Acquiring an expired domain name

I own lots of domain names, usually because I’ve had an idea for something one day and registered it on a whim. If I haven’t followed through with whatever those ideas were I often let the name drop. If a domain name I want is already taken I shrug my shoulders and move on with my life.

I never really understood the practice of ‘Domainers’, the people who scan the the daily ‘drop list’ of expiring domain names in the hopes of finding something ‘valuable’. All of the inverted commas for these terms demonstrate my dubious regard for this practice. It’s fair to assume that all common names for popular domains were taken long ago, so if something is taken you just pick a unique variation and roll with it.

A name by itself doesn’t make something popular. ‘YouTube’ is one of the most stupid conjuction of words I’ve ever seen. A lot of others are highly generic words, but in no way are they inherant brand names that’ll ensure success of a related product. Even if you owned ‘computer.com’, would you really think to go there before another PC website?

Well, you wouldn’t. ‘computer.com’ is just a website filled with ads, like so, so many other generic domain names. Since it doesn’t come up on any google search for ‘computer’, you do really wonder what the point of it is. Of course, there will be some ad revenue. Weirdly curiously people will go there and possibly click ads which then generate money for the owners. Despite not being linked from anywhere significant, and not coming up in searches for anything to do with computers, it probably relies entirely on the (probably thousands) of people a day who wonder what is on computer.com.

You’re also holding on to the hope that someone, somewhere, will want to buy the name off you. That will never happen either, as your perception of its worth runs into millions of pounds that nobody wants to pay. Not really – why would they? Even if you were a giant, giant computer company, why would you care to have computer.com? It wouldn’t add any value to your brand, and it would just be a waste of money.

Meet Kevin Ham, he has 300,000 domain names and he WANTS YOURS TOO

Kevin Ham has 300,000 domain names and he WANTS YOURS TOO

So these domains sit there, for years and years offering nothing but adverts, clutched by the owners for the trickle of ad revenue and the hope that the ‘inherant’ value of a generic name will some day be realised by someone stupid enough to part with the money.

But I am digressing heavily.

About a week ago I received an email from a spam-merchant, telling me that a .com variant of a domain that I own the .net and .org’s for wasn’t being renewed, and that for a fee he would try to obtain it for me.

Let me back up by explaining what happens to a .com domain when you don’t renew it. For 30 days after the renewal date, there is a grace period in which the registrant can wake up and pay the fee for the renewal. After those 30 days, it is still possible, for another 30 days, to get the name back but it is slightly harder and usually requires extra fees.

If the registrant is still nowhere to be found, details from the domain’s whois record start dissapearing quickly, and 75 days after the renewal date, the domain’s status is changed to ‘pendingDelete’.

This is where things really start cooking, because 5 calendar days after this, the domain is deleted and becomes publically available once again. Just to clarify what is meant by ‘5 days’, as lots of people seem confused, it is five full days after the domain’s status has been updated to ‘pendingDelete’. So if the whois record was updated on, say, the 15th of the month, 5 days after this would be the 21st.

The time on that day that it drops is also very important. Names on the droplist start becoming available from 2pm EST (that’s 7pm UK), and it takes two hours to work through the list. So it becomes a race of people hammering the whois database for the second that a name becomes fair game.

Lots of individuals are at it, but its very hard to compete with the big three registrars that provide droplist services – Enom, Snapnames, and Pool.com. The trouble with checking the whois record of a domain is that if you do it too often, the IP address of the checking computer will become temporarily banned. This is a problem for the individual, but for large registrars with farms of servers and hundreds of addresses it’s a fun monopoly. You simply can’t compete.

But then again, they’d only be trying to get the domain in the first place for one of two reasons. One, someone has paid them to try to nab it (where the highest bidder wins), or two, the registrar demonstrates what can only be called utterly fucking bastardry, by registering the domain for themselves and then auctioning it off.

This is fairly common practice. Registrars can nab domains at the point they become available and hold them for 5 days at no charge. During this time they can auction it off or sell it to whoever wants it. After the 5 days, if nobody has bought it, it will drop again and in theory then becomes available to the public. Except for a small loophole, because if a registrar so chooses, they can simply re-acquire it at the point it drops and hold it for another 5 days. This can continue indefinitely to the point where an expired domain is held for months by a speculative registrar (or an individual with the resources to acquire domains at speed and in this fashion) without it ever being fully registered. Because of the zero cost involved, and an apparent unwillingness by ICANN to close the loophole, individuals like you and I are basically fucked if a registrar decides the domain you want might be worth something after all.

