Your Domain: Being Held For Ransom



Depending on the success of your business this ransom price tag can range from a minimal amount of a few hundred dollars to potentially thousands. I’ve seen ransom asking prices range from $100 to $10,000 in order to have a domain transferred, again depending on the success of the brand that will have influence on what can potentially be asked for. It’s a case of your domain name being held hostage and in order for you to acquire it here is our ransom demand.

As an owner of an agency I know that our reputation at the end of the day is everything. We take the reputation of our clients just as seriously, the foundation of the relationships that we build is based on trust. Trust is a valuable currency, especially when someone literally puts the future of their business into your hands. On the flip side of that coin, we know all too well that trust itself can be misplaced and potentially used to deceive, it may not start out that way but somehow it has become an all too familiar end result.

Trust is a currency that has been in circulation since well before we started printing money, your credibility and established relationships at one point were literally what we now would equate to a credit score. Although it is not traded on any financial market, I would be happy to debate the value of trust versus the value of monetary currency.  Unfortunately we all know you can’t deposit trust into your bank account and I’ve yet to figure out how to spend trust to pay my bills, but it is still arguably one of the most powerful currencies in existence.

I know you are thinking to yourself, why is the tech guy talking about currencies when he said the article was about domains. Legitimate question for sure, but it’s just the setup for the rest of the article which promise I’ll get to in just a minute. Think about this how many friends have you purchased with monetary currency? I know someone somewhere just raised their hand, I was being facetious so please put your hand down. Friends, relationships, people who are in positions of leadership that influence you, did you send them money to cover that transaction? Simple answer, no, the currency that was spent on that was trust.

I say all of that to just say this, trust is a currency that is earned, no different than monetary currency. When you’re out there looking for an agency or a freelancer to hire, do your homework. Don’t just trust that they have your best interests at heart, while this is the exception and not the rule, there are a lot of great agencies and freelancers out there. Unfortunately there are a lot that are exactly the opposite, make sure you know what you’re signing up for.

Your Domain?

This situation happens way more often than you think. You need a website for your business, so you look up a few web designers. You do the customary review of their website to see what services they offer and everything looks good, so you contact them. They will typically setup a session with you to talk about what you’re looking for, it’s the discovery call for the designer to determine what they are going to need to do based on your requirements.

Then comes the pitch or quote, after a few back and forth emails, you feel comfortable with securing their services. My hope is that you were given at least a high level plan, delivery expectations, and possibly a way to view the progress as your site is being built. Nobody likes surprises, if the first time you are going to see your site is when it’s finished, request a way to access it via a secure or unpublished link.

When you signed your contract or paid the invoice which typically states that it includes design, hosting, email,  and a domain name. This is where things can go horribly wrong, but you’re so excited about getting your new website and so proud of the domain name you came up with, you never think to question anything. Let’s face it, if you were technically savvy enough to do it yourself, you wouldn’t have outsourced it to someone else. In your mind the quote included the domain name you requested, you approved via email, signed or accepted a quote, or some kind of contract.

After a few weeks your brand new website is ready, you’ve approved the final review, and it’s launch time. You’re getting your social media announcement ready, telling your friends, everyone does it. Launch day comes and goes and everything is running smoothly, then at some point in the future one of a few things happens. The results you expected are not happening, maybe you find a better offer from another agency and can reduce your overhead, or it takes too long to get updates made or there are a lot of “we can’t do that” responses. I’ve heard them all and here’s where things can potentially give you a wake up call that has the potential to place the future of your business, or at a minimum your bank account, in a very tough situation.

When you approach the agency or freelancer that built your website and have the conversation about you’ve decided to go in a different direction, things do not go as expected. The entire time you’ve done business with them they have managed everything, you never needed to do anything, and you’ve paid your invoices on time for their services. Then it hits you, you’re told that in order for them to release your website and domain to the new vendor they are going to need you to pay a potentially devastating amount of ransom money. Confusion sets in immediately, then frustration, and finally you’re thinking to yourself how is this possible and what am I going to do now.

This is not uncommon, so let me explain what has just taken place. When you paid for your website to be built you requested a specific domain name and the invoice included a line item for the domain. Typically this line item is simply labeled as “domain name” or “domain”, some are noted as “first year free” or if you sign up for a specific maintenance package the domain is listed as being covered as long as you pay for that particular service. Here is where what I consider horrible business ethics rears its ugly head. You’re told that you don’t own the domain, we (the agency) registered the domain, so we legally own it. It’s when you hear that or see it communicated back to you in an email exchange that you think to yourself how is that possible, I paid for that. Yes, technically you did, but what you were not told is that the domain name that you requested and paid for was registered either in the agencies name or the freelancer that did the work. Legally, the domain registration doesn’t belong to you. But do we have a deal for you, we are willing to transfer it to you for this price. Now, how is that legal or possible is the first thought you have, then your next thought is how is my business going to potentially afford this.

