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Thanks to the folks at Domain Name Wire for blogging about a serious scam designed to steal money from domain name owners. You could say it’s a new sort of phish.

Domain renewal scams are not a new thing. Because whois information is public, unscrupulous registrars have, for years, harvested the information in it and sent renewal notices to unwitting customers of other domains. If you “renew” you actually end up transferring the domain name and perhaps incurring additional charges.

This new scam comes in the form of an e-mail from “Domain Renewal” telling you that you need to renew your domain. It is designed to look official and tries to draw you in to renew the domain, but the problem is that you didn’t register the domain with Domain Renewal.

How can this be? Domain Renewal claims to be able to renew your domain with your current registrar (although they usually seem to say that it is ISPs that register domains, which is not generally true). “When Domain Renewal extends your domain no information will be changed in the “Whois” information section. The domain will be extended for 1 year. You will therefore continue with your current supplier. You may also request your Internet Service Provider to renew the domain for you.

This is nonsense. Domain renewals can’t be performed by proxy, and thank goodness they can’t. The system is increasingly designed to make it difficult for third parties to perform transfers, changes of authoritative DNS and other serious operations. Why would they allow a third party to renew a domain? And if a domain is locked, which is increasingly the default situation, no such operations will be possible without explicit interaction between the customer and the actual registrar.

So what’s the point of it all if they can’t steal the domain? In all likelihood they’re taking your renewal money and, shall we say, keeping it. I can’t imagine what else they can do with it. I called Domain Renewal at a phone number in Belgium but there was no answer. Domain Renewal’s Web site lists locations in Belgium and the Seychelles, a very nice place to keep money.

I talked to Elliot Noss, CEO of Tucows, who stressed the importance of knowing who you bought your domain from. It seems like an obvious point, but there are a lot of domain owners who don’t know this basic fact. Tucows has it especially hard because they are both a retailer and a wholesaler. For instance, people who buy hosting from another service can often register a domain as part of the same process, but the Web host may only be a domain reseller for a separate company.

Very often customers in these situations don’t know who their actual supplier is. Tucows may show up in the whois record, but that’s not necessarily who the customer should be dealing with. And certainly they shouldn’t be dealing with someone who is not in the whois record and with whom they have never done business.

Domain Renewal acknowledges this situation and claims to be the solution for it:

It is not uncommon for companies to have purchased their domains with different suppliers which makes it even harder to keep track of their domain portfolio. DRS will find and renew your domains for you. We make agreements with ISP all over the world to renew our customer’s domain names.

DRS refers to their “automated renewal system.”

If you’re unhappy with having to protect yourself against such scams, I’m with you, but that’s life, buddy. Companies that engage in domain fraud may or may not pay the price some day, but it doesn’t change the fact that you need to be alert and know enough to protect yourself. The FTC won’t do it. Know who your domain suppliers are and be alert to whom your correspondence is coming from.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

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