Since registrars provide registration services to individuals, you are trapped. There is nothing you can do, and it’s tough luck. Your only hope is that the name you want is important to you but irrelevant to everyone else. As I have just discovered, even running searches on the name you want, even if it is not currently available, is enough to tip-off the registrar of its potential worth.

Anyway, back to my story. This guy emails me offering to acquire the .com of this domain name. I don’t even respond, because domainers and spammers can get to fucking fuck. While it would be vaguely satisfying and nice to have a ‘full set’ of TLDs for a particular name, I’m not going to spend a penny above the standard registration price, nor will I be drawn in and convinced I really need something that will have no bearing on my other websites whatsoever.

Mind you, I’ll still grab the name if its out there, and so I decide to set up a simple script that, at 2pm EST on the day the domain gets deleted, will whois the database and email me the minute it becomes available, or rather, it will email me when the whois record dissapears. At which point I planned to rush to my registrar (Enom) and get in my registration.

Except it didn’t happen that way. At 2pm on the dot the name I wanted was deleted from the database, but instantaneously picked up by someone else. Who could this be? In reality, there are so few people that would want this name to start with that I can’t believe someone might have paid an over-the-odds fee to acquire it using a dropping service.

But I don’t think this has happened. When I whois the domain now, I get this (name removed):

[Querying whois.internic.net]
[Redirected to whois.enom467.com]
[Querying whois.enom467.com]
[whois.enom467.com]
Domain not found. Code FW-1: DOMAINIWANTED.COM was not found in our system.

Now then, this is very interesting. It means the domain has not been registered by someone else otherwise I’d be looking at their registration data. I tried to find out what ‘Code FW-1’ means, but I can’t find anything explanatory on the web anywhere. Perhaps I’m not looking in the right place.

My best guess is that this is what happens when a registrar procures a name for itself for the aforementioned 5 day period. My suspicion is that Enom have seen my searches for the name on its system over the past few days and decided it might be worth something. As such, I’d never have had a chance of registering it first as Enom would have blocked me and acquired it for themselves before I even got to the checkout.

This is quite cunning, really. In the event I’m not the only one who wants the name, they’ve now got the opportunity to try and auction it off during the 5 day (or possibly infinite) holding period before they release it again. Based on this highly dishonest business practice, I can only assume that Enom would never sell domain names for the piffiling standard registration fee, and instead would seek to hold all names hostage in an effort to make the most money.

It doesn’t surprise me that ‘domainers’ exist. I consider it fairly cretinous to attempt to acquire something purely for the chance to sell it again at some rip-off price. It’s essentially domain-touting and anyone who’s ever been to a music gig knows how well regarded touts are. Generally you’d just wish they’d fuck off so you can buy what you want at a fair price. It’s the very worst kind of profiteering.

In this vein, I received another email from another spam-worthy fuckbag, informing me that they were going to sell the domain in question in ‘approximately 3 days time’ and if I wanted to buy it I should register my interest by clicking the following link. It’s the height of arrogance to purport to be selling a name that hasn’t even expired yet. Clearly they’re trying to determine the level of my desperation for this quiet little name ahead of time, despite the fact that I could, in theory, acquire it myself and cut out these fucking middle-men.

So, the domain is in limbo. Nobody has registered it, but nor can I acquire it. Should it sell to someone else I won’t be terribly bothered as the other variations of it that I own I don’t use heavily anyway. I should point out that I acquired those in the first place as a result of a bored domain search one day. It really isn’t a heavily desired name, and I can only assume that Enom are hoping I’m some kind of desperate fanatic who will pay ridiculous price for a name I don’t need.

I’m not. Updates on the outcome of this fateful domain will follow 🙂

Update:

The domain whois has now updated, to this:

Administrative Contact:
c/o eNom, Inc. on behalf of eNom, Inc. Customer
TBD eNom Customer TBD eNom Customer (legal@enom.com)
+1.4252744500
Fax: +1.4259744795
Correspondence can be sent to:
c/o eNom, Inc. 2002 156th Avenue NE
Bellevue, WA 98007
US

Technical Contact:
c/o eNom, Inc. on behalf of eNom, Inc. Customer
TBD eNom Customer TBD eNom Customer (legal@enom.com)
+1.4252744500
Fax: +1.4259744795
Correspondence can be sent to:
c/o eNom, Inc. 2002 156th Avenue NE
Bellevue, WA 98007
US

Registrant Contact:
c/o eNom, Inc. on behalf of eNom, Inc. Customer
TBD eNom Customer TBD eNom Customer ()

Fax:
Correspondence can be sent to:
c/o eNom, Inc. 2002 156th Avenue NE
Bellevue, WA 98007
US

Status: Active

Name Servers:
dns1.name-services.com
dns2.name-services.com
dns3.name-services.com
dns4.name-services.com
dns5.name-services.com

So, it appears the domain has been acquired on behalf of a customer. This may mean that someone has indeed used the name dropping service to pay a price over the odds for the name, or that this is just what Enom does when it’s setting up a domain to be auctioned off. I’ll only know if the name is updated with a Real Person’s name, or when this pops up in an Afternic auction.

