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Did your Web Designer Steal your Domain Name?

There is nothing more scary than to find out that you've put hundreds of dollars into paying someone to design a website for you and then find out that you don't own it. This is one of the worst web design scams on the Internet because most new site owners don't know that the domain should be in their own name.

Who Owns Your Domain?

You can check to see who is the registered owner (registrant) of your domain by checking the Whois of your domain. Scroll down the page to see if you are the registrant of the domain. Unless your name is listed as the registrant, or your company name, you are not the owner of the domain. Being listed as technical support does not give you access to move the domain or change the owners data. If your web designer's name, or business, or your host is listed as the registrant, keep reading.

Think back to when you signed up for your hosting plan. If you paid for a hosting package that included a "free domain" you may not have realized the designer or host may put the domain in their own name. If you signed a contract and it says you agree they are to put the domain in their name (supposedly so they can manage it "for you") there may be nothing you can do about it.

I consider this a dishonest practice as it's taking advantage of those who don't know any better and if they say you get a "free" domain then it's not "free" if you don't own it. Domains are very inexpensive (from a few dollars to about $15 per year) so this practice is nothing more than hijacking a domain and "allowing" you to write content for "their" domain. As long as you keep up your hosting payments they will "let" you use "their" domain.

Problems of Not Owning Your Own Domain

1. If you ever want to change designers or hosts the designer can hold your domain hostage or force you to pay an exorbitant fee to put it in your name (something that should have been yours to begin with).

2. Even if the registrant's name is changed into your name you may not be able to move it to another registrar for 60 days (this is GoDaddy's policy) so now you not only have a web designer holding the domain hostage but the registrar is doing it also. Talk about a headache!

3. If your domain contains the same words as your business name and you decide to trademark your business name you may not be able to do it because you don't own the domain and being as that would increase the need for you to have the domain the "hijacker" would then have even more reason to raise the ransom.

4. You also can't prove how long you've been in business compared to a competitor because the domain wasn't in your name from the time you set up the website.

Steps to get the domain changed into your own name:

1. Copy off your Website. Unless you can do it yourself, I would advise you to hire another web designer to copy the code off all pages on your website, including images and related documents because you don't know how the original designer will react when you request they put the domain in your name. They may remove your website out of spite. The new designer will need your hosting id and password to do this. If you don't have this information then you've got double trouble as you'll have to get it from your previous designer/host.

2. Put the domain in your own name. Politely ask the original designer to put the domain in your own name, not mentioning what you "really" think of them or what you might be doing in the future with the website. If they agree to put the domain into your name you'll have to set up an account on the same registrar (if Godaddy) and request the transfer. The original designer will have to approve the transfer. It should take about 24 hours or less for this to show up in your new account. You can also check the Whois site listed above.

If the original designer/host balks at the idea and it was "supposedly" a free domain then offer to pay for it. If they require an exorbitant fee or don't reply in a reasonable amount of time then send the same request in a registered letter so you have proof you tried to contact them.

I have been using Westhost.com for several years and highly recommend them as a quality host with reasonable pricing and excellent tech support:
3. Set up New Hosting. Once the domain is changed into your name have your new designer set up hosting on another host (usually takes about 24 hours) and have them load your website on the new host (be aware that some items on your old domain may not work on the new host and some of the graphics or content may have been property of the old designer/host).

4. Transfer DNS Once your site is ready, have the new designer go to the domain registrar and point the DNS of your domain to the new host. This should take about 24 hours. Once you can get to your website on your new host by typing in your domain you'll know everything is working properly.

If your old host was also the registrar then you should transfer your domain to a new registrar once the 60 day delay has expired (it's a good idea to keep the host and registrar separate in case your host ever goes out of business). You'll be contacted by the company your domain is currently registered through and will have to approve the transfer of the domain to the new registrar. Follow the instructions in the email they send you. This should only take a few days to transfer the domain. You can try to access the website and you can also check the same Whois site mentioned above to see when this is accomplished. After it's transferred you'll need your new designer to change the DNS so it's pointed to your new host.

5. File a report with ICANN. If the original designer or host refuses to put the domain into your name, or they demand an exorbitant price (ransom) for the domain that you can't pay, you may be able to file a complaint with the Icann Whois Data Problem Report. You will have to prove you paid the designer for the domain (contract, cancelled check, credit card record, emails discussing the issue, etc.). This will be easier if the domain name is your official business name. It can take a couple weeks or more to resolve.

Legal advice might be needed if none of the above works. Here is a legal site that has information on Domain Disputes

If all else fails you can always buy another domain but if your website has been online the search engines will likely have a record of the content which means you will have to rewrite the content on every page or the new domain will be filtered out of search results for duplicate content. Changing to a new domain will also mean you have to start all over with rank and links and you'lll have to ask, all current linked sites to change their links to your new domain.


Here is a good article giving more information you should know before Breaking up with your Web Designer.

Lori Eldridge
Copyright © 4-18-2010, updated 2-26-13
All Rights Reserved

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