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Internet Buyer beware

By sheer coincidence, I've stumbled upon two Internet scams recently. While not worrying for me personally, I am bothered somewhat because I wonder how many people out there fall for these things.

Scam #1: First, some background: If you hold a "dot com" (.com) domain name and you let it expire, what happens next is very simple. The domain is released back into the pool of available domains where you (or anyone else faster than you) can pick it up for the best price they can find among registrars out there on the net. It's that simple.

from: The Big Book of British Teeth. Of course in Canada, things have to be more complicated and more bureaucratic. First of all, .ca domains are governed by a central authority - CIRA. If you have a .ca domain name and you let it expire, for 30 days following that you can pony up the cash and be back on your way putting up pictures of your cats wearing tiaras. If you let the 30 days go by without renewing your domain, it goes into TBR status for anywhere from around 60 hours to two weeks. While your domain is TBR, it is posted in a publicly viewable list on the CIRA website, which I imagine is of much usefulness to the domain predators out there, but I'll get to that in a minute.

At the end of the TBR period, there there is a 15 minute "special registration period" where you can bid on the domain, blind-auction-style. You can't bid any amount, but instead you must bid at one of 10 pre-defined bid levels. Should there be more than three bidders, then the top three move to their own "Stage 2" bidding process, and then the domain awarded to the highest bidder. Should there be no bids on the domain during the special registration period, it is returned to the pool of available domains and is now available for a regular registration.

And all of this has to be done through a domain registrar, but not every registrar is set up to handle the TBR process. For instance, my usual registrar, Netfirms, doesn't offer this service. So not only is the process convoluted, misunderstood, and virtually unknown, but the pool of potential registrars available is much smaller, making things that much more difficult for you, the person trying to recover your .ca domain name.

from: The Big Book of British Teeth. How do I know all of this? I was recently retained by a company who wished to recover a .ca domain that had lapsed into TBR status. While investigating the process, I discovered the scam, and here's how it works: CIRA publishes the list of TBR domains in advance, and anyone can view the list. The list my client's domain was on had almost 6000 domains listed. An unscrupulous person will scan the list picking out the 100 most likely candidates and bid the minimum on each domain (currently around $10). Because the whole TBR process is poorly documented and understood, I'm pretty sure these savvy people get the majority of the domains they bid on. So now they have 100 domains, and it's just a matter of picking up the phone at this point, and calling the previous domain owners. If they can sell one domain for $2000, they double their money. You get the idea.

In order to ensure my client's domain wasn't picked up in this manner, I was forced to bid at a higher level. I chose the $60 level, figuring that would eliminate the bottom feeders described above, and only serious bidders would then move forward. And I managed to recover the domain.

If you currently have a TBR domain and are interested in recovering it, choose a maximum you are willing to spend to get it back and stay below that number. Bid at a level higher than the minimum, and choose a reputable registrar. I was pleased with the service I received at fastwebserver.ca. If you have a .ca domain in good standing, this story should motivate you to keep it that way!

Scam #2: What is weird about this is that my client got this phone-call during the period I was trying to recover his .ca domain. Pure coincidence. To explain this scam, I'll put the scammer a little further back in the timeline. I'm sure he won't mind this in exchange for maintaining his anonymity. Let's also say that my client's business is called: "Sample Auto Parts" and that he's got the sample.ca domain.

from: The Big Book of British Teeth. So, the scammer who is from Britain, and has a web site, and has the ability to register domains trolls YellowPages.ca looking for candidates. What he is looking for are companies that have the optional web link under the listing, and that the web-link is dead. Perhaps the link doesn't even have to be dead. And maybe he is using the TBR list too, but I'm pretty sure at some point he resorts to the yellow pages because my client has two offices and only one is listed in the yellow pages, and that's where the call went...

So scammer calls my client and says:

"My name is John Jones, and I'm with this domain registrar in the U.K., Scammer Domains. I'm concerned because an A. Mitchell from Toronto is attempting to register variations of your domain name, to wit:

sampleauto.com, .biz. .net
sampleautoparts.com, .biz. .net

I discovered your number through an Internet search, and I'd hate to see your business infringed upon in this manner, so what I'm willing to do is, for £400 (about $800 CDN), I'm willing to register these domains on your behalf for a period of 10 years..."

I instructed my client that should this person call again, he was to simply refer him to me, stating that I handle all Internet issues for his company. I was amazed when John Jones actually called me!

John opened with the same story I've related above. I didn't explain to him everything I am going to tell you below. Why arm him? But I just want to mention one part of the conversation:

Me: "Hey John, I tried to "Google" you and you have no listing - no presence on Google. I own a small business as well, and if you punch my business name into Google, in quotes, it pops right up. And so it does for a number of other small businesses I've tried. But I can't find your company on the net anywhere at all.

John: "Well, we do have a web site, it's scammerdomains.co.uk, and the reason we weren't listed in Google is because our servers were down this morning. So should I register these for your client, or do you wish for me to release these to A. Mitchell?"

Me: "Go crazy. Let A. Mitchell have 'em."

...and sure enough, there was a site at scammerdomains.co.uk. OK, where do I begin? Here's why it's a scam:

  1. I don't know about you, but if I find an available dot-com domain name and I start the registration process, I'd be pretty ticked off if the registrar then took it upon himself to call around (the whole WORLD) trying to find out if anyone else had an interest in that name. If I've retained you to secure a domain for me, you had better do it.
  2. Is there no Sample Auto Parts in the U.K., Belgium, or Puerto Rico? Don't these people deserve to have their business name protected as well?
  3. Why would A. Mitchell retain a tiny registrar in the U.K to register these domain names when they are 6 times more expensive than a local Canadian registrar would charge?
  4. How did A. Mitchell find scammerdomains.co.uk, if I couldn't without being told the exact address? He couldn't find Netfirms, but he could find this little outfit?
  5. scammerdomains.co.uk has no way to telephone them anywhere on their site. Never trust a registrar you can't call on the phone, even if you pride yourself (as I do) on never having to call tech support. Interestingly in a couple of places, they offer you to "give them a ring", even though again, there is no number to call.
  6. John Jones was trying to convince me and my client that you should own the domain names for every possible variation of your company name, and every top-level domain - a very expensive proposition, and an unecessary one. There are only two ways to the average site (short of link-backs), and they are: from the address on your business cards, and via the search engines. If you tell me that your company website for ABC Soda Co. is ABCSoda.com, am I going to type in every possible combination of your company name into the URL bar of my browser? Give me a break - I'll enter in the address you gave me to enter in.
  7. If your servers go down temporarily, of course you don't lose your search-engine listing in Google. And I don't know how much site uptime an Englander expects, but us Canadians want and get 99.9%!
  8. Lastly, here we are days later, and the domain name variations are still available! EEeeek! Poor A. Mitchell!

from: The Big Book of British Teeth. The only reason I gave this guy the time of day was because he actually called me - and I do like the personal touch when I'm being scammed, though these days with VOIP, even a phone call doesn't say "I-love-you-and-I-want-to-rip-you-off" like it used to. Also, I did find the investigation entertaining, certainly more interesting than the usual stuff I do from day to day. You may even think it's a harmless scam, because nobody really gets hurt, but he's preying on people whose only crime is that they are technology neophytes. I'd hate for my father to get ripped off in this way.

If you read this article and you like it, AND you know a Canadian lawyer, then please send this along to him/her/it. I'd like to know if I have any liability by supplying the scammer's actual name/company information.

Internet Buyer beware
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