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Cheesed-off Brookline pizza place sues New York Web firm for cybersquatting

Village Pizza House of Brookline Village says when it decided to change Web-design firms, it learned the old one had taken control of its domain name and then not only refused to give it up, but changed it to harm the pizza place's business.

Now the pizza place wants a slice out of EIC of New York: It filed a lawsuit in US District Court in Boston yesterday seeking at least $100,000 in damages for the money it says it lost over several years until it finally knuckled under and paid the $500 fee it says EIC demanded to give back the domain.

Village Pizza House says it hired EIC in 2004 to redesign and host its Web site. It alleges that in the process of re-pointing Internet domain name servers - essentially computerized directories that make the Internet work - to the new site, EIC transferred ownership of the domain name to itself. When Village Pizza House told EIC in 2009 it wanted to hire another company for another site redesign, EIC refused to give up the domain name unless the pizza place paid it $500, the suit alleges.

Village Pizza House refused and, the suit charges, EIC started running ads for Domino's and other pizza places on the site, changed the listed street address to that of a Village Pizza House competitor and reverted listed prices to those of 2004 - costing the place money when it had to give customers those prices, lest it lose their business.

The pizza place said it bought a new, similar domain name, but that EIC proved good at search-engine optimization: The original site continued to rank well in Google searches.

Village Pizza House says the shennanigans cost it at least $100,000 in lost profits. It's seeking at least that much, plus damages and lawyer's fees.

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Comments

The family who owns Village Pizza are really nice people. I've been going to their shop since I was sixteen years old. It's too bad they have to go through this nonsense.

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Ah, that's how I have been making a lot of profit. I guess it is time to find another way to get money back from clueless customers.

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Remind me not to go to you for a website design ever. That's just low, they come to you and trust your knowledge of how to get a website done, then you go and seize the domain from them and refuse to give it back? Sleezy business practices at its finest.

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Same thing happened to Taam China in Brookline. Their old site taamchina.com has an address and phone number for a different (non-kosher) chinese place. Their new site taamchina.us has all the right info.

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I don't know if that was malicious.

taamchina.com has the address of the former Shalom Hunan. Did they merge, before the 92 Harvard Street location went treyf and was renamed Zoe's, and then closed altogether?

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I know from a good source that it was malicious and hence why they have a new URL.

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Well, it looks like the squatter is out of business at this point. Shalom Hunan, the treyf Chinese place that followed, and an unrelated Korean place at that location are all closed.

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"There was no written contract between the parties for either service."

Oh boy...

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That was my first thought -- what did the contract say?

My second thought was, what determines who has "physical" control of a domain name? Like the password, or whatever, that lets you change where it points? If I were a small business owner, I'd be sure I had that password, and nobody else.

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So it turns out that this is a really interesting question. There is something called the Whois (Who Is) database which serves as a de facto Registry of Deeds for domain names. It's entirely publicly searchable.

Because of that, and because you're required to list an email address in it, you will get a lot of spam. And not just spam: I've gotten actual through the USPO, mail fraud[*] mail that clearly referenced the whois db.

For which reason, there's now this thing called "Domain Privacy" or similar that domain registrars sell as an additional feature. They list themselves in Whois and their contact information, and a pass-through email address, for a modest fee. They hold ownership of the domain for you. This allows reasonably anonymous domain ownership (only the registrar knows who the person behind it is.)

The problem comes if there's any conflict about who owns the domain. If you're using a privacy feature, your name isn't the one on record as owner of your domain.

This has bit people pretty hard. There was a case some years ago where a registrar went out of business. Customers who didn't use domain privacy were able to convince relevant external parties that they owned their domains and were able to get control of them again reasonably quickly. The people who had used it, were pretty SOL, and I don't know if they ever regained control of their domains again.

Additionally, and obviously, if a customer hires a design firm, the design firm buys the domain for them, and retains control of the domain registration -- either putting themselves in Whois or simply having control of the relevant account at the domain registrar they used, it's approximately impossible for the customer to legally establish the domain is his unless he has some paperwork with the designer attesting to that.

[* Which I duly reported to the appropriate authorities and man wasn't that conversation a hoot.]

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Ah, I'm reading the filing now and have some more details:

22. As part of the development of the 2004 Village Pizza Website, EIC asked Jim Mallios to provide EIC with the log-in credentials necessary to make the website available at the Village Pizza Domain. Mr. Mallios agreed and entrusted EIC with the necessary log-in credentials to make the 2004 Village Pizza Website available at the Village Pizza Domain.
23. Unbeknownst to Village Pizza, EIC violated this trust by altering the Village Pizza Domain registrant information and listing EIC Agency, LLC as the registrant.
Changing the listed registrant is not necessary to design, create, or publish a website. Village Pizza never consented to this change.
24. A domain name's registrant is generally not visible from the website itself, so Village Pizza was unaware of the changes EIC made.

Translation: They were paying for both design and hosting (an important detail, because your web host has root on your webserver; whomever it is, its necessarily a trusted position and it implies that not only were they paying for the site to be made by this company, but to be run and maintained by this company) and as part of the site deployment, the design/hosting firm offered to handle the DNS changes to point to their new website. Village Pizza gave them the login to do this. While in there, EIC put themselves in Whois as the owner of the domain.

Free advice: as nice as it is to have one person do everything for you, especially when you're not a technical person, maybe the people who host for you shouldn't ever have any authority over your domain name registration. If necessary, hire somebody else entirely.

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I wonder if the scumbag defendant wants some pizzas delivered to his home address that is listed in the lawsuit.

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What if we got this sleazy web designer and Regal Pizza tangled up with one another?

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The defendant seems like a real winner.

A google search of his name turns up quite a few other choice thoughts people have had on his business model (slavery) and his personal habits (racism, misogyny).

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Does this mean that you are "cyberbullying" him, Kaz? ;-)

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My Dad owned a B&B and something similar happened to him - I believe he had to abandon the old domain name. People who aren't technical don't understand the distinction between the domain ownership and their website design and hosting. Frankly it's very confusing if you aren't familiar with the process.

I work with a lot of small business data and I see a *ton* of old URLs that are now parking domains (i.e. BUY THIS DOMAIN sites). They end up registering a slightly new domain to get around it but then have their old site listed in old directory info which then sends the traffic to the old site.

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