It’s hard to imagine what BHP Billiton, Laura Ashley and Taylor Swift might have in common. It’s harder still because it’s something that can potentially affect anyone or any business in Australia.

Any guesses? The answer is cyber-squatting.

While terms like cybercrime and cyberbullying have become part of the vernacular, there is still some uncertainty over what cyber-squatting is.

The global regulator of web addresses describes cyber-squatting as the “bad faith registration of another’s trademark in a domain name”. Cyber-squatters may profit by diverting web traffic from a competing service or selling the domain at an inflated price. Think of it like domain kidnapping.

Famous squatters

Cyber-squatters hold a web domain for ransom. They say, “I’ll give you www.lauraashley.email but only if you pay!” Luckily, for Laura Ashley, the dispute was taken to the World Intellectual Property Organization and the web domain transferred back to her.

BHP Billiton, however, was not so lucky. The mining company was reportedly quoted $10 million for the exact match domain name for South32, the spinoff company it launched last year – but for which it embarrassingly forgot to secure the domain name.

BHP Billiton refused to buy the domain, and today visitors searching www.south32.com will find a page describing an R-rated film about a Mexican drug cartel. Needless to say, it’s not a good look.

As for Taylor Swift? She thought ahead. The US singer recently bought up websites www.taylorswift.porn and www.taylorswift.adult in a bid to protect her brand image and prevent unscrupulous individuals tarnishing her reputation online. She’s not the only one who has taken precautions. In Australia, the Liberal Party registered the domain www.abbottlies.com.au, while the Australian Labor Party owns www.gillardlies.com.au.

An increasing risk

Cyber-squatting affects politicians as well as pop stars; mining magnates along with design houses. In short, it can affect anyone who has a trademark claim.  And it’s on the rise.

In the last eight months, the number of cyber-squatting disputes has increased by 313 per cent. This spike has been attributed to the release of over a thousand new Top-Level Domains. These new web address endings like .adult, .wtf and .lol can increase the risk of cyber-squatting. Now, not only do you need to watch for www.yourbrandfails.com, you need to watch out for www.yourbrand.porn/.sucks/.fail.

Falling victim to cyber-squatters is a serious issue. It can damage a brand’s reputation, result in loss of revenue and create long-term confusion. So, what can you do to reduce the risk?

How to avoid a cyber-squatting.fail

To mitigate the risk of cyber-squatting, both personal and corporate brands need to take a proactive approach to protecting their trademarks.

On the one hand, this might involve registering domains that could have harmful implications. On the other hand, it might also involve strengthening your digital assets. Remember, not all cases of cyber-squatting are defamatory in nature. Many profit by generating advertising revenue by diverting web traffic from high-ranking websites.

Being aware of opportunities to increase your relevance online can help fortify your brand against cyber-squatters.

Consider enhancing the locality of your personal or company brand with a .sydney or .melbourne domain name. These domains open the door to new opportunities. Imagine you are a café with strong Melbourne roots and your local competitor registers www.cafe.melbourne before you. Taking the initiative to register with a geographically specific web domain is an important way to consolidate your online presence and prevent confusing mimicry. But, ultimately, tackling cyber-squatters is a question of monitoring risk.

With 1,300 new web endings set to hit the web, the risk of cyber-squatting is only going to rise. Stay attuned to instances where your trademark may be exposed – make sure your brand .wins, and doesn’t .fail.

Image attribution: Hacker, Diebe, Sensationen 330/365 by Dennis Skley, Licensed by CC BY-ND 2.0