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RTM Domain Hijacked by
Hong Kong Company

by Courtney Caldwell

The first question everyone asks is "How can they do that?" We were taken by surprise too, not from a second hand story of some poor company's misfortune, but rather through first hand experience. This happened to us, ROAD & TRAVEL Magazine, in the flash of an eye. If the following information can help prevent this from happening to you or your company, then we gladly share it.

On Friday, August 9, I returned to my Michigan headquarters after a weeklong business trip to L.A. Coincidently, that was the same week that our ROAD & TRAVEL Magazine website address (URL) registration expired. However, the company with whom the domain name was registered failed to notify us that it was about to expire. We are still trying to find out why this happened but so far to no avail.

Like most companies today who have multiple online accounts for technology-related services, we rely heavily on these IT partners to send reminder notices via email that accounts are due for renewal. For the most part the majority are excellent at fulfilling this responsibility, however, this leaves business owners with a false sense of security, as was the case with our domain. We put too much faith in the system and we paid the price.

As it turns out RTM's domain registration expired on August 7 while I was out of town. The Hong Kong company picked it up on August 8 and by Monday August 12, all traffic to our website and all emails stopped. Essentially, we were out of business, albeit temporarily. By August 15, the perpetrator launched a link farm website with our address sucking up all RTM traffic and links. Hence, the week from hell began.

We've done a great deal of research about this phenomenon and have learned that this Hong Kong hijacker has done a lot of URL stealing from companies around the world. And, they don't just pick on the little guys. Some of the law suits against them have come from such powerhouses as Price Waterhouse Coopers, Edmunds.com, and the Poetry Society, to name a few.

The problem, called site squatting, has become so pervasive that Congress passed a bill last year to make it illegal -- but there are international companies that still do it. You can fight them, and according to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), you have a good chance of winning. But it will cost you time and money.

What do they do with stolen URLs?
The primary goal of domain hijackers is to steal your traffic and link popularity. They then use your URL on a new site, link farm or porn site to take advantage of the traffic and links. The sooner you can disable your PPC search engines, the better, since PPCs will continue to charge you for traffic that goes to the perp's new site.

Steps you can take to report them
The first step is to report them to www.domainregistrate.com, www.icann.org - the governing body of the Internet, and to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). The cost to pursue them with WIPO starts at $1500, which can quickly escalate depending on the size of the fight. Then there are your own lawyer fees. If you're an American company, you're looking at an international lawsuit. In the meantime, your site is down and business is lost, not to mention all the personal time invested. Some of the companies with whom we spoke said it took about two months from beginning to end to get their domain back, but at what cost?

In our case, the cost to fight them outweighed the cost to register the new URL and make all the changes necessary to have RTM up and running again. While we are consistently growing every month having recently surpassed 100,000 unique visitors, we're not so big yet that we can't handle this challenge in-house. If anything, it will likely make us bigger, better, faster, stronger. Anger is a great motivator.

One of the most satisfying things to emerge from this challenge has been the support of our web hosting company, Radiant Communications, who has rallied to the challenge with swift and immediate action. So, have our many search engine partners such as Google, Yahoo, Overture, Inktomi and Looksmart. They, too, despise companies that rape and pillage website domains so they are eager to be supportive and cooperative in helping you fight back and win. It has been their team support that has gotten us through one very tough week.

Do It Yourself: Steps to get back online quickly!
Should you decide not to take legal action, but instead just replace the URL, you must first register a new domain and notify your hosting company immediately of what has happened so they can help you through the process. The next thing you must do is contact all the search engines your site is registered with to cancel your old URL to prevent the hijackers from having access to your traffic. Once your new domain is live, you must then give that to all the search engines. Contact those directories or search engines with which you have pay-per-click accounts immediately. Have them suspend your account as soon as this happens to prevent paying for clicks that go the thief's new website.

Some search engines index sites daily or every 48 hours. Others take 4-6 weeks. You must be patient while this process happens. There's just no way to speed it up so expect your traffic to resume its last count within a month or two.

The most daunting challenge is contacting all the companies that link to your site. In our case it is several thousand link partners. Each one must be contacted to ensure they change their link to you immediately. Otherwise, every time someone goes on their site and clicks on your old link, they'll get the link farm or perhaps even a porn site. It's bad for both you and your link partner. One way to make this less daunting is to keep a file on all incoming link partners' names and emails in the event you ever have to contact them all at once for any reason.

Prevention is the best defense
The best thing you can do to prevent this from happening to you is to keep a registration and renewal file on your computer that defines all your IT partners with your sign up date, renewal dates, contact name, email and phone number, and the last 4 digits of the credit card you used. Either you or your bookkeeper should then check it monthly as part of your standard accounting procedures.

This was a hard lesson but I hope by sharing this story it will help prevent it from happening to others. Like many, we had never heard of this until it happened to us. We were quite surprised to see how prevalent it was once we started researching it.

In fact, so pervasive is the problem by this Hong Kong company that an Asian office has been set up to handle the overflow of international complaints and problems.


Asian Domain Name Dispute Resolution Centre (Hong Kong Office)
Attention: Domain Name Case Administrator
38/F Two Exchange Square
8 Connaught Place Central
Hong Kong
Tel : (852) 2525 2381
Fax : (852) 2199 5999
Email : hkiac@adndrc.org

This kind of thievery hurts all of us whether you're a small or big company. It takes time away from not only your staff to get everything reinstated, which increases costs to your company, but it also takes time away from all your partners who have to make changes as well. While most are very compassionate and sympathetic to your plight, it's still disruptive leaving you feeling bad on top of everything else.

So be aware, be prepared, and consider yourself warned. Pass this story onto your colleagues. No doubt you'll hear what we've heard, "I've never heard of such a thing!" Now you have.

For more information on site hijacking, go to:
http://news.zdnet.co.uk/story/0,,t269-s2101752,00.html

To contact author: http://www.roadandtravel.com/company/companylanding/contact-us.htm

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