THE BLOG

"I Bought My Domain, So I Own It ― Right?" Not Necessarily

05/08/2015 04:57 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2016

you-dot-notWhat is your most important online asset? I won't blame you if you think it is your website. That is a logical answer, but not the right one. Your most important asset is actually your domain. For all intents and purposes, it is the road that gets people to your online presence. You can build the most beautiful, lavish castle anyone has ever built, but if the roadway isn't there, no one is coming.

This brings up a super-important question: who owns your domain? Not according to your foggy memory but according to the WHOIS Database, the central repository for information about domain ownership. The quickest way to tell is to do a search of the database.

Hopefully, the results will show you that you are the owner of your domain.

BUT, sometimes that isn't the case. Why? Because there are bad people in the world who skirt around ethics like a Governor from Illinois. (Yep, Chicagoan here bragging on my state, where four of the last seven governors have been sent to the big house after serving in office). Ok, unlike an Illinois politician, it isn't always the case that the bad guys are purposefully doing the wrong thing. Here are some examples of how domain ownership can get muddled.

Designer/Developer. One of the reasons people outsource website work is that they don't want to (or don't know how to) deal with all the administrative details, including domain registration. Often the designer/developer (or an employee) will register the site in his or her name, just because they feel it will be faster and easier that way.

All is well until the IT person who registered the site finds another job, or you have a contract dispute with your developer. Some unethical developers even intentionally register domains to themselves to use as leverage in case there are problems later.

Host hijacking: Many hosting providers offer domain registration as an extra service you can buy when reserving space on their server for your files. Although many people appreciate this convenience, some hosts register their own name as both registrant and administrator without informing the site owner.

If you find out that your site is registered to your hosting provider, all it usually takes is a phone call (and perhaps a buyout payment) to have this fixed, but why put your site at risk in the first place? I always recommend using different companies to host a website from the one that holds the domain. It gives everyone less of an opportunity to be yucky. (Common sense, like... Don't leave a briefcase full of cash in front of an Illinois Governor).

So, what if you do a search on WHOIS and find that someone else owns your domain?

  1. Did you register the domain? If you did, do you still have the username and password for the account? If you do, your first step is a call to the registrar to discuss how the transfer occurred. It helps a lot if it was your credit card that purchased the domain in the first place.
  2. Do you know the person who owns the domain? Don't go ballistic―not yet, anyway. First, simply talk to them. It could be a the result of a complete oversight or some other innocent mistake. If they resist, firmly tell them it needs to be changed to your ownership and figure out what needs to be done make that so.
  3. If all else fails, it may be time to call a lawyer. This will, of course, cost money, but it will be well worth it in the long run. Your lawyer can file a claim under the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act or initiate a proceeding under the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy.
Once you get it back, transfer the domain to another company (if it was the host that hijacked it) or change the password on your account (if it was a designer or developer).

As you read this, you may be thinking, "What a monumental hassle!" I wholeheartedly agree.

But, doesn't the hassle of keeping a record of your login information and the place you registered your domain seem simple by comparison?

Now that you are informed, the next time you buy a domain, do it yourself! Go to the domain registrar, set up your own account and use your own credit card. If anyone else works on your site, give them a password to do the work, and then change it once they are done. This is an area where you need to treat everyone like s/he could be the next Governor of Illinois.

~e