QUESTION: A friend is held hostage by his old IT company because he controls ownership of his company’s website domain. How can I be sure that I am the sole owner of my domain?
TO RESPOND: Creating and maintaining a website is an essential part of doing business in the digital age, but the complexities often require the intervention of a third party.
What can often start as a way to keep things simple can turn into a hostage situation if the relationship with the third party goes sour, which is a common situation, especially with small businesses.
Most small businesses are just happy to have someone who can help them build their online presence and are completely unaware of the importance of owning the domain (their website address) until be too late.
Just because you pay for a domain doesn’t mean you actually own it, so be proactive and make sure you have full control of this extremely important business asset.
The first step is to determine who is the current owner and administrator of your domain through what is called a “WHOIS” search.
This tool will search the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) database to display the legal owner, which determines who has full control over what happens to the domain.
Virtually every domain registrar offers this tool, but if you don’t know which is yours, you can use lookup.icann.org to see what information is available for your domain.
Look to see who is listed as “Registrar” and “Administrator” to determine if you or someone else controls your domain. If this information is not listed, it should provide you with the actual registrar’s website address in the “Authoritative Servers” section.
For a complete glossary of ICANN terms used in reporting, visit go.icann.org/3HFBSvB.
Visit the listed registrar’s website and search for the “WHOIS” tool to get your domain owner’s details.
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It’s not uncommon to see a domain registration record use a private list that prevents the true owner from having their personal details published publicly.
You can try emailing the listed email address associated with the domain to see who responds, but in some cases the registrar may not automatically forward messages (due to spam).
Each registrar has their own methods for protecting their customers’ information, so your best bet is to find a customer support phone number and call them to explain why you are requesting property information.
The key to controlling your domain is through your registrar’s administrative interface, accessible only through the username and password associated with your domain.
This is not necessarily the same as the username and password for making changes to your website through content management systems such as WordPress, so make sure you can log into the website from your registrar.
Domain name disputes
Your registrar should have a process for ownership disputes, which can be much easier to manage if you own a trademark for your business name.
In some cases, you may have no choice but to take legal action to regain control of your domain or start over with a completely different domain if it’s more profitable.
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