Our world has changed dramatically in just a few weeks meaning that our reliance on digital sources of information and infrastructure has increased.
Whilst we live in an age where significant numbers of our online transactions and communications are through online mediums, we are now more reliant than ever on websites and platforms to allow us to continue to work and interact. There are many organizations who through the current COVID-19 pandemic used their digital channels to good effect, whether they be through setting up online learning and exercise, dissemination of information or simply opening up e-commerce channels that have enabled people to stay at home and reduce the risk to themselves and others.
Unfortunately, there are some people out there who are exploiting the current global pandemic for their own nefarious purposes. Whilst many organizations will have registered COVID-19 and Coronavirus related domain names for legitimate and positive means, there will be significantly more that will have been bought to exploit the situation. It is all too easy today to create a digital presence – a domain name registration takes a matters of minutes and building a professional looking website just a few hours, less if the code of an existing one is simply copied.
To try to combat websites being used for such purposes, a number of registrars have already put technology in place that is identifying any new domain name registration searches featuring certain key words and phrases and blocking their registration. This is the first time that such restrictions have been placed on domain names in living memory for many people.
Any brand holder that wants or needs to issue their own advice relating to COVID-19, such as relevant products or services, advice on how trading hours and conditions are changing or news updates on topics such as fundraising could be published either using subdomains or simple extensions of existing domain names rather than registering new domains that will be redundant once the current pandemic is under control.
For many brand holders there is no clear correlation between their key brands, trademarks or marketing messaging and the virus and so there may be a temptation to register domain names for defensive purposes but that always leads to a question of how far and deep should they go into protecting their digital identity. A better and more effective way of ensuring third parties are not associating a brand holder intellectual property with COVID-19 is using a domain name monitoring tool through a corporate registrar such as BrandShelter, which provides automated solutions that constantly scan new domain registrations where relevant keywords are being used and recommends actions that a brand holder can take should any infringing names be found.
Whilst domain registration monitoring is an effective tool both in terms of cost and mitigating reputational damage, the use of cross-script or homograph registrations as well as clever use of how domain names are written is becoming more of a worry for brand holders. Certain letters can be inserted into existing words that gives the impression to the consumer that the domain legitimately belongs to a brand holder when really it is simply trying to divert web traffic to a third party website. For example, a capital “I” looks identical to a small ‘l’ meaning that COVID could actually be COVLD or, if using mixed script CÖVID is actually a different registration to COVID. Homograph domain abuse is becoming an issue that many registries are now looking at, trying to be part of the solution rather than the problem.
Domains aren’t the only issue where brand holders may potentially see their reputation damaged during this time through bad actors. Social Media is a hot bed of rumours, conspiracy theories and mis-information at such a time and with most networks using the “first come, first serve” principal for the allocation of user names, it is important that the major networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram also play their part in ensuring the general public is kept as safe as possible. Using a monitoring tool, such as BrandShelter’s Social Media Monitoring ensures that brand holders stay on top of what is being said about them, either by legitimate users or imposters and thus reduces any reputational damage that could impact them.
The simple advice for brand holders is to ensure they are monitoring for infringements against their intellectual property with reference to such key terms as COVID-19, Coronavirus and vaccine and taking steps to remove infringements as soon as possible. For consumers, the old adage of “if it looks too good to be true, it probably is” still holds firm. With such focus on trying to find vaccines, drugs that combat the virus or even testing kits, the best advice is that issued by the relevant health authorities – they are the ones in possession of the most relevant and up to date facts, not a website that has just been registered under whois privacy.