The High Cost of Failing to Protect the Crown Jewels

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Domain Names — Way More than Branding

Having created websites and providing digital services to clients for the past 25 years, I feel like I’ve seen it all, including a lot of unnecessary drama around domain ownership and registration.

Let’s face it, these days your online domain name is probably the most critical aspect of your company’s identity. Not only is it the essence of your online brand, but when you factor in email communication, online sales activities, internal collaboration, and intranet resources, it’s no stretch at all to say your domain name is at the very core of your company operations.

So why are so many business owners, vague and cavalier in their responses to questions such as:

  • Where is your domain name registered? 
  • Or, who is your domain name registrar?
  • In whose name is the domain registered?
  • Have you paid for private registration?
  • Can you provide the registrar credentials for domain management?
  • When will your domain name expire?
  • Who is hosting your DNS?
  • Where is your website hosted?
  • Who is hosting your email? 
  • Who is the technical contact on your domain
  • Who is the billing contact?
  • What competitive/defensive domains do you own?
  • How is all this being paid for? Is it sitting on a corporate credit card, that might be expiring soon?

The answer to my rhetorical question above is generally two-fold.

  1. First of all, the establishment of the corporate domain and infrastructure was invariably handled by someone else — perhaps a web developer, or IT consultant, or often a former employee.
  2. The other part of the answer is that it was most likely handled years ago. Domain registration renewals can be set for one, two, five, ten-year-periods and or longer. So it is easy for this information to fade from corporate consciousness. 

Real-World War Stories

The following war stories are all true, but as they say on any good crime show, the names have been changed to protect the innocent. 

  1. Scenario 1: We’re having issues with our email...

    One very common scenario is a random call or text from a frustrated client, that goes like this.

    Client

    We’re having issues with our email. I haven’t received a new email in days.

    Hosting Admin

    That’s not good. Let me check... Oh, It looks like your domain registration has expired. In fact, your online store is offline, too.

    Client

    What? How can that be? Our hosting is all paid up.

    Hosting Admin

    Yes, it is. Two different things, You need to renew your domain name registration with your registrar.

    Client

    Registrar? I have no idea what you are talking about. Don’t you manage that for us?

    Hosting Admin

    Not typically. Let me check WHOIS for you. It looks like the domain is registered with GoDaddy, to a Sally Longone.

    Client

    Ugh. That’s my former partner. We haven’t spoken in years. Frankly, it didn’t end well between us. Why didn’t anybody notify us?

    Hosting Admin

    I’m sure they have. Probably multiple emails over the past several months.

    Client

    I haven’t seen any emails. Who are they sending them to?

    Hosting Admin

    The billing contact is SALLY at your domain...

    Client

    Oh, geez. We deleted that account a few months after she left. I had no idea anything important was still linked to it. So now what?

    Hosting Admin

    I would say restore Sally’s email address, but of course, you have lost access to your domain, so, I think the only option left is to file an appeal with GoDaddy.

    Client

    File an appeal? How long will that take?

    Hosting Admin

    Possibly days, but more likely, weeks…

    Client

    So our website and email are going to be offline for WEEKS!?!

  2. Scenario 2: The Vertical Hustle — What do you mean I don’t own our website?

    Another common scenario in certain industries is the vertically-aligned trade industry website. This is usually a web service that focuses on your industry, offering attractive industry-related value-add features and the promise of driving more business to your site for a premium cost. Rarely do such promises justify the additional expense and imposed limitations that commonly go hand-in-hand. 

    We’ve had several clients over the years come to us, or return to us because these vertical marketing programs don’t pan out. That in itself is no big deal, but on several occasions, they have learned their website is not “portable” and/or they do not own their website. In one case, they learned don’t own their domain name. They were told they’re welcome to purchase the domain name for $3500 today, otherwise the price is $5,000. Extortion; pure and simple.

    Believe it or not, what I just outlined is the honest way this can happen. If you think I am making this up, read the recent article from MalwareBytes, “Is domain name abuse something companies should worry about?", which coincidentally, one of our clients brought to my attention while I was writing this blog post. In that article, the author outlines the consequences of not protecting your login credentials and how easy it is to hijack a domain once a bad actor gains access to your registrar account.

  3. Scenario 3: The $50,000 “s” 

    Our last story involves a seemingly inconsequential decision, made on the fly, by a former client while she was registering her domain name. To illustrate the point of this story, let’s pretend the name of her business was ABC Button Company — button, singular. The domain she selected was ABCbutton.com. Makes sense, right? When she went to register this name, she was also presented with the option to purchase ABCbuttons.com — buttons, plural. The founder of the company paused for a moment, and decided against it, telling herself she would never use the plural version, so she might as well pocket the $10 savings. 

    Over the next several years, and much to her credit and hard work, her company thrived in a competitive market. So much so, she started franchising her business model, selling into markets all over the country. Oddly enough, and maybe because she felt she could do so anytime, she never bothered to develop the local market where she lived and where the company headquarters resided.

    Then one day someone mentioned to her that it was about time she started marketing locally. She was confused by the comment, which led her and her team to discover a copycat website, ABCbuttons.com. They had set up shop in her very own backyard to create confusion and capitalize on all the goodwill she had established as a local employer and good corporate citizen. 

    Frustrated and outraged, she contacted her attorney, and $50,000 later, the judge issued a split decision. The copycats had to relinquish the plural version of the domain name to our client, but the judge allowed the perpetrators to carry on their business activities, in our client’s community, under a new name. You see, technically, they had not committed a crime and for that reason, both sides were responsible for their own legal expenses. 

    A costly and hollow victory.

Key Takeaways

So, what do these war stories have in common and what lessons can be learned?

In Common

I believe all three stories illustrate the importance of owning and managing your online presence. Common to all three scenarios is a somewhat naive, possibly hasty decision-making process lacking a proper understanding or insight into the very real consequences of their decisions. The first two business-owners were only too happy to let someone else wallow in the technical details. The last business-owner just didn’t slow down long enough to think it through or ask for advice. All three paid a high price for getting it wrong. 

And before we all rush to convince ourselves that this would never happen to us, I should point out the irony that one of the clients mentioned in Scenario #2 was a competent, albeit chagrined, business attorney who completely overlooked the birdseed about website ownership. If it can happen to an attorney, it can happen to any of us.

Protecting the Crown Jewels

There are multiple lessons and best practices that can be gleaned from the horror stories above. Here are some of the more important ones:

  • Slowdown. Take a moment to understand what you’re paying for.
  • Read the fine print and ask questions.
  • Seek counsel. There is no substitute for expert advice.
  • Document key details, such as administrative logins, contact email addresses, payment methods, and renewal dates.
  • Make sure this information is saved securely and multiple team members know how/where to access this critical information when needed. A shared corporate password vault like LastPass is ideal for this.
  • Put renewal dates on company calendars with timely reminders preceding deadlines.
  • Consider competitive threats, and buy up any copycat or sound-alike domains whenever possible.

In closing, let me say you certainly may delegate any or all of this work to your team, however, as a business owner/manager you may NOT delegate your personal responsibility to protect and defend the technical well-being of your company. To that end, MojoMediaPros has prepared a technical audit checklist PDF to help our clients identify, aggregate, and preserve the essence of their brand - their Crown Jewels. Download it below.

Feeling vulnerable? Download our Technical Audit Checklist.

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Monday, 23 November 2020

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