12 August 2022

The Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, Bruce Billson, has implored small businesses to take urgent action to safeguard their brand and identity on the internet or risk seeing impersonators, web-name ‘campers’ or cyber criminals take up domain names just like theirs.

Mr Billson said that with all the challenges small business owners and leaders are facing now, “the last thing anyone needs is someone ripping off their domain name”.

With only a handful of weeks left before owners of .com.au, .net.au and similar domain names lose their priority access to the abridged .au domain name equivalents, Mr Billson said he has significant concerns about plans to allow an open slather sale of business internet names under the new .au domain.

“I implore all small business owners to take a few minutes to work out if they want the shortened .au domain or will be unhappy for someone else to have it”, Mr Billson said.

“If you want it, small business owners, I urge you to take a few minutes and few dollars to register it or potentially face someone else grabbing it and using it to digitally ambush your business, to demand big dollars later to surrender it to you, or misuse it to masquerade as you or to help them engage in cyber-crime.

“I’m not surprised so few people know about this as the public awareness campaign has been less than impactful, but I want to make sure small businesses avoid a horrible surprise when they find someone else is using or misusing the shortened version of their key digital asset being their domain name.”

Mr Billson said the change imposed by the non-government regulator, .au Domain Administration (auDA), had potentially momentous consequences that could see businesses lose their customer base or be at the mercy of cyber criminals impersonating them if they did not proactively sign up to the new system.

The auDA introduced the new system on 24 March allowing anyone with a connection to Australia, such as businesses, associations and individuals, to register a new category of domain name. Instead of ending with .com.au, .net.au, asn.au, etc people could register the shorter .au name. For example, shoes.com.au could be shoes.au

It also decided that Australian businesses with an existing domain name would only have until 20 September to reserve or register their equivalent .au domain name before it became available to the general public.

Mr Billson wrote to auDA expressing his concerns and urged it to extend the 20 September deadline.

“The auDA rejected my request to extend the direct match priority allocation period for small businesses with existing domain names beyond 20 September, so all I can do is try and make sure small and family business are not caught short when it comes to the shortened .au domain name”, Mr Billson said.

“The consequences of not registering your existing business name by this deadline could be catastrophic for a business if a rival or someone else took their online name.

“Domain names are very much the identity of a business and critical to their success. Small businesses cannot afford to have their identity sold to someone else.

“This is like cutting a second set of keys to your front door and selling them to a rival, a stranger who tries to sell them back to you at a higher price or a criminal who uses them to rip off your customers.

“With five weeks to go until this artificially imposed deadline, I have become very concerned that the roll out of this change has not been properly explained and promoted. My engagement with small businesses and a wide range of organisations representing small and family businesses is that overwhelmingly they are either not aware of this change or they do not understand the potential consequences.”

Mr Billson also raised concerns about domain name ‘squatting’ and the potential for cybercrime. The Australian Cyber Security Centre has this week issued an alert warning that the new domain name category could allow cybercriminals to facilitate fraudulent activity like business email compromise which can lead to invoice fraud. The ACSC website warns: “Opportunistic cybercriminals could register your .au domain name in an attempt to impersonate your business.”

Mr Billson called on auDA to re-think its position and extend the exclusive period for businesses to register their corresponding .au name by 12 months.

“The deadline needs to be significantly extended,” he said. “We are not unhappy about the introduction of the .au domain but these crucial internet addresses should be available to the right people first and they should properly be notified about the change and given reasonable time to act.

“Small and family business owners and managers have been working flat out just trying to keep their doors open and to serve their communities. Just as they were hoping to bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic and various rolling natural disasters, they’ve had to navigate crushing supply chain disruptions and leaping input costs and soaring energy bills.

“Now as Omicron infection rates play havoc with staffing illness and availability, more is being asked of small business owners and leaders as they seek to cover roster gaps and sick days amongst their teams.

“The idea that after all this, your customers can be whisked away by a competitor taking your online identity is outrageous. I am concerned the massive consequences of the .au introduction has not been sufficiently explained by auDA.”

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