The Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) is defending against a $10 million lawsuit after denying recertification to a registrar linked to a company that many Canadian domain name holders will be familiar with.
Brandon Gray Internet Services Inc. had its licence terminated Sept. 10, according to a court document obtained by ITBusiness.ca. In the statement of claim, Brandon Gray says CIRA provided no reason for the termination and asks for damages for breach of contract and harm to its business reputation.
The Markham, Ont.-based registrar includes the Domain Registry of Canada (DROC) amongst its 25 resellers. Many dot-ca domain holders have received solicitations from the DROC, offering to renew their registration and take over as hosting provider. Complaints presented CIRA in its court document claim the advertisements closely resemble invoices, and other registrars have warned their customers about the mailings. CIRA calls these sort of practices “domain slamming.”
Domain slamming or “domain name slamming” describes a practice where companies will send domain name holders misleading advertisements, claiming they must make a payment to retain ownership of their domain name or similar variants. (Related Story: Toronto ‘domain name slammers’ fined for fraud by FTC)
Brandon Gray and DROC share a postal address in Markham, Ont. and the same phone system and extension list. The DROC lists Brandon Gray as its registrar in its WHOIS information. Yet David Burroughs, a senior executive with DROC, maintains the two companies are distinct.
“The nature of our business relationship to handle certain customer service related aspects of our respective businesses is a private matter,” he writes in an e-mail to ITBusiness.ca. “We are simply a reseller through them [Brandon Gray].”
ITBusiness.ca requested a phone interview with DROC, but the company declined. They did agree to answer questions via e-mail.
CIRA has also declined comment on the case while it is before the court. But an affidavit filed in court obtained by ITBusiness.ca shows that the authority will defend itself in part by attempting to show Brandon Gray has a “bad reputation in the Internet community,” writes Kelly Campbell, channel manager at CIRA. It discusses the activities of the DROC and other resellers that it says “inextricably linked” to Brandon Gray and says they “have engaged in activities which are inappropriate for any business and highly unethical.”
Activities of the DROC have been a source of concern for CIRA and it has received many complaints about the firm, Campbell writes. It alleges that DROC has been sending misleading renewal notices to dot-ca domain name holders.
Suresh Kumar is president of Toronto-based J11 IT Solutions, and offers web hosting to his clients. After almost 600 of his customers received letters from DROC, he opted to send a mass e-mail advising they ignore the letter.
“When you pay them, you are giving them permission to transfer the domain away,” he says. “A lot of clients don’t have an understanding of how domain registrations work.”
After a dot-ca domain name holder requests a new registrar begin hosting their domain, CIRA automatically emails the site’s administrative contact. Then the domain owner must log-in and approve the transfer.
DROC likely gets addresses from publicly available WHOIS information associated with domains, Kumar says. Individuals can opt to keep their information private, but businesses don’t have that option, leaving them vulnerable. If they’re not particularly tech-savvy, they will likely choose to pay the fee requested.
“They feel if their domain expires, then their business is done,” Kumar says. “They [DROC] are taking advantage of people who have no knowledge of IT.”
A copy of the DROC advertisement obtained by ITBusiness.ca states in several places that it is not an invoice. The letter states “you must renew your domain name to retain exclusive rights to it on the Web, and now is the time to transfer and renew your name from your current registrar to the Domain Registry of Canada.”
A snippet from DROC’s solicitation. Click for the full image.
In bold-face capital letters located in the middle of the letter, it says “THIS IS A SOLICITATION FOR THE ORDER OF SERVICES AND NOT A BILL, INVOICE OR STATEMENT OF ACCOUNT DUE. YOU ARE UNDER NO OBLIGATION TO MAKE ANY PAYMENTS.”
It can’t be any clearer than that, Burroughs says. Other registrars are just upset they are losing customers.
“We feel we are offering one of the best deals around… many other registrars just cannot compete so they lose customers,” he writes. “In fact we receive daily praise for our solicitations, as the recipients thank us for informing and educating them on their rights and obligations regarding domain names and Web sites.”
DROC advertises its rate for Web hosting and domain registration at $40 per year. J11 offers domain registration for $24.99 a year, and Web hosting starting at $15 per month. J11’s Kumar says he’s never had a customer intentionally switch their hosting services to DROC.
“If my clients want to transfer their domain away, that’s fine,” he says. “But the clients [in contact] with the DROC didn’t want to transfer their domains.”
Kumar has put a lock on the domains of several of his customers’ accounts to prevent their being transferred to another Web host. But with the current CIRA system, this lock is not in place by default. CIRA is moving to a new registration system Oct. 12 that will put that lock in place by default.
