Beware cybersquatters

* One reader learns a hard lesson and sends a warning

We all know about Internet fraud and how to avoid obvious scams and how to check for phishing e-mails. But do you know how to protect yourself against fraud that actually steals your Internet presence by taking your domain name?

One unlucky reader recently found this out the hard way. He accidentally let a domain name lapse for a small retail store in Austria that generates a few page views. A cybersquatter swooped in and grabbed the name when it lapsed.

Admittedly, the reader missed the warnings from the domain name registrar that the registration license was running out. He didn't make any excuses, but we all know how important e-mail can get lost in the flood. The mistake became apparent when the domain name no longer brought up the small retail store but instead showed an error message saying it couldn't be found.

The cyber-weasels involved? Unasi, of Panama. Search on "unasi" and you'll see thousands of hits, most of which discuss the companies cyber-shenanigans and underhanded business practices. You may have seen news this past September about the National Arbitration Forum deciding against Unasi when it was ordered to give control of the domain name to Jaclyn Smith International, run by the actress.

Cybersquatters are known for scooping up domain names and then trying to sell them. It's not illegal, technically, although when they grab names of big companies and trademarked terms, they always lose. But selling one name now and then pays for the registration expenses, especially since these companies don't spend any money protecting their names.

Almost every court decision and arbitration dispute rewards the questioned domain name to the rightful owner because the cybersquatters don't appear to defend themselves. But the rightful owners, unfortunately, must put up the money to fight the battle and get the domain name.

Could the Internet oversight boards watching name registrars reduce this cybersquatting? Sure, but it takes willpower on their part. Any company with no business except registering hundreds of names in bulk that are not related in any way to their business should be monitored for these types of abuses.

Moral of this story? Watch for your domain registration notices and don't let them lapse. Appoint one person to be in charge of domain names.

Another sneaky fraud to watch out for long pre-dates the Internet. Many fraudsters send generic invoices by the thousands to every company they can. Fraudsters count on companies with inattentive clerks to automatically process and pay an invoice marked "printer toner" or "copier paper" and the like because of the relatively small invoice amounts.

The new wrinkle on this scam finds these fraudsters sending invoices for Web hosting and domain name registration. Some infamous companies troll the domain name listings and send every company an invoice to renew their Internet name. Usually, the small print transfers rights and administrative control over the name to the fraudster, making the rightful owners fight to get their name back.

Placing one person in charge of all domain name matters will help you avoid both types of fraud. You may want to place all Internet business, including access and hosting, with that same person. Placing all your domain names with one registrar will help you recognize fraudulent invoices and letters when they arrive.

You lock your doors. You keep your money in banks. You must also protect your domain names, for they are money to every business today.

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.