December 14, 2017
Last Wednesday I was at the gym before work, and I got a call from Ashley saying that our website was down. This happens sometimes. I tried fixing it from my iphone, but I couldn’t figure out what the problem was, so I came home.
We realized that our domain registration had expired. When I first purchased ‘www.moskomoto.com’ from a company called GoDaddy over four years ago, I used an old personal email account for the purchase. I set our domain registration to auto-renew on a credit card every two years. Once we owned the new domain, I switched to a new email address at the moskomoto.com domain.
Our credit card changed last year. When our domain came up for it’s two year auto-renew (~$30 I think), the payment bounced. GoDaddy sent a few emails to my old personal account – which I didn’t see because I no longer use it – and then they shut down the site.
No problem, I thought… we’ll enter the new credit card info and get the site back up, right? I can finish my workout. Nope.
The instant GoDaddy took down our site, they auctioned off our domain to the highest bidder. By the time we woke up Wednesday morning, realized there was a problem, and logged into our account to fix it, an unknown third party was the new owner of moskomoto.com. Later we learned the buyer had paid $2,500, which is a lot to pay for an expired domain that consists of two non-word words like ‘Mosko’ and ‘Moto.’ I cannot explain why they paid so much.
Our website accounts for all of our sales. Over the last four years we’ve invested tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours into building traffic, creating backlinks, search engine recognition, purchasing adwords, printing catalogs, and handing out business cards, all of which point toward http://www.moskomoto.com. The only traffic flowing to that domain was a result of the work we had done to build it. Now all those links were dead, and the Mosko page was sitting empty.
Our company email addresses stopped working too. We had no easy way to communicate among ourselves or with customers and vendors to explain the situation. All our company emails were bouncing back, including emails coming in from customers through the website. Needless to say, this created a lot of confusion.
By Wednesday afternoon we had our new site live on http://www.moskomotogear.com. All our email addresses switched to the new domain as well. We sent tens of thousands of emails to get the word out, and we posted on facebook and advrider as well. I made this quick video to explain the situation.
Our web agency Foghorn Labs in Portland stepped up to help. In addition to helping us move the website and fix all the broken links, they also redirected all our online marketing to the new site. We manged to get moskomoto.com dropped from google/bing indexing, so when someone searched for Mosko Moto online, instead of seeing the old site with dead links, they saw a paid advertisement for the new site at the top of the page. Thanks largely to Foghorn’s efforts, we started getting orders again within a couple of days.
On google, we got a crash-course in the laws surrounding domain name ownership. I couldn’t understand why someone else would want ‘www.moskomoto.com,’ unless it was a competitor, but that did not seem likely in our small industry. If our URL was something generic like ‘www.motorcycles.com’ that would make a lot more sense, because it’s not a trademark. But why would someone want moskomoto.com? It’s useless to anyone other than us.
We learned about a thing called ‘cybersquatting.’ It used to be very common back in the days before everyone had a website. Cybersquatters would buy a domain with an existing trademark (i.e. http://www.cocacola.com), and ransom it to the trademark owner for an exorbitant price. It became such a problem that the U.S. passed the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA) of 1999, making cybersquatting a crime. There’s also an international arbitration process for resolving cybersquatting disputes, which is managed by the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). More info on cybersquatting is available on Wikipedia.
The most likely scenario was that the buyer of moskomoto.com would eventually try to sell us back our own domain at a profit. However the identity of the new buyer was unknown, because they bought the site through a proxy email, and there was no telling how long it might take to get a dialog going.
Ashley found an attorney who specializes in this sort of thing. His name is Jason Schaeffer at Esqwire.com. We called Esqwire, and a knowledgeable person – not an answering service – picked up the phone on the first call. A few hours later we had a call with Jason, and a few hours later we had an action plan:
- First, Jason would work with his contacts at GoDaddy and – if he could find out who the buyer is – possibly contact the buyer directly to see if we could obtain a voluntary return of the domain.
- Second, if that didn’t work, we would go after them through ICANN arbitration and/or the U.S. courts. If we moved on to this stage, the identity of the buyer would be revealed.
Eventually we would get our domain back, the only question was how long?
As a small direct-sales company, when your site goes down, it’s debilitating. Expenses continue but revenue stops. For several days after this happened we got almost zero orders. Even when the new site was live, customers were nervous to order because they knew we’d been hit by some kind of hack. Many people couldn’t even figure out how to reach us, because our emails no longer worked.
On Saturday we learned that Jason was in contact with GoDaddy. The buyer had agreed to return our site to GoDaddy in exchange for a full refund of the $2,500. However GoDaddy wanted US to pay the $2,500 to the buyer, so they could keep the $2,500 they got from auctioning our domain. That’s some really twisted logic – GoDaddy should have returned the money not us – but $2,500 was a manageable number, so we paid.
Maybe I should be thankful that GoDaddy helped us get our domain back. However why in the world did they auction it off in the first place??
Imagine this: your mortgage payment accidentally bounces because you changed banks. You’ve changed emails since you bought the house, and the bank tries to contact you using an outdated email address. They have your address and your phone number, but they don’t use them. You don’t find out about the billing issue until six weeks later, when you’re evicted from your house. The house has already been sold to another buyer for a substantial profit. You hire an attorney to get it back. After a ton of stress and a really crappy week of homelessness, the bank offers to get your house back IF you are willing to pay them the same price as the new buyer, and buy your own house a second time. That is exactly what GoDaddy did.
I’m happy to have our domain back but I won’t be sending a Christmas card to GoDaddy.
For a more customer-friendly approach, take a look at how Network Solutions (one of GoDaddy’s competitors) handles the same situation. They shut down the site, then auction AFTER a grace period of 35 days.
If a domain registration is not renewed by its expiration date, the domain simply goes into “expired” status, which means all services are shut off. From the expiration date, Network Solutions ® endeavors to provide a 35-day grace period during which the current holder can still renew it for a standard renewal fee, achieving this status is a good indicator that it may not be renewed.
Looking back, who profited from all this?
- The buyer, whatever their motivation was, bought a domain and then had to sell it back to GoDaddy for the same price they paid, after (I’m sure) a bunch of emails and hassle.
- Mosko lost sales right before Christmas, experienced a ton of confusion and stress, had our website and email out of commission for a week, and spent $2,500, plus legal fees, plus a bunch of other consulting costs to fix it.
- GoDaddy pocketed $2,500. Recognizing that, I’m not at all surprised they’re quick to let a customer’s established domain name drop. The more popular your site is, the less incentive they have to make sure you renew it. I wonder how many times per day/week/year this situation happens? This must be a very profitable part of their business.
I hope this story saves someone else the headache. Don’t use GoDaddy. Check your domain registration and make sure it’s up to date. We certainly learned our lesson the hard way.
I am extremely grateful to Foghorn Labs and Esqwire for helping us manage this mess and get our domain back. I can’t recommend these two companies enough.
The website situation blindsided us last week. We’ll have a ‘normal’ blog post up shortly.
Thanks for all the support!!