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Toronto company crippled as all traces of legal ownership erased

Source: Toronto Star

Posted on June 1, 2000

      At least two Internet-based companies - one in Toronto, the other in Hong Kong - have had their Web names "stolen" in what may be an international computer domain name laundering scam.

      The loss of the "A-class domain names" - Web.net, which belongs to a Toronto non-profit group; and Bali.com, a hotel and cruise booking company - have crippled both businesses.

      Web.net, which acts as an e-mail and information Web site for some 3,500 non-profit and charity groups, has been shut down since Saturday. Bali.com has been shut down since May 22, which owner Peter Rieger figures is costing him $100,000 a week in lost bookings and could put him under.

      "If this can happen to us, it can happen to the best of them," said Tonya Hancherow, executive director of Web Networks, whose clients include the Canadian Auto Workers union and the Canadian Labour Congress. "I don't think that we are any easier a target than anybody else. We happen to have a really, really desirable domain name, but so does Xerox."

      Web.net, which handles some 80,000 e-mails a day for clients, is scrambling to move them to an alternate site. But Hancherow fears many will abandon the company, which runs on such a shoestring that some months ago it considered selling its domain name - which could be worth at least $100,000.

      Instead, Hancherow arrived at work Monday to find the company's e-mail system and Web site - an information bulletin board of sorts with links to more than 600 other social-service sites - had been down since Saturday.

      Within hours, the computer-savvy Hancherow and her husband had discovered the shocking truth - the name Web.net, which they'd registered with the Virginia-based Network Solutions domain registry back in 1993, had been "kidnapped."

      They traced it to Jakarta, Indonesia, and discovered that someone using the name "Billy Tandoko" had sent what's called a forged e-mail to Network Solutions, first asking them to redirect all the site's e-mail and Web site information away from Web Networks' site. Then, they shifted the registration to a Toronto domain registrar and asked them to have the ownership switched to another person, supposedly living in Hong Kong.

      At that point, all traces of Web Networks' ownership of the domain name had been erased. But then, in an astounding fluke of fate, Hancherow's husband mentioned the theft to a good friend, Internet business consultant K.K. Campbell, (http://www.kkc.net) and discovered that he had been contacted to investigate a similar domain-name theft in Hong Kong.

      "I was floored. I couldn't believe it," said Campbell, a columnist for The Star's Fast Forward section. "I've never seen anything like this. When people steal money, the biggest thing they have to do is launder it - take away all traces of where it came from. And that's what has been done here." The scarcity of good business domain names, especially those that are short and easy to use, make names like Web.net and Bali.com extremely valuable, said Campbell.

      What astounds Rieger and Hancherow is that Network Solutions - which registers millions of domain names - has safeguards against such thefts. The company did not respond to a message left with its investigative branch by The Star.

      Campbell likens the incidents to a hijacking. "It's like someone walking in with guns and saying: `Okay, we are now in control of your facilities. You still own it, but we physically control what happens in the building.' But then they manage to get the deed and erase your name."

      After a day of phone calls and Internet sleuthing, Campbell figured out that the domain name Bali.com is now owned by someone in Madrid, Spain.

      "These are what I call A-class domain names," says Campbell. "If the person collected 50 of these, they'd have $5 million in assets they could afford to sit on for a little while until they're laundered and then resold."

      Bali.com and Web.net will eventually emerge on the Net, of course, but will have changed hands so many times it could be impossible to trace them back to the original source.

      "These two people (Rieger and Hancherow) are destroyed," says Campbell. "If businesses are going to flourish in the Internet economy, you can't have this happen. You won't do any business while they're holding your building hostage. The ramifications of this are huge."

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