as your brand? Do they sell products, especially competitive ones (or even your own) if they have an eCommerce or affiliate setup? Remember, a site that pretends to be yours is an obvious phishing scam candidate and the negative publicity and reputational risk could be huge! Even if this isn't a phishing attempt, are you really happy for someone to make money from your brand without your consent and without your quality safeguards?

3. Are they promoting the domain?

If they are trying, through fair means or foul, to promote the site then these efforts could conflict with your own marketing and PR activity. To check it out simply type
"link[site URL]" into Google to see who's linking to this site. Don’t get me started on what this means for your SEO efforts...

My main advice is if you are in any doubt as to your legal position on this… consult your lawyer. You may have a clear case of misrepresentation or other avenues to claim back this domain (or at least stop it doing what it is doing). But regardless, make sure you fully understand the impact that that the cyber squatter is having on your brand and begin to work out a method of communicating the real business.


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