If you have a website, chances are you’ve received a letter like the one below from Domain Registry (or something similar, like iDNS, Domain Registry of America, or Internet Registry of Canada). It’s a Domain Name Expiration Notice. The letter tells you that your domain name registration (the URL of your website) will expire in the next few months and offers you the best savings if you renew now.
Not sure what a domain name registration is? Here’s a good explanation >>
The letter often looks very official. It includes a logo (often with your country’s flag), your name, address, and domain information. Many people assume they need to pay up to keep their website domain active. Or they give it to their Accounting department for payment and forget about it.
But if you’ve ever wondered “Is this domain renewal letter legitimate?” or “Do I need to pay this bill?” here’s the straight answer. Do not pay! It’s a scam.
Unfortunately, domain name registration and renewal scams are pretty common. I get a couple of calls a month from clients asking what they should do with a letter/bill they’re received. So in this article, I’ll tell you what I tell my clients. I’ll:
- explain what this domain renewal letter actually is,
- give examples of the most common domain name scams,
- share tips to identify whether a letter you’ve received is legitimate or not,
- describe what to do if you’ve fallen for the scam,
- and walk you through what to do when you get one of these letters.
Is this domain renewal letter a scam?
This isn’t a complete scam (<= said with sarcasm).
Your domain registration is going to expire – eventually. And if you don’t renew your domain name registration, you will lose it (although most domain registrars give you a grace period during which they’ll give it back to you – for a fee).
But that’s where the facts get muddy and the scare tactics begin. All of these letters contain the following phrase (or something similar):
“Failure to renew your domain name by the expiration date may result in a loss of your online identity making it difficult for your customers and friends to locate you on the Web.”
This practice is also known as domain slamming. It’s a scam in which the company tries to trick domain owners into switching from their existing registrar to theirs, under the pretense that the customer is simply renewing their subscription to their current registrar.
So what is the letter about?
This letter is a solicitation to encourage you to switch your domain name registration from your current provider to Domain Registry (or whatever name they’re using). There’s nothing illegal about that. You’re free to choose whatever domain registrar you want and you can switch at any time (with a couple of limitations – see below).
But if you keep reading, you’ll notice that the letter also says “This is not a bill,” usually in bold text (<= it’s probably an attempt to protect themselves from getting sued). They are not your domain registrar and so have no authority to bill you for domain name renewal – unless you transfer your domain to them.
However, if you look at the price on this “not a bill”, you’ll see that it’s much more than you’d normally pay for a domain.
They also offer you the chance to buy one or more related domains, again at a higher than normal price.
So why would anyone transfer their domain to one of these scam artists? Because they don’t know what the going rate is for legitimate domain registration or renewal, assume that the company actually is their registrar, don’t read the letter carefully, or worry that they’ll lose their domain if they don’t pay.
Is it illegal?
Technically, it’s not illegal to ask people if they’d like to transfer their domain registration. Where the lines get blurred is when the solicitation is unclear or deceptive, and people are tricked into accepting the offer.
Numerous lawsuits have surfaced over this tactic because it is highly deceptive (and, I’d add, unethical).
* I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice!
Who are these companies?
The companies that send these letters are domain resellers or, sometimes, domain registrars (see this explanation for more details). They buy domains from a domain registrar at a discounted price and then resell the domain to you with a hefty markup.
Being a reseller is perfectly legal. In fact, many small business owners buy their domain registration from a reseller, rather than going directly to an ICANN-accredited registrar. Many resellers are totally legitimate, provide excellent customer service, and charge you a fair (or even discounted) price for registering your domain. In fact, here at Tree Care Marketing Solutions, we’re a domain reseller; we give our clients a good deal on their domain registration, update DNS records whenever needed, and make sure it’s properly renewed and secure.
But the scam artists who send these domain expiration letters are NOT that type of reseller!
In fact, they’re not associated with you or your business in any way. They’re simply scraping domain information off the web and sending deceptive letters to all domain owners in the hope that you’ll be fooled into paying them an inflated price for something you already have.
This is a scam that’s been around since at least 2000 so I can only assume that it’s a lucrative business.
Here’s a Typical Domain Expiration Letter
924 Bergen Ave, Suite #289
Jersey City, NJ 07306-3018
Renewal Information Enclosed – OPEN IMMEDIATELY
Domain Name Expiration Notice
visit us at www.giv.com
As a courtesy to domain name holders, we are sending you this notification of the domain name registration that is due to expire in the next few months. When you switch today to Domain Registry, you can take advantage of our best savings. Your registration for (your domain) expires on xxxxxx (<= this information can be easily found through an online search). Act today!
Domain name: your domain (<= this is also easily found from your website or other public records)
Reply Requested By: xxxxxx
You must renew your domain name to retain exclusive rights to it on the Web, and now is the time to transfer and renew your name from your current Registrar to Domain Registry. Failure to renew your domain name by the expiration date may result in a loss of your online identity making it difficult for your customers and friends to locate you on the Web.
Privatization of Domain Registrations and Renewals now allows the consumer the choice of Registrars, when initially registering and also when renewing a domain name. Domain name holders are not obligated to renew their domain name with their current Registrar or with Domain Registry. Review our prices and decide for yourself. You are under no obligation to pay the amounts stated below, unless you accept this offer. This notice is not a bill (<= there’s that legal disclaimer so you can’t sue them), it is rather an easy means of payment should you decide to switch your domain name registration to Domain Registry.
