Operators of some education-related web sites that have changed internet addresses are reporting a disturbing trend: Profiteers and purveyors of pornography are snatching up the rights to the old addresses as they become available and are auctioning them off to the highest bidders.

These opportunists are banking on the idea that people will log onto the old address by mistake, generating web site “hits” for the new owners. For the original owner of the web site address, such chicanery can have repercussions for years to come.

Although the Nebraska Department of Education changed its web site address three years ago, officials still get the odd complaint because the department’s old address was bought by someone else and now links to a pornography site.

“We had a web site called EdNeb.org,” said Bob Beecham, administrator for education support services at the Nebraska Department of Education. “The state then said, ‘You’re going to have to switch to a standard state web address.'”

The department had a year to notify everyone before the change occurred. Officials issued press releases, sent letters to school districts, changed web links, and to this day the department’s web site posts a large notice at the bottom of the page reminding people to update their browser’s bookmarks.

“We’ve tried to do everything we can do to let people know that it’s not our web site,” Beecham said. “We still get a call now and then about it. … Any call is once too often.”

Because two years had passed since the department switched to its new web address, Beecham didn’t think officials needed to keep paying for the old address, and it was sold to a new owner.

The department’s old web site address doesn’t link directly to pornography. Instead, the page warns you that you are about to view material appropriate for adults—and says you can make a $550 bid for the address.

“I tried to buy it,” Beecham said. “For $550, I figured it was worth buying so no one would see pornography.” But when he contacted the site’s owners, they said it would cost at least $3,500.

A similar thing happened to the web address for the Schools Interoperability Framework, an industry-wide initiative that will enable educational software applications from participating developers to “talk” to each other.

When control over the initiative passed from Microsoft Corp. to the Software and Information Industry Association last year, the site’s address changed from www.schoolsinterop.org to www.sifinfo.org. Soon after it expired, the old address was purchased by a purveyor of pornography. At press time, however, the old address was inactive.

Beecham recommends that if schools or education organizations change their web site address, they should pay to keep the rights to the old address for as long as possible.

Art Wolinsky, technology director at the Online Internet Institute, said people buy popular web site addresses to profit from them.

“The most common type of porn site has zero or next to no content of its own,” he said. “It is little more than a porn ad agency, with banner ads and larger ads to other porn sites. [The people running these sites] make money for each item you click on.”

Wolinsky added that these opportunists “really want to make money, namely [by] selling the domain name back to the organization from which it was hijacked or [by] going to the highest bidder.”

According to Wolinsky, it’s clear that these folks are much more interested in selling the domain name than in the ad revenues.

“This is because the home page is the entrance to the adult site, and it has a warning that clicking on the ‘enter’ link will lead to adult content. So they really aren’t looking to trap people into the adult area,” he said. “However, at the bottom of the page there’s a link that says, ‘Click Here to Buy This Domain Name.'”

Profiteers often scope out the expiration dates of popular web sites and try to buy them before they are renewed. “You can wait for a domain registration to expire,” said Bruce Moon of the Natomas Charter School in Sacramento, Calif.

Many people who want to profit from popular web sites will wait for an organization to slip up and not pay its renewal fee, making the address available to others.

“I know my school’s accounting department had a hard time recognizing the difference between internet access fees and domain fees and almost didn’t pay the domain fee,” Moon said. “Renewal reminders are sent by eMail, but in a couple of years, the contact person could be gone or their [address] could have changed.”

Links:

Nebraska Department of Education
http://www.nde.state.ne.us

Online Internet Institute
http://www.oii.org

Natomas Charter School
http://www.natomascharter.org