Digital Citizens Raises Alarm At Ease Of Registering Scam Domain Names

A three-month investigation by the U.S.-based Digital Citizens Alliance claims “little to no effort is made to police domains whose sole purpose would be to scam, endanger those most vulnerable or entice those seeking dangerous drugs.

In an attempt to prove their point Digital Citizens easily registered a number of domain names such as such as coronavaccinefree.com, underage-girlsescorts.biz and oxycodone-no-prescription.biz, and more. They also claim that when some domain names were already registered, domain brokers were more than ready to help even when informed the buyer wants to create a scam site (such as they told DomainAgents when seeking its help to acquire coronavaccine.com.

Digital Citzens describe themselves as “a consumer-oriented coalition focused on educating the public and policymakers on the threats that consumers face on the Internet. Digital Citizens wants to create a dialogue on the importance for Internet stakeholders—individuals, government, and industry—to make the Web a safer place.”

There are of course many legitimate registrations of domain names related to some of these activities. On the COVID-19 pandemic, Check Point Research found 68,000 coronavirus-related domains registered since the beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak in January 2020 to mid-April with an escalation in the number of coronavirus-related domains being registered since mid-February. In the two weeks since 2 April, Check Point found there were almost 17,000 new coronavirus-related domains registered (16,989 to be exact) with 2% found to be malicious and another 21% suspicious.

The Digital Citizens report also fails to mention an initiative I wrote of in June that is working to combat malicious registrations, in this case by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Food and Drug Administration and three of the largest domain name registries. The U.S. agencies have just recently completed working with GoDaddy Registry (.us), Public Interest Registry (.org) and Verisign (.com/.net) in a three month trial to curb illegal online sales of unapproved opioids.

Under the programme, the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) worked with the registries for the 120 day trial to suspend the domain names of websites found to be illegally selling unapproved opioids. As of yet, no results of the trial have been published.

In response to the Digital Citizens report, the Washington Post sought comment from GoDaddy who pointed the Post to a blog post of their own by their VP of Public Policy James Bladel from March this year when the world’s largest registrar said they’re “committed to protecting our customers and internet users everywhere during the coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic by combatting COVID-19 related fraud, scams and abuse on our platform.”

“GoDaddy has teams dedicated to investigating every abuse complaint the company receives. We do not tolerate abuse on our platform and our Universal Terms of Service (UTOS) gives us broad discretion to act on complaints, and this includes COVID-19 abuse. To date, our teams have already investigated and removed COVID-19 fraud sites in response to reports, and our vigilance will continue long after the COVID-19 crisis comes to an end.

“In particular, GoDaddy is taking action against domain names, websites, email, and any other products associated with prohibited activities including (but not limited to):

  • Selling fake COVID-19 test kits
  • Selling fake COVID-19 treatments or purported vaccines
  • Product scams related to COVID-19
  • Phishing, botnets, or the distribution of malware
  • Other fraudulent or illegal activities.”

Back to Digital Citizens, their report titled Domains of Danger: How Website Speculators and Registrars Trade Internet Safety for Profit [pdf] also explores the no-holds-barred world of so-called domainers … whose sole purpose is to snap up potentially valuable names and sell them at a premium – regardless of whether the name might have public interest benefits (as was the case with coronavirusinfo.com, which a domainer purchased at the start of the COVID crisis and immediately put up for auction for a minimum price of $5,000). In another instance, Digital Citizens investigators attempted to purchase daterapedrug. com, but were informed that it would cost $4,745 to do so. Instead, Digital Citizens was able to purchase date-rape-drug.com from Namecheap, a domain registrar called out by a leading cyber security company of sponsoring malicious domains.”

Digital Citizens goes on to claim “these results reflect an industry, much like dominant online platforms, that is basing its sketchy dealings on what it can do, rather than what it should do to foster a healthy Internet. And much like the platforms that ignored public sentiment and policymaker concern over behaviour that put profits over consumer safety, the domain industry may regret it.”

“As part of its investigation, Digital Citizens looked at how the domain industry addresses three issues of concern to policymakers and citizens: sex trafficking, dangerous drugs, and COVID scams and price gouging. Digital Citizens also conducted a research survey to explore Americans’ perspectives on whether registrars and domainers should adopt a higher standard of care when it comes to potentially dangerous domains.

“Digital Citizens reinforces that domain operators acting without regard to consumer and Internet safety do so at their own risk. Google and Facebook ignored similar warnings over the last decade and now face consumer protection, business and antitrust investigations by the Department of Justice and at least 48 state attorneys general.”

This report Digital Citizens notes “is not about the legality of the domain operators’ actions, but how by acting blind to the domain names they offer they can enable criminals and bad actors to seamlessly operate. Just as with the platforms, only time will tell if the leaders of the domain industry – companies such as GoDaddy and Domain.com, and others with the most to lose – take the initiative to raise the bar.”

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