For a complete list of our terms and conditions, please visit www.giv.com/tos
Transfer and renew your domain name online at www.giv.com 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
How can you tell if the expiration notice is real or fake?
Here are some questions to ask to help you know whether the renewal or registration notice you’ve received is real or a scam.
- Is it a “snail mail” letter? Domain name registration notices are usually sent by email, not via regular mail.
- Is there a phone number on the letter? Fake notices don’t usually have a phone number listed. If it does, try calling it (it’ll likely be a fake phone number).
- Is there a website on the letter? If so, visit it. Does it look familiar? Can you log into an account? Is there a phone number or email contact information? Does it fully explain their full range of services? You can often tell when a website is just a thinly-disguised landing page. For example, the website for Domain Registry is exactly the same as the one for iDNS. Why? They’re owned by the same company.
- Is it really a bill or just a solicitation? Read the letter carefully. If it says “this is not a bill”, then do not pay it!
- Do you recognize the name of the company? Google the company’s name and the word “scam”. If the company isn’t legitimate, you’ll quickly find out.
- Who is your real domain name registrar? You can find the name and contact information of your domain registrar through a simple ICANN lookup. It will usually be one of the reputable registrars such as GoDaddy, Network Solutions, Register.com, Hover, NameCheap, etc. If you’re still not sure, ask your webmaster, IT company, or the person/company who set up your website; they may have purchased the domain name for you.
- When does your domain expire? Look through your records and invoices for a confirmation notice from your domain registration (it’ll usually be an email). When is your domain name supposed to renew?
What should you do if you get a domain expiration notice?
Look into your current situation before doing anything.
- Log into the account where your domain is currently registered.
- Confirm when your domain is going to expire. Generally, if the expiration date is within the next 2 to 4 weeks (depending on the provider), you’ll have to renew with your current provider. If it’s further away, you may have the option to move to another provider.
- Check what your provider will charge when you renew your domain name registration. Are you happy with the price? Most providers will charge about $20/year at most for a 1-year renewal. I recommend you always renew for at least 2 years.
- If you’re okay with the renewal price, make sure that:
- The credit card on file is still valid (and will be valid on the renewal date). If not, update it.
- Your domain is set up to autorenew and automatically charge the credit card on file. This means you can’t forget to renew it and end up accidentally losing your URL!
- The setting to lock or unlock domain transfers is set to “Lock”. This will prevent any unauthorized transfers.
- If you’re not happy with the renewal price, contact your provider to see if they’ll lower the price. Sometimes they will, especially if you renew for a longer period (e.g., 5 years). If not, you can shop around for a better deal (as long as you’re not bumping up against the expiration date; in that case, you’ll need to renew with your current registrar).
What if you already paid the bill to transfer your domain?
If you paid to transfer your website domain to one of these scammers, you can probably kiss your money goodbye. And if all you’ve lost is cash, consider yourself lucky.
However, if you paid with a credit card you may want to get a new card. Your complete credit card details will be visible to whoever receives your payment, unlike when you make a payment online where only the last 4 digits are visible. Although I haven’t seen reports of fraudulent charges (aside from the domain registration), it’s better to be safe than sorry.
You can also dispute the charge with your credit card company if the transfer hasn’t gone through. But if it has, disputing the charge will likely cause the company to terminate your domain name registration.
Next, did the company contact you to initiate the domain transfer? Depending on how your current account is set up, this may have to be done online. It usually requires several steps, including unlocking your domain with your current registrar, getting a transfer code (the EPP “AuthCode”), sending it to the new provider, and confirming the transfer.
If you haven’t heard from the company or haven’t yet done all of the steps they requested, then there’s still hope. Try these steps:
- Contact your current domain name registrar, explain the situation, and ask them not to transfer the domain name.
- Log into the account for your current provider (or ask them while you’re talking with them) and make sure the setting for domain transfers is set to locked. That prevents anyone from transferring your domain without your knowledge.
- Contact the scammer and ask them to cancel the transfer. That may be difficult – there’s usually no phone number on the letter or on their website and their “customer service” is typically non-existent. As a last resort, try sending a letter by certified mail.
If the domain name has already been transferred, then there’s very little you can do. Once they hold your domain name registration, they can jack up the price, hold you hostage by preventing you from transferring away, or require you to buy additional services to maintain your registration. However, if you wait 30 days (a second transfer generally isn’t allowed for 30 days after a domain name is transferred), you can try moving your domain to a reputable domain registrar.
Keep all of the records and invoices for your domain filed away so you can easily access them. Your domain registration is a critical piece of your business; if you lose control of it, you lost a major business asset and a huge part of your online presence.
Never pay a bill you weren’t expecting without first checking with your website or IT people.
And, finally, make sure the company that handles your online marketing is reputable, easily accessible, and can fully answer questions like “Is this domain name renewal letter legitimate?”. If they take care of issues like domain registration renewals on your behalf, make sure you have access to all of the accounts, that the accounts are in your name, and that you get all invoices, confirmations, and notifications directly from the provider.