Some Netizens, who thought they were registering domain names with the official InterNIC, say they paid more than twice the usual registration fee to a private company whose Net name was so strikingly similar to the InterNIC's that it was hard to tell the difference.
When Christi Cubbler wanted to register their domain name "azvasc.com," she and her husband decided to go straight to the registration source, figuring they'd save some money that way.
Instead, they wound up going to a Web site, Internic.com, which they both thought was Network Solutions' InterNIC page at "internic.net," and paid $250 for a domain registration. Had they gone to their intended destination--InterNIC--they would have paid $100 for exactly the same thing.
It appears that the company that owns "internic.com" went ahead and registered Cubbler's domain name with the InterNIC, pocketing $150 in the process. Indeed, many companies register domains for a fee, but at least a handful of randomly picked people who went through the registration process at the Internic.com site specifically said they thought they were going straight to the InterNIC itself, not to a reseller.
Peter Zmijewski, who is listed as the billing contact for the registrations in question, could not be reached for comment at telephone numbers listed for him in Australia or by email.
There are several people who would now like to contact him. Judith White, who went to Internic.com to register a domain name for her church on a Sunday night, also thought she was going to the actual InterNIC.
"I did this for my church," she said. "We don't have a lot of money. Everything [Internic.com] has and the way they have it on there gives you the impression that they're the InterNIC."
Upon ascertaining that she had not registered at InterNIC, she went back to Internic.com and noticed disclaimers at the bottom of the page, which she had missed before, stating the site is not the InterNIC. At that point, she took the blame for the mistake, chalking it up to being "in a hurry."
But others said the disclaimers aren't adequate, especially for people who don't have a lot of experience on the Net.
The disclaimers explaining that Internic.com is not the actual InterNIC are at the bottom of the page. All contacted said they missed them. In fact, one can complete the entire registration process without ever having to scroll down enough to see the disclaimers.
The site illustrates one of the issues with which the Federal Trade Commission is increasingly struggling with as it polices the Net: "how the disclosure is made," according to David Medine, the associate director for credit practices for the FTC.
The basic law that the FTC enforces makes it unlawful to engage in "unfair or deceptive trade practices," but Medine could not comment directly on whether or not this instance fit the bill. He added that the FTC cannot comment on pending investigations.
"The critical issue," he said, "is will the consumer understand that they're not dealing with the official domain name registry and instead are dealing with a service provider?"
Cubbler didn't. She had registered domain names before and noted both that the page looked different and that the prices were higher. But she figured that the page had been redesigned and that the fees had gone up since she last visited the InterNIC. Besides, she added, her husband--Scott Berman, a relative newbie--was actually doing the surfing and she was looking on, so she didn't inspect the page.
"My intention was to go to InterNIC," she said. "It looks exactly like you expect it to so you go ahead and do it. Had I really scoured it and done enough research, I would have figured it out."
But even if her husband had seen the disclaimer, it wouldn't have rang a bell because he doesn't know enough about the issue. "There is a disclaimer on the page, but that meant nothing to my husband," she added. "What they're doing is probably slimy but not illegal."
Chris Cough, a spokesman for the InterNIC, noted that while he didn't know if the site violated any laws, upon viewing the page, he said: "It certainly is misleading, isn't it?"
He called the practice "not necessarily illegal but certainly unethical, if not deceptive."
Hobach said he first learned about Internic.com when two people who had registered with Internic.com called him up separately, asking what they should do next to complete the registration process.
After asking a few questions, he realized what was happening: Internic.com was getting connectivity from a customer of Cyberlynk, DomainHost. Internic.com, in turn, was using Cyberlynk's DNS server and listing it on the InterNIC's registration form.
That led the two people to Hobach. It also resulted in Hobach getting copied on every registration made by Internic.com--at least until yesterday, when he told the company to remove Cyberlynk as its DNS server.
Hobach saw that registrations were coming in from all over the world. A random sampling of just a few of the 200 or so people revealed that they thought they were registering with the InterNIC.
The Internic.com page was down for about a day but had been revived today and was accepting registrations, which could be paid with Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Diners Club International cards.