What to Do When Someone Else Owns Your Domain Name

What if you don't own your domain name?

Written by JVF Solutions

JVF Solutions is your premier source for all things online. From responsive websites to digital marketing services to online marketing strategy, we've got you covered.

November 7, 2022

Your domain name is one of the most important parts of your website. It’s how people find your website, helps with SEO, and in most cases increases in value the longer you use it. So it’s important that you make sure that you protect it and don’t let it expire. This is one area that we recommend that our clients manage on their own. While we will under special circumstances register a domain name on behalf of a client, we will only do it under their accounts. We will not register a domain name under our own name for a client.

Why the registrant for a domain name matters.

We’ll use the terms “registrant” and “owner” for domain names interchangeably for simplicity. The registrant has the ability to determine how a domain name is used and where it points. Smaller entities may only use a domain name for a website. Larger organizations may use it for email and other devices connected to the internet such as PCs, servers, routers, and more. If a domain name expires and someone else registers it, it can be a huge problem for businesses that use the domain name for their employee’s email addresses and computer names.

We’ve worked with several small businesses where their prior web designer held their domain name hostage. In most cases, we were able to negotiate with them and transfer the domain name to the business owner. In one case, it was less expensive (and less of a hassle ) to recreate the website and marketing materials. In all cases, it was an unpleasant experience.

How to determine whether you own your domain name.

This is not as easy as it used to be. You can start out by doing a Domain Name Search at ICANN. Before the days of domain registrars including privacy, this search would show the administrative, technical, and billing contacts for the domain name. These days, it’s rare that this information is shown as most registrars include privacy. But the report is still useful.

Example registrar information from icann search

First, look at the registrar information (see the above example). You’ll see a name like GoDaddy, BlueHost, Shopify, NameCheap, or some other registrar. For the example above, you’ll want to check your email for a bill from GoDaddy for the domain name. If you find a bill, then you’re all set. Just make sure you keep an eye open for your next bill to ensure you don’t miss it. If you can’t find any emails from the registrar, there’s a good chance someone else registered it for you.

How to track down the real owner.

If you don’t own your domain name, there’s a good chance that your web designer does. So if your site was built recently, check with them. Sites built more than two or three years ago can be difficult to deal with. So go back to your ICANN Search results and look at the Domain Information section and then the three dates at the bottom.

Example of domain name information from ICANN

The first date is the expiration date – if you don’t renew by this date you risk losing the domain name. If this date is in the past, the registrar may be holding it (usually up to 30 to 90 days) before releasing or auctioning it. So reach out to the registrar and let them know.

The next date is the updated date. This shows when the record was last updated. The things that typically trigger this date to change are domain renewals (as the expiration date changes), name server changes (when a domain name is repointed), or registrar changes (when a domain name is moved to a different registrar). If the update was within a year(and the website hasn’t been repointed), it indicates that someone has renewed it.
Now that you have this information, you can start contacting people. If you’ve only worked with one web designer for that site, then they most likely registered it for you. For those that have worked with multiple designers, start with the most recent and work your way back.

What if the web designer isn’t helpful or reachable?

This is where things get very messy. If you suspect that the web designer owns the domain name and doesn’t want to work with you, you should review your contract with them. The contract could have terms related to the domain name that you may have to abide by. At this point, consult a lawyer that specializes in IP law, especially internet related. If there’s no contract, you can also reach out to an IP attorney or the domain name registrar, and they may be able to help you.

If the web designer has moved on and you cannot locate them, then you’ll have to go to the registrar. Every registrar should have a process for dealing with domain name disputes. Simply contact them via email and/or phone to open up a case. They would be your last resort for recovering the domain name.

What if it’s another party besides the web designer?

This is very rare because if someone took over the domain name, it wouldn’t be pointing at your website. We experienced this several years ago while registering an additional domain name for this business. The process got interrupted, and when we went back to register it a few hours later, it was scooped up by a company in China that collects and sells domain names. We were fortunate that they released the domain name shortly after registering it and we were able to pick it up. But not all stories have a happy ending.

Your best-case scenario is that you can purchase the domain name at a small premium from the party that owns it. So instead of the normal renewal cost of $15, you have to pay $50. In some cases, it may be $500 or $5000 – or more. Just be sure that you’re purchasing it through a legitimate service.
Your worst-case scenario is that you have to start over, but if you take that route, we can help make it less painful.

Can someone help with the process?

We’re always here to help. Simply set up a complimentary consultation with us, and we’ll help point you in the right direction. If more help is needed, we can do everything from tracking down the domain name owner to getting your site back up and running.

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