Banks no longer masters of their domain

Beleaguered banks are facing yet another threat: cybersquatters.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

As crimes go, it may sound harmless, conjuring images of alternative types occupying IT offices with dreadlocks, spliff smoke and the sound of bongos, but cybersquatting can actually do some serious financial damage. And canny opportunists are already snapping up domain names relating to recent and rumoured bank mergers.

In cybersquatting, likely addresses are bought on the cheap, either to sell later to the businesses involved, or to generate cash through click-through ads. Domain names for the merged Bank of America/Merrill Lynch and for Lloyds TSB/HBOS have already been snapped up. Speculators have also hedged their bets by registering names including barclayslehman.com, hsbclehman.com, hsbclehmanbrothers.com and bofalehman.com. At the time of writing, wereallgoingtohellinahandbasket.com had yet to be snapped up.

The phenomenon is, of course, nothing new. Sensational events such as David Beckham's LA Galaxy transfer and the death of Princess Diana sparked a flurry of opportunistic registrations. Everyone from Pamela Anderson to Bill Cosby, who once found the domain for his Fat Albert cartoon character linking people through to a site selling sex toys, have had to fight high-profile cyber-evictions.

Microsoft reckons an average of 2,000 domain names containing its trademarks are registered each day, three-quarters of which are owned by professional domain name speculators. In 2004, a 17-year-old Canadian fell foul of the software giant's almighty lawyers when he registered the domain name mikerowesoft.com for a laugh.

What's different this time is that the sneaky criminals are anticipating things before they've happened - acting on rumour before the mergers have actually been confirmed. They can then try and flog it for a profit, or generate cash flow through ads. There's even software out there that will fill the page with relevant content, such as the latest financial news, alongside Google adverts.

For the banks, the dangers are very real, from users getting a negative perception of the brand, to the cost and hassle of wrestling back control of a domain - both of which are far greater than securing it in the first place. Of course, many banks may be too preoccupied with the threat of real squatters right now to worry about that.

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