There is a number of companies that are taking advantage of people who own domain names that are due to renew. If you own a domain name, you may have seen the domain renewal notice – and if you haven’t paid attention, you may have paid to the wrong guys.
How, you may ask? I have seen it happen to several of my clients, and I want to help others not to fall for this “service”. Here are a few examples of the fake invoices, including some foreign ones.
Have you ever received a letter similar to any of these?
If you own a domain, you may have received one from companies with names such as Domain Renewal Group, Liberty Names of America, Domain Registry of America, and most recently Domain Services, and IDNS. (I suspect some of them are the same company, because the verbiage of their notices are identical)
OK, technically they do not lie to you. In their pitch, they use legitimate, respected and time-tested sales tactics. But what they do is manipulate you into believing you must pay them now and switch to their service, when in reality you do not need them – you can pay directly to the registrar you purchased your domain name from. They also don’t mention you will overpay if you believe them.
How they make you believe you must PAY:
By counting on you to expect to pay the bill.
If you own the domain, you know you have to pay for the domain name renewal when it expires – and they know it, too. They know you will be expecting an invoice for the renewal, so invoice in itself is not a surprise. Most of us want to be good citizens and follow the rules. You expect an invoice, you get an invoice, so you pay an invoice when you see it.
Their goal is to make you send the check to them. So here is how they make you believe that they are the legitimate payee.
By presenting themselves as an authority.
Most of these companies employ your appeal to national pride and your respect for official establishment. When you see the company name that has “of America”, “American”, or “National”, or even “International”, your brain responds to it – as well as to the visual recognition of familiar objects, such as an American flag, or an outline of the map of America. This type of correspondence triggers “this must be important” response in most of people.
By counting on you to rush through it.
People don’t read. They skim over the text – you and I are not the exception. Most of us are pressed for time, and we don’t read small text or lengthy statements. We like to assume we know what it’s about by just taking a quick look. So the crooks count on it. They place large amount of small text in the first half of the page, and style the rest of their correspondence to look like an invoice. Even though phrase “This notice is not a bill“, exists on the next-to-last line, but even in bold print it takes less then 1% of the real estate on the paper.
Meanwhile, your brain already made an assumption based the first visual impression: it registered that “it looks legit so it must be a bill”, judging by all elements traditionally present on invoices. Your brain is way over the “not a bill” part; you already believe it is an invoice.
How they make you believe you must pay NOW:
By creating a sense of urgency.
First, the notice includes a few specific dates – one is a legitimate expiration date, and one “Reply Requested by” date, which is absolutely not required, but it’s presence adds the sense of the time limit and creates a sense of urgency. These domain name expiration notices typically come way ahead of time (about six months or so) so they can get to you before the legitimate domain name renewal form does.
Second, the language they use is urging you to make payment. Even though there are words that indicate that “this is not a bill”, they also employ call-to-action words that trigger your anxiety, words such as:
- “You must renew“
- “Your domain will expire“
- “Act today“
By using scare tactics
Just like with creating sense of urgency, they create a sense of
- “You must renew to retain exclusive rights”
- “Failure to renew may result in loss of your online identity making it difficult for your customers and friends to locate you on the Web” (This genius line is my personal favorite – D.D.)
Why are they able to contact you?
Unfortunately, it is possible for anyone to contact you. It may be borderline unethical, but simply contacting you is still legitimate.
However, obtaining your contact information for solicitation may not be: if they are mining the domain WHOIS system to get the contact information and expiration dates for these domains, they violate the WHOIS policy.
That being said, if your WHOIS information listed publicly, they can see it, and misuse it for their purpose.
They can also target you directly through the email address listed on the domain registrar information – if your registration is public.
Here is an example of an email I personally received via email for one of my domains – this one is a twist on the domain renewal notice: they are not offering to renew domain, but rather the search engine / traffic service, but everything is in small print – you see the “expiration” notice, and the first gut reaction is to “renew”.
This is not illegal, but in my opinion this is just wrong.
What would happen if you pay this fake invoice
So some may argue that what you see here is a legitimate process, a valid letter to a soon-to-be-expired domain holders. However, while it is somewhat legal to do so, it is a deceptive attempt of third parties to transfer and get control of the domains away from your current domain name registrar, to the company that had sent you the notice with a hefty markup compared to what you would normally pay with your existing registrar. To top that, this markup would not be just a one-time event: you will be overpaying each time you renew your domain name with these companies.
3 steps that would help you not to get scammed
1. Look up your domain information.
If you are not sure (or you forgot), who your current legitimate domain name registrar is, look up your domain’s WHOIS information. If you have a private registration, you will see at least your current Registrar. If you have a public registration, you will see the Registrar, and Registrant information (name, organization, address, etc). So you will know what organization will be sending you a legitimate invoice, and what is your expiration date.
- Go to http://who.is/
- Enter your domain name into search bar, look at the results.
- When results display Look under “Registrar Info” – the organization listed there is your legitimate Registrar – and that is where you go to renew your domain name
2. Take care of your domain
Once you confirm who your current registrar is (such as Network Solutions, GoDaddy, or any other registrar you purchased your domain through), log into your accounts at your respective registrars to check the status of your domains and to renew if needed.
3. Take action and help others
In specific case of Domain Registry of America (DROA), while their activity is supposed to be barred (it was back in 2003), the fake invoices still make rounds in the USA. There are other “entrepreneurs” that practice similar methods, and some have been nailed by the FTC as well. A quick search for “Domain Name Scam” at FTC website gives you a good picture of how common this scam is.
If the domain name renewal invoice comes to you from an organization that is other than your legitimate Registrant or your agent you designated to act on your behalf (Administrative or Technical contact you assigned for your domain), report suspicious “bills” to Federal Trade Commission.
In conclusion – In this case just using common sense may not be enough.
Be a bit more vigilant, protect your information and take care of the domain name renewals on time, with your existing registrar.
Better yet – if you have a bit of extra cash (you would still pay less than you would have if you paid the scammers), renew the domain name for as many years to come as you can. It will be minimizing the chance of this scam happening to you, and having search engines such Google favoring your domain in light of having a more distant expiration date is a good bonus, too.