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Record high in legal disputes over domain names as companies fight back against online fraudsters

The number of legal disputes over the ownership of domain names has reached a record high in the past year, as UK companies battle against online fraudsters registering “look-a-like” domain names in bad faith, says EMW, the commercial law firm.

EMW says that the number of ownership challenges brought to the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) last year hit 305*, up 10% from 277 in 2017. Many of these complaints relate to fraudsters setting up fake websites designed to look like that of businesses or government agencies.

Fraudsters frequently register domain names that are similar to that of a big organisation in order to replicate corporate company websites to trick people into handing over their personal and financial information.

The growing number of web addresses being created as alternatives to “.com”, “.biz” and “.org” allows fraudsters greater opportunity to replicate the website of legitimate businesses. The number of disputes has risen 62% from 188 five years ago (see graph).

EMW adds that instances of fraud can negatively impact both consumers, through the loss of their personal data, as well as businesses. For example, businesses could face reduced sales in the short term as well as longer term brand damage if they are subject to this type of attack.

Mark Finn, Principal at EMW, says:

“Illegally replicating corporate websites is big business for fraudsters but companies are fighting back.”

“Customers will likely consider bigger businesses morally responsible if their data is stolen so it is crucial that they proactively register related domain names to prevent fraudsters from replicating their business online.”

“The burden of protecting your online brand may seem high due to the overwhelming number of available web addresses. However, it is relatively inexpensive to register numerous domain names and it is a simple yet crucial step.”

Globally domain name disputes increased to 3,447 last year, up from 3,074 in 2017. Examples of cases heard by WIPO in 2018 include:

  • Fraudsters have been targeting taxpayers by using fake domain names in emails and text messages which appear to be from HMRC to obtain personal bank account details and passwords. This practice is known as a phishing scam and instances tend to crop up in April and May to coincide with the time legitimate tax rebates are being processed


  • and other similar domain names were registered in 2018. WIPO found that the domain names were confusingly similar to a trademark deeming them to be registered and used in bad faith. All of the domain names were subsequently transferred to Travelex


  • and other similar domain names were registered in 2018. The complainant, Aviva, argued that they were being used to advertise products and services to compete directly with those offered by Aviva Brands. All of the domain names were subsequently transferred to Aviva Brands


Mark Finn adds:

“Registering your brand as a trade mark is the first thing businesses should do to give them more rights over similar web addresses. WIPO will rule in favour of the company that holds an existing trade mark against those who appear to be acting in bad faith.”