Comments

  1. Tim Greer says:

    This is a rather brilliant summary of the problem (probably as condensed as you can reasonably get and still outline the problem with domain registrar’s and domain squatters).

    I recently was watching a domain, waiting for it to expire, give the owner time to renew (I figured they wouldn’t since it was just a splash page for ads that couldn’t make money from the domain in question, all things considered).

    It actually sat on PendingDelete for 50 days, before changing the status to “not found” in NetworkSolution’s whois output (for another 40 days or so), so I became suspicious and checked it now and again (mostly daily).

    Apparently I missed the short window and some domain squatter grabbed it. What I’ve seen common to this issue, is that it’s not just the registrar, but people that believe the domain might be worth something (as you had suggested) that grab them, usually.

    What I’ve found, is that when they are available, people immediately register them and give it anywhere from 12 to 24 hours, to the “5 day period” you are allowed before canceling, whereby they see if they either get offers, or watch the number of hits they get for the first few days. If it gets good traffic, they’ll actually register it for a 1 year period (rarely more, but it happens). If it doesn’t get good traffic, they let it drop.

    However, when it drops, it is often re-grabbed by the same or another domain squatter, again, repeating this 5 day period before they even have to pay. It can go on indefinitely, but this sort of cycle usually only lasts two or three times total, before the squatters find it’s not getting any hits and no one’s bothered to try and use a back order service, so it’s not valuable to them and it finally becomes available.

    Anyway, I checked this registration (which happened today or yesterday — I don’t recall exactly), and figured that given the funky whois information and the random Enom registrar used, it’s probably that same case, just give it a few days, checking once or twice a day until it’s likely free to register. I checked just hours later and already see the Domain not found. Code FW-1: EXAMPLE.COM was not found in our system notice. So, it’s just a matter of time until that cycle repeats and they give up, or it’ll be available, finally, after just the first attempt.

    I believe that these domainers are simply using various hosting services, where they either promise to pay by check, paypal or a credit card after the fact, where they don’t actually pay for their hosting account, but essentially abuse the hosts’ services to temporarily register the domain (until the host cancels the registration in the 5 day period). I don’t know that the domain registrar’s have any relation to this (beyond their obvious scam and monopoly of their back order service — I’m still waiting on a NetworkSolutions registered domain that expired 4 YEARS ago to drop, even though it’s shown pendingdelete the entire time — and there’s nothing anyone can do because the top registrar’s control all that exists in the domain world (ICANN doesn’t care at all)).

    I do sometimes wonder how the registrar’s would know to tip off the squatters, and it seems the registrar’s definitely have some type of priority for people they are affiliated with, and it does indeed make it impossible to automate any grab when it’s free (ICANN claims it’s fair game, but it’s not, since no normal person can automate this type of thing, as you’ve stated, you’ll be banned). I think it’s related to the whois queries that tip off the registrar’s, if they are indeed involved somehow.

    I know NetSol and others show the top 100 whois unique hits for the day (the top 100 domains), and this could be related, if they see someone pounding the whois each minute, hour or maybe day, knowing someone wants it badly enough to keep checking (making them think people will pay an unreasonably higher fee than the default registration, and maybe ensure you register it through them or their affiliates only). It should be illegal, but as usual, all things WWW/Internet are too infantile and the laws are too far behind.

    I once created a script to run from 100 different servers online, each randomly making a registration request on a domain. I coded the script to literally automatically step through the form-to-form process to register a domain. If the first step showed it as available, it would instantly complete all of the 4 or 5 steps, including payment. I had tested it with some cheap .info domains and a .net and a .com. Each script ran at a different time, so there was only less than 1 second each minute that some server wasn’t making the attempt. It was fool proof (for all intents and purposes). I started the day or two before it was available.

    This was to get around being blocked from too many queries or registration attempts, and compete in a stealth way like the back order services work, each request using cookies, and using a real browser agent and http_referer, so the service I’d register with wouldn’t have any way of knowing it wasn’t a normal browser making a normal registration request (just the very second it was available). Luckily it didn’t take over an hour to figure out all of the logistical problems and coding time to complete this script from scratch and propagating the script across 100+ servers to each run at a different time and not get caught by their limit filter, because, in the end, I lost the domain to some back order service anyway.