Depending on the success of your business this ransom price tag can range from a minimal amount of a few hundred dollars to potentially thousands. I’ve seen asking prices range from $100 to $10,000 in order to have a domain transferred, again depending on the success of the brand that will have influence on what ransom can potentially be asked for. It’s a case of your domain name being held hostage and in order for you to acquire it here is our ransom demand. While this is not an uncommon practice, it is one that is frowned upon by the majority of agencies and freelancers. So you’re left to figure out what to do based on the price tag. If you pay the “ransom”, based on the price it could be an easy decision or one that could potentially cripple your business. Regardless of the ransom price, it’s unethical and it’s my personal belief that those who practice this should be banned from or monitored on any future registrations. Send a message to ensure those who hold domains for ransom that if reported there will be fines and penalties leveraged against them.

Buying and selling domains is one thing when done ethically and properly, but when you lead a client to believe the domain is part of what they have paid for, I see this as deceit and horrible business ethics. An act that could potentially cripple or leave long lasting financial impacts to a small business.

Verify Your Domain Information

Looking up domain registration information is very simple, you can check on yours or literally any domain that is registered by searching ICANN. It will show you domain information such as the registrant, technical, administrative, and billing contact information. Depending on the agreement that the domain registrant has these can be different contacts. Take for instance if you have a contract that your website agency is basically managing that digital asset for you, it will just depend on the structure of your contract. The key word here is contract, where your business is listed as the registrant, but the agency is contractually managing everything else. You can also get similar information from a WhoIs Record lookup. My recommendation, make sure that your business is listed as the registrant at a minimum.

Checking your hosting information can is just as easy, WhoIsHostingThis, will provide domain information such as your hosting provider, IP address of your website, and the associated Name servers.

Make sure that this topic is addressed when you are signing up for a new site build that will require a new domain name. Especially if the domain name is listed as “free” or generically listed as part of the package. Signing up for a domain is simple, so the safest bet, even if it says “free” or “included”, bring your own domain to the party. You are going to spend a few dollars to register your own domain and potentially save yourself thousands by avoiding it potentially being held hostage.

Registrars, or entities such as GoDaddy, provide options that allow you to essentially delegate access to your domain(s). Agencies or freelancers can be given delegated access to manage settings such as DNS, email configurations, etc. This is just another way to protect your digital assets from being hijacked.

What Can You Do?

If you find yourself in this situation and you’ve been asked to pay a domain ransom, before things have the potential to get worse, take some precautions.

Get a copy of your site immediately. Unless you are familiar with your configuration and have the right access, I advise you to hire someone to get a copy of your website immediately. This includes images, documents, and any other content that is of value to your business. If the agency or freelancer is willing to ransom your domain, trust is out the window. Protecting your business at this point would be your #1 priority, don’t leave it to chance that your site is shutdown or removed.

If you don’t have the necessary credentials to provide someone access to basically get a backup of your site, drop us a line. If you can show your domain is being held for ransom, we can help you.

Make sure your invoices are current. If the dispute is unpaid invoices or there are legitimate monies owed to the agency or freelancer, we suggest that you take care of that and then try to negotiate the release of your domain without ransom. Either way, if you need help navigating this, you can explain the situation and we will work to help resolve the issue. Again, make sure that you are current on all of your invoices and that is not the reason you are having issues.

Do Your Homework

The Short-List

There is nothing more exciting than finally finding the one, the agency or the freelancer that is going to make your website vision a reality. Everything seems fantastic, the quote is within your budget, or it’s close enough that you are willing to spend a little more to get exactly what you were looking for.

I advise always checking as many references for the agency or freelancer as you possibly can, what have the experiences of existing or previous clients been with them. Now we all know that the expectation of making absolutely everyone is a tough job, especially web design, expectations and reality need to be measured very carefully.

Online Reviews

Once you have determined your short-list of potential candidates, ask questions and do your homework. Online reviews are a powerful indicator of customer experience, look at the quantity, recency, and obviously the overall rating. Below are some places that you can use for customer reviews, while this is not the master list of places to check, you will typically get a good idea just by checking these out. From a consumer perspective, these will be the sites that they typically frequent to share feedback regarding their experiences.

Customer References

You can always request that the agency or freelancer provide you with a customer reference, but I advise caution with this approach, just be sure you are 100% confident of who you are actually talking to. Make sure to check the online business listing contact information and it never hurts to check the Facebook page, and ALWAYS check out the website of the reference they have provided.

This may be a hit and miss approach, but when you’re making this kind of investment into your business, it’s a legitimate request. If they respond positively, there is nothing wrong with requesting a customer of your choice. The worst they can say is no.

The Calling Card

When you are checking the website, another trick is to look for the signature of the agency or freelancer. Most of us like to leave our calling card in the footer of the client website if the client doesn’t mind. If they feel you’ve delivered as promised it’s typically not an issue and leaves a very easy way to find other sites that the agency or freelancer has worked on. Simply scroll to the bottom of the home page and look for something like “Powered By”, “Built By”, “Designed By”, typically if the calling card was left behind it will be easy to find. Once you have that, simply do a Google search for that text and see what is returned. This gives you a chance to look at actual sites they have built, even if they display a portfolio on their site, trust but verify.

In closing, when you are looking for an agency or a freelancer and decide on one, make sure ownership of the domain, site, and the contents are clear. Don’t take chances, get it in writing, if not, walk away.

As always, drop me a line if you have questions and be on the lookout for our next blog.

Ken G.

Ken G.

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