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Churches can guard against the threat of cybersquatting

Beware of nefarious characters who snatch up domain names with malicious intent.

By Chris Bonney

My son sees me on the computer regularly and continually asks, “Can I go on the computer too?” He’s already using the Internet on a limited basis at school, so it seemed like a logical next step for him to click, drag and drop at home.

I know what some parents’ fears are surrounding MySpace.com and other Web sites where kids can fall prey to predators, but considering my son is only five and that I planned to be right by his side throughout his entire surfing experience, we booted up.

I set my sights on the ultimate online location for children: Disney. Because my son had been regularly watching Disney’s “Playhouse” series of cartoons, I immediately typed in “disneyplayhouse.com.” The Disney channel regularly touts its Playhouse Web site so I knew we were in for some great kid content.

But instead of getting a friendly greeting from Mickey welcoming my son to virtual Mouseland, a pop-up box appeared with the words, “You’ve won virtual reality casino.” Needless to say, my son was a little confused.

Beware of malicious intent

What happened? The actual domain name for the Disney destination is “playhousedisney.com” not “disneyplayhouse.com.” Turns out when Disney was buying domain names, they didn’t consider buying variations on a theme. When organizations leave relevant domain names up for grabs, it opens up an opportunity for cybersquatters, nefarious characters who snatch up domain names with malicious intent, to move in and seize property.

Cybersquatting originated in the early stages of the Internet before many companies were savvy enough to realize the value of TheirCompanyName.com. Those more in tune with technology quickly bought up domain names, many times infringing on copyrights and trademarks. Some early victims included the biggest brands in the world like mcdonalds.com, which was purchased by someone not affiliated with McDonald’s at the time, but who later relinquished the name to the fast food corporation.

Corporations and faith-based organizations have become more technologically savvy over the years but the perils of cybersquatting are still prevalent. Mormon.com, for example, was hijacked for years by a cybersquatter who posted only lewd content on the site. Recently, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints bought the domain name for a hefty sum and turned it into a legitimate site.

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) reports that there were a record-setting 2,156 cybersquatting complaints in 2007, representing an 18 percent increase over 2006 and a 48 percent increase over 2005. Of course, as the Internet becomes the de facto messaging tool of our time, the values of domain names continue to rise. The increasing value drives competition and makes owning a typo or variation of a popular domain potentially very profitable.

Organizations like the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse (CADNA) are doing everything they can to help curb this illegal activity. As stated on their Web site: “CADNA will work to educate the public, lobby the relevant agencies of jurisdiction in the United States government, and actively communicate with members of Congress.”

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was established in 1998 to be the governing body of Internet-related tasks performed directly on behalf of the U.S. government. Disputes over domain names are generally resolved through ICANN’s Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP). Campus Church of Norcross, GA won a dispute earlier this year for the domain campuschurch.org through UDRP.

While UDRP allows most companies to resolve their disputes without court involvement, there have been instances where the court has overturned a UDRP judgment. In the case of Virtual Works Inc. v. Volkswagen of America Inc. the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that because Virtual Works had malicious intent when they filed for vw.net, even though it is relevant to their business name, they had to relinquish it to Volkswagen, hence squelching Virtual Works’ intent to sell the domain to the highest bidder.

Relevant but not exact

One really important thing to remember about your domain name, cybersquatting aside, is to be unique. It’s vital to have a domain name that is relevant to your church, but it doesn’t have to be related to the exact name of your organization. Something like thepathoffaith.org might resonate with your congregation more than drysdalefaithlutheranchurch.org.

Here are the top three things you can do to help protect your church from falling prey to cybersquatting:

1. Buy all you can. Budget constraints aside, it’s imperative your organization buy as many relevant domain names as possible, including variations and typos of your primary address and all extensions like .biz, .net and .info. All of these purchased domains should be forwarded to your main Web site.

2. Be on alert. Establish a domain name alert system through your domain name provider, or even create a Google Alert with the name or acronym for your organization so that you can track what is being registered.

3. Act quickly. If you feel that your intellectual property rights have been violated, contact your lawyer immediately. It’s important to stop violators as soon as possible, so file a domain-name dispute proceeding under UDRP. Another option is to file an action under the Anti-cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (also known as Truth in Domain Names Act), which allows you to potentially obtain injunctive relief, actual damages or statutory damages of up to $100,000 per domain name and in some cases, attorneys’ fees. Of course, lawsuits are generally much more tedious, expensive and time-consuming so your best bet is to go UDRP first.

Cybersquatting remains a true threat to faith-based organizations. Government and legal entities are vigilant in their monitoring of illegal activities online but it’s your duty as well to make sure your congregation finds you online easily.

Chris Bonney is the vice president of client services for Vanguard Technology, Chicago, IL. [vtcus.com]


Types of Cybersquatting

There are many types of cybersquatting. Here is a list as defined by Internet Business Law Services (ibls.com):

Cybersquatting: This is a bad-faith intent registration; a cybersquatter can either sell to the highest bidder or collect money by domain parking.

Typosquatting: This is cybersquatting with the tendency to mistype certain words in Internet addresses, such as spelling Google as Googel.

Domainer: A purveyor of domain names who makes income from buying and selling them.

Dropcatcher: A person or company who rushes to purchase, or catch popular domain names quickly when their registrations lapse.

Domain tasting: Getting domains for a “five-day free refund period” to test, then dropping for refund the ones that didn’t pan out.

Domain parking: A way of making money by having a small site with just advertising linked to a related domain name, where the owner paid a small amount whenever a person clicks on an ad, which can add up to millions in some cases.

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