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Domain Names -Losing your identity

We hear a lot in the news about identity theft and it’s certainly worrying if it happens to you. On reflection, that’s probably an understatement. It can take absolutely years to get your life back. But did you know that identity theft can also happen to your web site domain name?

Before we talk about losing your online identity, it’s helpful to know about the major parties who are involved with protecting you.

Domain names are similar to a company name and are registered through the Domain Name Commission (DNC), which is a publicly funded authority that regulates the .nz domain namespace. DNC’s role is to improve the trust, safety, and perception of .nz. As an impartial umpire in the .nz domain name market, they’re responsible for ensuring that industry and consumers ‘play by the rules’. When they don’t, DNC steps in.

Their role is to:

  • enforce the rules and policies that apply to .nz and ensure they’re being followed
  • ensure the market for .nz domains and the space itself is equitable, safe, and trusted
  • provide services that enable people to report problems or submit complaints about .nz services.

 

DNC was appointed by InternetNZ to develop and monitor a competitive registrar market, as well as create a fair environment for the registration and management of .nz domain names. InternetNZ is the home and guardian for the .nz domain. It’s a not-for-profit organisation which provides infrastructure, security and support to keep the Internet of New Zealand humming.

How the domain name registration works

When an organisation is ready for an online presence, a domain name is chosen. This usually reflects the name of the organisation and/or what they do. On a good day, the fit (or description) will be close, however this isn’t always the case. There have been some really poorly-chosen domain names registered over the years, that bear no reflection on the organisation or what they do, but I’ll keep that for another blog on another day.

Once a ‘suitable’ domain name has been chosen, it needs to be checked to see if anyone else already owns it. For New Zealand registered domain names visit WHOIS Lookup. If the domain name you want to use is not a New Zealand one, search on Google to see what comes up and visit one of the many domain name registrars, to see if it is available.

The role of a domain name registrar is to manage the hosting of domain names. For this they charge a (usually reasonable) annual fee. The registration year has an anniversary date and each year the registration is renewed on the anniversary date and another year’s registration fee is charged. Some registrars renew and invoice on a two-yearly cycle (Expert’s registrar does).

Ownership of your domain name

Once you’ve found the domain name you want, you’ll complete a registration form and pay a small fee to secure it. The domain name registrar will set it up in your organisation’s name. If you engage a third party (i.e.an agent) to register your domain name for you, it’s vital that you get them to set it up in your organisation’s name, not theirs. Your failure to do so will mean that the agent owns your domain name, not you. As the old saying goes, it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. In other words, while the chances are that nothing should go wrong, unfortunately sometimes things don’t go according to plan and the results can be disastrous.

For example, what happens if you have a falling-out with your agent or they go out of business, get taken over by another organisation, leave the country or just quietly disappear? One thing for certain is that your domain name will most likely not be renewed and the fees owing to the domain name registrar won’t be paid. At best, this will result in your website disappearing from the internet, or at worst, your domain name could be on-sold and you’ll lose it forever. If it gets on-sold to one of your competitors, chances are you can kiss your business goodbye too.

At Expert, we manage the domain name registrations for around 75% of our clients. We use a high-quality registrar that is professional, reliable and reputable. We also have an automated online process (using MoST of course) so that domain names are always renewed and the fees are paid by Expert on time, on behalf of our clients. Our clients are then billed by Expert each time their domain name is renewed.

From time to time, we receive calls from desperate clients whose websites have disappeared over night due to their domain names not being renewed. These are never domain names that we manage but it’s often required of us to sort out the problems and get their websites back up and running. Interestingly, these clients usually change the management of their domain names over to us once this has happened.

How the process works

  1. To check the status of your domain name, visit www.dnc.org.nz. This is the website for the Domain Name Commission and shows who is the legal owner of your website’s domain name (in case there’s any doubt!)
  2. The registrar of your domain name will be a third-party provider (wholesaler) who works with Expert (retailer) if Expert is tasked with managing your domain name renewal
  3. Your domain name fees are usually paid in advance for a two-year period. An invoice for this will be emailed to you in the month that the registration is renewed
  4. A month before the anniversary of your domain name renewal, you will receive an email from Expert advising that your domain name will auto-renew on the anniversary date and advising that if you no longer want the domain name that you will need to cancel it (opting out). Assuming you don’t want to cancel the domain name, you don’t need to do anything at this point. However, if you do want to cancel the domain name, you would need to reply to the email immediately and tell us that you want to cancel. This process will be repeated every two years

 

Other nasties to contend with

There have been instances where an unscrupulous person will register a domain name that is really similar to a bone fida one. Their intention is to create confusion and hopefully benefit from this. The most common way is to register a domain name that is the same but with a different suffix, for example .org.nz, .co.nz or .com.

Some years ago I worked for a not-for-profit organisation with a .org.nz suffix domain name and was alarmed to discover that someone had registered the .co.nz equivalent. Not only did they have a really similar name to us, they also posted information on their site that looked really similar to what we had on ours, including a range of advertisements for products that we could be expected to sell. Our website was really high in Google rankings and received heaps of traffic, so was clearly a popular site. We could only guess at the motivation behind the passing-off – we suspected that advertising slots had been sold with the promise of a large number of visitors to the site. Or they had dodgy gear they wanted to off-load. Or maybe it was intended to scam people into parting with credit card info for products that didn’t exist.

Facebook Market Place wasn’t around in those days, but I suspect that this would be the modus operandi for similar scams these days.

Many of our members and other interested parties visited the rogue site and were surprised by the content they found on it. When it was brought to our attention, we contacted the Domain Name Commission to see what could be done to shut them down. The DMC was really helpful but in those days there wasn’t much action that could be easily taken. We discovered that the rogue company was based in Malaysia and was hiding behind a shelf company. We started gathering up evidence, which was very time consuming, and this dragged on for some weeks. We also embarked on a campaign to tell our members and anyone else who would listen, what had happened and asked them to avoid visiting the rogue site.

As quickly as the rogue site appeared, it disappeared. We wasted no time in registering the .co.nz version (and any derivative we could think of) to ensure this didn’t happen again. It didn’t, thankfully.

There are probably many more checks and balances in place to prevent something like this from happening now, however it proved to be a great wake-up call for us.

 

Over the years Expert has seen many examples of domain name issues occurring, with the main one being domain names not being renewed before they expire. Some years ago we set up a system within MoST to ensure this never happened for the domain names we were managing on behalf of clients, and I’m pleased to say that it works brilliantly. It’s fully automated on our part and provides peace of mind to our clients.

If we don’t currently manage your domain name renewals and you’d like to know more, or would like Expert to manage yours for you, just let us know. We’d be very happy to help!

 

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