Do you own your domain? Are you sure?

February 6, 2009

Today I received a telephone call from a perspective client who was interested in redesigning his company website. He had not had a particularly good experience with his original web designer and was looking to end the business relationship and start over with a fresh site and new webhosting. Like many new clients I’ve met over the years, he had entrusted the task of setting up his webhosting and registering his domain name to his web designer. Also, like many of those clients, he was completely in the dark as to what company actually hosted his site or with which company his domain name was registered. Imagine his surprise when he found out that his web designer actually owned his domain name, not him!

You may not realize that many web designers make extra income by reselling webhosting and domain names. A reseller basically enters into an agreement with a webhosting company or registrar wherein they receive a discount for each new account they sign up under their company’s name. The designer/reseller bills their client full price, thereby making a small profit. That is not necessarily a bad thing. It is an honest way for a web designer to supplement their income, but this arrangement generally only benefits the web designer and more times than not leads to a host of complications down the road.

Here’s a great example… true story!

A new client calls me in a panic. Their website has been replaced by a screen full of ads, has someone stolen their website? Not at all. A quick “whois” search reveals that their domain name has expired and GoDaddy has replaced their website with a standard ads page until the name is either renewed or sold to someone else. No problem. They can simply contact GoDaddy and renew the name, right? Usually the answer would be yes, but for this client the nightmare has just begun. A “whois” search reveals that the prior web designer registered the domain in his personal name. That essentially makes the web designer the owner the domain name, not the actual owner of the website. To make matters worse, the web designer sold his company years prior and had moved out of the country without transferring the domain name to the client or providing him with the password, ID & pin number to the account.

The problem can be resolved, eventually, but not without a great deal of headache and time, and in this case time was of the essences. What can the client do at this point?

1. He can prove to the registrar that he is the legal owner of the domain. Each registrar has different methods of proof, but all involve faxing various forms of identification and proof of company ownership which takes time; or

2. He can track down the prior web designer (which also takes time) and hope that they still have the login information and are willing to turn it over.

There are other problems that can arise besides domain expiration. Let’s say you hire a new web designer to create a site from scratch using a new webhost. You plan to keep your old site active until the new site is ready to be launched. Everything is going great… new site is done… now all you have to do is change the nameservers to point your domain name to the new website. Problem is you cannot change the nameservers without access to your domain account. Many times when a web designer registers a domain as a reseller they do not provide login information to the client as it would grant access to their main account. Again, the client is at the mercy of the web designer. If they cannot turn over the password & ID for security reasons, then hopefully the designer would be willing to change the nameservers for the client NOW while ownership issues are addressed at a later time.

Let’s keep going. Say you have all the emergencies worked out now. The next step is pursuing transfer of the domain name from the web designer into your own name. If the web designer is cooperative and everything goes smoothly, it can still take months for the domain transfer process to be completed. Consider that a registrar may legitimately deny a transfer request if (among other things):

  1. There is a reasonable dispute over the identity of the person authorizing the transfer
  2. The domain name is on hold due to payment owed for a previous registration period
  3. They receive express written objection from the domain name holder
  4. The domain name is within 60 days of initial registration
  5. The domain name is within 60 days of a previous transfer
  6. The transfer is initiated within 60 days of changing contact information of registrant

So, how do you avoid falling into this horrible headache of a situation? Easy! Buy your own domain name and keep a record of your account ID, password and Pin. You can share this information with any web designer you choose.  Problem solved!

If you have had a web designer register your domain name in the past and you are unsure who actually owns the name, you can find out by doing a “whois” search at Network Solutions. Just pop in your domain name and take a close look at the information that pulls up. The registrant is the owner of the domain name and all verifications will be emailed to the administrative contact.


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