J11 isn’t the only registrar to caution customers about DROC. Toronto-based HostPapa previously sent out a notice urging clients to ignore all letters from the company. It also asks customers to not send money to DROC, saying it is not necessary to preserve their domain name.
International presence and a decade of legal history
Domain slamming is nothing new on the Internet scene. In 2001, the Competition Bureau issued a warning about a firm named Internet Registry of Canada that was mailing out solicitations to domain name holders that resembled invoices. In 2004, Daniel Klemann was fined $40,000 and received five years probation for targeting 73,000 organizations with deceptive mailings regarding Internet domain names.
The Domain Registry of America (DROA) is another site registered to Brandon Gray. In December 2003, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requested that U.S. federal court stop DROA from making “misrepresentation in the marketing of its domain name registration services,” says the FTC. The company told consumers their domains were expiring “leading many consumers unwittingly to switch their domain name registrar.” It also issued an order barring “false or misleading representations” and calls for reimbursement of “customers that DROA misled.” That refund included the cost of transferring back to the original registrar.
The DROA is based in Ontario, the FTC statement says. It estimated that it may have to refund up to 50,000 customers. It describes millions of statements mailed out to domain name holders, which resembled renewal notices from the consumers’ current registrars.
DROA remains online today, and is registered in Ontario with a Markham, Ont. address, with one director – Peter Kuryliw. Kuryliw is also listed as a contact in Brandon Gray’s application to CIRA, Campbell writes. He was also the director of the Internet Registry of Canada, which has since been cancelled by the Corporation Tax Branch.
A Domain Registry of Europe (DROE) also is registered in Ontario. In July 2002, it sued Toronto-based registrar Tucows Inc. for $21 million in damages claiming defamation. DROE’s Web address currently redirects to DROA.
Brandon Gray manages more than 130,000 domains that do not end in dot-ca, according to CIRA’s court document. It also had 2,942 Canadian registrants with 3,722 active dot-ca domains.
ITBusiness.ca attempted to contact a spokesperson from Brandon Gray for this story, but a Larry Coker declined an interview. Coker is also listed as the administrative contact with DROC under its WHOIS information.
A Google search on any “Domain Registry of” company will show years of consumer warnings and complaints on blog posts, forum discussion threads, and newspaper articles. But while the company’s practices may draw complaints, it isn’t illegal, says Toronto-based domain name lawyer Zak Muscovitch.
“This is very crafty and well written,” he says of the DROC’s letter. “It expressly informs the reader that it’s a solicitation for services and talks about a transfer… it may be these guys are not doing anything wrong at all and a case of people not reading this closely enough.”
Who are the Benlolos?
The officer registered with the Ontario government for Brandon Gray Internet Services is Marilyn Benlolo. The Benlolo name pops up in several court settlements in Canada and the U.S., many involving misleading advertising.
A Simon Benlolo is listed as the president of the DROC by the Better Business Bureau (BBB), but the DROC says that information is wrong. Simon is also named as DROC’s director by CIRA in its court filing. The BBB lists Peter Kuryliw as the VP of operations for DROC, the same man registered as the DROA’s officer with Ontario.
A James Tetaka is the technical services manger for DROC and was a principal with the Internet Registry of Canada, Campbell writes.
Tataka, Simon Benlolo, Alan Benlolo, and Elliot Benlolo were found guilty by a jury in April 2004 for violating the Competition Act. The scam involved the mailing of 900,000 letters that appeared to be bills or invoices from Bell Canada or the Yellow Pages to businesses and non-profit organizations. In reality, the letters were solicitations to list information on YellowBusinessPages.com and YellowBusinessDirectory.com.
Simon received a nine-month jail sentence and was fined $100,000, and that was later reduced on appeal to $35,000. Alan and Elliot were sentenced to three years in jail and fines of $400,000.
An Isaac Benlolo was fined $10,000 by the FTC as part of a lawsuit against Toronto-based Internet Listing Service Corp on Aug. 9. That company was allegedly running a domain name slamming scam in the U.S., according to the FTC. An order has been issued to prevent the company from doing business south of the border. (Read the full report about ILS Corp. here).
CIRA plans a defense
CIRA plans to file an affidavit outlining its defense in the case against Brandon Gray. The new system it implements Oct. 12 may foil domain name slammers looking to make a buck off of insouciant domain holders.
Meanwhile, domain name holders will likely continue to do what Martin Cleaver, the industry chair of Wiki Sym 2010, does when he gets a letter from DROC about his Web addresses.
“I just threw out their latest letter,” he says. “There’s another one in my ‘to shred’ file.”
Brian Jackson is a Senior Writer at ITBusiness.ca. Follow him on Twitter, read his blog, and check out the IT Business Facebook Page.