    It’s disappointing that even if you are fair and respectful in how you approach it, ensuring you aren’t filtered and you still have absolutely no chance of getting the domain before a back order service. Even if one could have all of the resources available, it comes down to the registrar that’s dropping the database being able to give priority to their affiliates (if not their own service) that offers back orders. So, after that whole fiasco and getting literally ripped off from services like RegisterFly (whom charged my card for a year more after I canceled and wouldn’t refund!), I have become rather bitter, but also in a good place of acceptance about the whole matter.

    Like you said, all of the good domains are taken. No good domain will be freed (as in a good domain name, by itself, with no site or company content, having immediate value). The only real time you can grab a good one, is if one is expiring. It rarely happens, but it does. When it does, it will surely have to be a matter of the sole owner of the domain and only person in control to renew it, dies.

    I’ve always wondered how many (if any) good domains dropped in the days, weeks or months or years after 9/11, as cynical as that might sound. Beyond some unexpected force such as that happening, you’re just not going to find gold on the WWW anymore. That said, it’s just better to accept it and try and grab one normally, not fall for the back order scams and if you get one you’ve been watching, cool. If not, it wasn’t meant to be and it’s not worth worrying about or putting in any great effort. Certainly to not bother writing a script in my case, even though it did cement some theories I had about it and provided me with that proof.

    So, I’ll wait and see what the squatters do with the particular domain I’m watching. I am eternally annoyed, however, about the squatters that continue to re-register very specific domains that I’d like, which are similar or relevant to sites I own or project I have, that I could actually benefit from. Sometimes it’s my fault for not considering these things when I registered the domains for those sites, businesses or projects, but often it’s just the impossible task of getting a decent domain that some crook isn’t sitting on hopeful someone will offer them a golden egg for it some day (and for nothing more, since they aren’t making money from traffic, and they surely don’t want to spend money to hold onto an otherwise worthless domain, so perhaps it’s out of spite or denial that they hold onto them?)

    I recall once I had a very popular site (I was on Webcrawler’s top 3 most accessed sites online back in the late 90’s for over 3 months straight, which was before google got big) and the site’s “name” was on a domain I found that was free to register that was good, but the one I wanted wasn’t available. Years later, it was expired at NetSol (of course!) for 6 months and wouldn’t change the status, so I contacted the domain owner (Lycos of all people) and asked if they’d be interested in selling it (thinking they might demand $1,000 or maybe $5,000 for it, which was more than I was going to pay), and the guy emailed me back saying they’ll sell it for $100,000 (that’s not a typo)!

    They were letting it expire and not function for over 6 months before I brought it to their attention (because NetSol were certainly never going to drop it), and they wanted 1/10th of a million dollars? Then, of course when I told the guy he was an idiot and a low life, they registered it for 10 years and still have it (and still do nothing with it). So, I chalk that one up to them living in a dream world, or them doing it out of spite. They must have tried to bank on the success of my popular site, because their domain name was the name of my site (I shut it down in 2000, so I hope they feel they’ve wasted their money). And, so this is how things go in the Internet world regarding domain names.

  2. Pete says:

    An excellent and well-thought comment Tim, a blog post in itself. Your experiences certainly chime with my own, and agree what you say about spite.

    I once registered the .com of a domain name and foolishly did not pick up the .co.uk at the same time. Imagine my surprise when I went to register it and found it has been nabbed by a competitor who redirected it to his own site. The central UK registrar, Nominet, have a complaints and disputes procedure, whereby they will attempt to mediate with whomever registered the name in an effort to get it back. The thief who stole my name wanted to sell it for £127, which I refused, and left me with the option of getting a Nominet ruling or giving up. Technically under Nominet rules you can’t cybersquat in the manner that this guy was, but unfortunately they charge £750+VAT (approaching $1400) to convene the board who make the decision.

    While this might be an incidental fee for a large company and a small cybersquatter, it was completely out of my affordability and the domain stayed with the guy for the default 2 year period, after which he let it drop. I wasn’t fast enough to pick it up after it expired and now it’s just a site full of ads which I’m sure earn nothing as the primary domain only gets 50 hits a day. Typo traffic will be worth nothing.

    Unfortunately registration fees are usually so small that it only takes one good squat site to pay for the retention of hundreds of other domains that will never earn a penny. I have read that ICANN allow this activity to persist because it maximises the number of domains registered per day, so in the end, like everything, it all comes down to money.