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Domain Name Typosquatter Still Generating Millions

Benjamin Edelman

Ever visit cartoonneetwork.com? Adaptac.com? Check the URLs carefully, for these aren't the "real" sites operated by the Cartoon Network cable channel or by Adaptec, manufacturer of PC storage devices. Instead, these domains — and some 5,000+ others — were registered by a Mr. John Zuccarini. Read on to learn what he is up to and how he has gotten away with it.

Zuccarini's Mode of Operation

Though Zuccarini's misspelled registrations may seem odd, his motivation is likely straightforward: making money. When users visit his web sites, Zuccarini can show advertisements, sell products or services, and earn commissions from other web sites to which he refers users. The majority of Zuccarini's domains offer sexually-explicit content, though his domain names about digital music tend to offer related tools and services.

Zuccarini's profits reflect the amount of traffic to his web sites. To increase profits, he therefore needs more domain names, and he needs domains that users are likely to visit. To that end, Zuccarini holds thousands of domains — 5,359, according to my research of January 2003. But these are not just ordinary domain names. Instead, many of Zuccarini's registrations are small variations on popular domains registered by others. His registrations anticipate users' common typing errors — glitches like doubling a letter, replacing one vowel with another, or transposing two adjacent consonants — "typosquatting," as it has come to be known. Due to Zuccarini's registrations, users reach Zuccarini's sites instead of error pages or the web sites they had in mind.

All indications are that Zuccarini makes money from visitor traffic — not from selling and reselling domain names. In this regard, he seems to differ from other large domain name registrants including Domain Strategy, a firm previously found to renew expired names for the apparent purpose of reselling them to their prior registrants after roughly a 100-fold markup.

Enforcement Falls Short

Zuccarini's thousands of registrations have attracted substantial attention from those who allege that his domains infringe on their rights. Zuccarini has faced at least 56 UDRP complaints as well as seven federal actions under the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA). In the majority of these cases, the complaining party has garnered an easy win — for Zuccarini's domains are typically considered "confusingly similar" to a complainant's trademark, proving the required elements of the claim. In this way, complainants such as American Airlines, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Microsoft have invoked the UDRP to recover names registered by Zuccarini, while ACPA claimants such as the Joe Cartoon Company have been awarded monetary damages in the tens of thousands of dollars as well as costs and attorneys fees.

But Zuccarini's typographic variations on generic names raise a more subtle question for which the UDRP and even the ACPA offer little guidance. Consider: Avis Rent A Car has registered carrental.com to refer users to their main avis.com site — but does that preclude Zuccarini from registering and using the variant carrentel.com (sic)? The UDRP fails to speak to this situation, and neither does the ACPA. Zuccarini has successfully defended a few generic names of this sort. For example, a WIPO panel denied an AOL request for the transfer of instant-messenger.com from Zuccarini; the panel found that that AOL lacked rights in this generic term, and it therefore could not use the UDRP to challenge Zuccarini's registration of this domain.

Although some of Zuccarini's generic names survived UDRP challenges, and the overwhelming majority have yet to be challenged through the UDRP, the Federal Trade Commission has brought suit against the entire lot, alleging that Zuccarini violated the Federal Trade Commission Act both by registering domains that are "similar to others' domain names, ... [or] trademarks" and by "trapping" users with a barrage of popups and popunders that obstruct exit. The FTC won an injunction prohibiting these behaviors and requiring a $1.8 million payment from Zuccarini. Yet my research indicates that Zuccarini's domains remain active, and Zuccarini reportedly moved to the Bahamas to escape the court's reach and to avoid collection of its judgment.

In short, Zuccarini has been at this for years — since as early as 2000 — and manages to continue despite a series of attempts to rein him in. Certainly he is now on the defensive — reportedly living in the Bahamas, registering no new names, and suffering the loss of at least some of his names to UDRP complainants. But the FTC court found his profits to be in the millions of dollars, and so far he seems to retain these funds, with more profits still accruing since his domains remain active. In the next issue of CircleID, I'll take a closer look at the jurisdictional issues raised by this situation — the way Zuccarini used German registrars and a residence in the Bahamas to delay attempts to cancel or transfer his registrations.

Though legal and regulatory solutions remain illusive, users can take matters into their own hands, avoiding Zuccarin's registrations and in the long run perhaps discouraging him, and others, from these "typosquatting" registrations. For those who access the web from a single computer (rather than public terminals or a number of machines), bookmarks of frequently-used sites are a good solution: When relying on bookmarks, users type fewer URLs and therefore make fewer typographic errors. In addition, even roaming users can search engines, and with the installation of the Google Toolbar, a search can be nearly as fast as directly entering the desired domain name. No single user can stop Zuccarini's enterprise, but good browsing habits can make visits to his sites less frequent — cutting exposure to popups and unexpected sexually-explicit content, and perhaps also reducing the effectiveness and profitability of such registrations in the future.

By Benjamin Edelman, Assistant Professor, Harvard Business School

Related topics: Cybercrime, Cybersquatting, DNS, Domain Names, ICANN, Law

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Comments

Re: Domain Name Typosquatter Still Generating Millions andre  –  May 12, 2006 9:11 PM PST

Here is a free service that helps you detect whether your site has been typosquattered

http://veralab.com/dnsdomainsearch/typo-squatters.jsp

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