“You really couldn’t make it up,”U.K. creative agency Designate says. “Did you know the U.S. Government can bring your website down without any warning?” Earlier this month, the company’s email was intercepted, its website visitors redirected to a U.S. government warning that it had been seized by the combined forces of the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, along with NYPD.
The issue for Designate was the history of the website—its previous owners. Today the content is colorful marketing and web branding. But in 2001 it was adult toys and videos. This should serve as a warning to all owners of domain names. It’s worth checking the history, to make sure you were the first owner. If not, make sure you know who was.
On February 12th, when Designate’s external emails stopped, staff reported the issue to the company’s IT provider. “After a very short investigation, [they] pointed out that our domain name had been ‘seized’.” Checking, they saw their usual home page replaced with a warning that “this domain name has been seized by ICE-Homeland Security Investigations, pursuant to a seizure warrant issued by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.”
The company then found itself communicating directly with HSI, “about a case of mistaken identity that has swept up your website amongst hundreds of others being investigated for illegal prostitution activities in the U.S.”
“I had a very polite conversation with a Special Agent on a task force dealing with Emerging Economic Crimes,” Designate’s executive director Jason Triandafyllou told me. “He explained our domain name was supplied along with 400 others by enom.com, in response to a subpoena they issued and a subsequent seizure warrant received by Verisign.”
The investigation was prostitution-related. Triandafyllou explained to the agent that Designate was in the advertising and not the people trafficking business. “He seemed to accept our innocence and the conversation moved to supplying information that would expedite the release of our domain.”
That all took about over a week.
There hasn’t been a formal apology, but the Special Agent was “understanding.” “He assured me they didn’t want to shut our business down,” Triandafyllou said. As to why Designate found itself in this predicament: “We assume it may be to do with the previous owner of the domain name, which we purchased in 2008.”
And this is the crux. If the domain name used by your company has a colouful history, then that might be an issue for you in the future and it’w worth bearing in mind. You can check the history of your website domain namehere. The records for Designate.com show adult content dating back to 2001.
Both DHS and DOJ have been approached for comments on this story.
“I guess we can count ourselves lucky we are not an e-commerce business,” the company says in an online blog post. “While it makes for a great story down the pub or in client meetings, there is a serious point here. Much is made of the evils of state control in places like China and Russia—But don’t underestimate the power of the state in the good old US of A.”
Every cloud, though… Right now, this small company in the seaside town of Brighton is about to find its way onto the world stage. And for an ad agency, that sounds like a level of publicity you couldn’t even start to buy.
“Visits to our site are definitely on the increase,” Triandafyllou told me, “and our Google ranking is being repaired in the process. But we cannot quantify the reputational damage sustained, or the immediate lost inbound new business opportunities during the period when our site was down.”