Invasion of the "Porn Nappers"


By Jane Black Charles Mondin, the director of the United Senior Health Cooperative (USHC), knows why I'm calling before I tell him. "We get a lot of calls about our Web site," he chuckles knowingly. For the last six months, the organization's official Web site has been located at www.unitedseniorshealth.org. But previously, it had a different URL (or Web site address) -- and now, when you type in the old address, you end up on a hard-core pornography site.

According to Mondin, just days after the organization, which educates elderly citizens about health benefits, let the old URL lapse, it was snatched up by a pornographer. A shocked consumer alerted USHC, which contacted the new owner via an e-mail link on the site about buying it back. The owner, an Eastern European, said it would cost $3,000 to $5,000 -- a hefty sum for the small nonprofit. Mondin passed. "We learned a good lesson the hard way," says Mondin. The current owner did not respond to repeated e-mails requesting comment for this story.

While Mondin has maintained a sense of humor about the incident, such a problem can be a serious threat to a corporation's online identity. In cyberspace, your domain name is your brand. And that's at risk if your URL is suddenly transformed into a porn site.

SPECULATIVE RUSH. Over the last few months, "porn napping" has been on the rise, mainly for two reasons. First, in the wake of the dot-com implosion, companies are not vigilantly renewing domain names. A record 10 million domain names came up for renewal in the last six months of 2001, according to VeriSign, the leading domain-name registrar. Fewer than half were renewed within 60 days of expiration. The result: A rush by speculators to buy them.

Even more opportunities for porn nappers will be popping up the next few months. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is releasing a host of new top-level domain names. Already .info and .biz are on the market, and as of Apr. 9, the new .us suffix also will be available.

Porn napping is nothing new. Even in the Net's early days, speculators would register domain names that might logically be wanted by another company in hopes of selling it for thousands of dollars. But speculators are becoming cleverer -- and more malicious. Many now write computer programs to monitor domain-name expirations. Then, they purchase URLs the second they become available, put up their porn storefronts, and monitor click-through activity.

"WILD, WILD WEST." URLs that don't generate enough traffic are often returned for credit within a five-day grace period. Others are held hostage and/or used as a portal to drive traffic to pornography Web sites. "It can happen to a church, a company, a kids' organization, city or state government. It's still the wild, wild West," says Ken Leebow, author of 19 books that recommend the best Internet sites.

Leebow first became aware of the problem last October when the name Moneyopolis.org was snatched by an Armenian pornographer known as Dave Web. The URL had belonged to the accounting firm Ernst & Young. The site taught children the basics of money management, and it was one of Leebow's top picks in his book 300 Incredible Things for Kids on the Internet. Attempts to contact Dave Web at an Idaho number were unsuccessful.

Angry phone calls started pouring in -- to both Leebow and Ernst & Young. According to Ken Kerrigan, an E&Y spokesman, the trouble stemmed from a clerical mix-up. Though the accounting firm believed it had renewed both the moneyopolis.com and moneyopolis.org URLs, the paperwork didn't go through. In September, the domains were released on the open market and snapped up within minutes.

SHOCKED PARENTS. Ernst & Young quickly got back the .com domain, but Dave Web, who had bought .org, wasn't selling. Ernst & Young decided simply to keep .com -- by far the more popular domain -- and change its marketing literature to direct visitors there. That might have worked if, on Oct. 23, Dave Web hadn't decided to use moneyopolis.org to point to his site, EuroTeenSluts.com. Shocked parents, teachers, and children called Ernst & Young demanding an explanation. "This was a brand-management disaster," recalls Kerrigan.

Kerrigan immediately put out a statement urging people not to visit moneyopolis.org. Then he and his team contacted every Web site they believed might have a link to the site and asked them to point only to moneyopolis.com. They also alerted filtering software companies, which promptly added the site to a list of areas on the Net children should avoid. That took almost a full week.

Ernst & Young also hired a private investigator in Los Angeles with experience in tracking down porn nappers. Within a week, he had resecured the domain name. Ernst & Young won't comment on what it did to get back its URL, though at one point, the firm received indications that the name was for sale for as much as $50,000.

WHO'S JOB IS IT? What should you do to protect your corporate identity? First, take inventory. What domain names do you own? You do this simply by performing a "Who Is" search at www.netsol.com. Who in your company is in charge of renewing them? During the dot-com boom, the rush to register domains was so great that few companies established a central registrant for their brands. Instead, it was often a secretary or low-level marketing manager using a corporate credit card to sign up for domains. Many of those individuals are no longer in their jobs.

According to research firm Gartner, the average company on its Global 2000 list of enterprises registered at least 300 name variants, including .com, .net, and various country codes, by the end of 2001 at an initial cost of $5 to $100 each. To avoid wasting money, one person or department should take responsibility for keeping track of your online identity.

To help manage the process, registrars such as Verisign and Register.com (No. 2 in the field) now offer digital brand-management services. Register.com's limited offering is free for corporations. Verisign's plans cost from $5,000 to $100,000 per year. In addition to keeping track of what URL you own and making sure you renew on time, they say they'll help you develop a digital-brand strategy. Is it worth buying .info or .biz? What countries do you operate in? If you do business in Europe, perhaps it's worth snapping up country-specific domains such as .uk or .fr. How can you prevent digital-brand erosion?

DIMINISHED MEDIUM. You also need to think about the external links on your site. Your domain may be safe, but what about the others? In November, AOL was forced to remove a link to a fashion site for teens called 100PercentGirls that had been on its Kids Only page. Turns out when the domain's registration expired, a pornographer had picked it up.

Large corporate sites have hundreds, if not thousands, of links. It would be near impossible to manually monitor every one. "The whole premise of the Web is built on external linking," says Michael Weider, CEO of Web-site-management outfit Watchfire. "If companies are worried about linking to other sites, the power of the medium is diminished." To that end, Watchfire and others offer software that automatically checks a site's external links and verifies that they go to the right destinations.

Despite the dot-com bust, the Web is increasingly becoming the first place consumers and customers turn for information. It's essential that companies protect and preserve their online identities. After all, even in cyberspace, the old adage still applies: You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Black covers privacy issues for BusinessWeek Online. Follow her twice-monthly Privacy Matters column, only on BusinessWeek Online


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