Did your Web Designer Steal your Domain?

theif stealing domain

There is nothing more scary than to find out after you've put hundreds or thousands of dollars into paying someone to design a web site for you to find out your don't own your domain because your domain name was stolen. This is one of the worst web design scams on the Internet because most new web site owners don't realize that their domain name should be registered in their own name.

Who Owns Your Domain Name?

You can check to see who is the registered owner of your domain by checking the Whois data of your domain. A Whois report contains domain registration records. 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 and your domain has been stolen. 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, is listed as the registrant then your web designer stole your domain. 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 web 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. If the designer says you get a "free" domain then it's not "free" if you don't own it. It's even more of a shock to learn that your web designer owns your domain.

Purchasing a domain is 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 Being the Registered Owner of Your 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 register 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). 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 are not the registered owner of the domain. 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 registered in your name from the time you set up the website.

How to Recover a Stolen Domain Name:

  1. Copy off your Website. Unless you know how to log into the server and do this yourself, I would advise you to hire another web designer to copy the code off all pages on your website. This includes images and related documents because you don't know how the original web designer will react when you request they put the domain in your name. They may just remove your website out of spite. The new designer will need your hosting account 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 or host.
  2. Try to Register the domain name in your own name. Politely ask the original designer to put the domain in your own name, not mentioning what you might be doing in the future with the website. If they agree to register the domain into your name you'll have to set up an account on the same registrar (if GoDaddy) and request a transfer so you can have control of the domain. The original designer will have to approve the transfer being as the domain is registered in their name. It should take about 24 hours or less for this to show up in your new hosting account. You can also check the Whois site listed above.

    If the original web designer or hosting company refuses to release your domain name 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.

  3. Set up New Hosting. While you are waiting for the domain registration to be changed into your own name have your new designer set up hosting account on another host (usually takes about 24 hours). Once you have control of the domain have your new designer load your website on the new host (be aware that some items on your old domain may not work on the new host if some of the graphics or content were the property of the old designer/host).
  4. Transfer DNS. Once your site is loaded on the new hosting account have the new designer login to you domain registrar and transfer the domain (point the DNS) to the new hosting company. This should take about 24 hours. Once you can get to your new website by typing in your domain in the browser you'll know the domain has transferred properly into your own name.

    If your old hosting company 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 hosting company and domain 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.

  5. If the above doesn't work, File a report with ICANN. If the original web designer or hosting company 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 domain name dispute with Icann Whois Data Problem Report. You will have to prove you paid the web designer for the domain (contract, cancelled check, credit card record, emails discussing the issue, etc.). This will be easier if the domain name registration 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.

If all else fails you can always buy another domain. However, 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. For these reasons it very important that you resolve any disputes with your web designer to your satisfaction.

How to prevent being taken advantage of by a domain scraper

In future, to thwart domain scrapers, keep proof that you are the owner of the domain, with printed and electronic records of all domain name registration records as well as credit card statements, canceled checks, expiration dates, contracts, hosting IDs and passwords.

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

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Lori Eldridge
Copyright © 4-18-2010, updated 11-27-19
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