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Domainers at risk as EnCirca takes over deadbeat registrar’s customer base

Customers of defunct registrar Pheenix risk losing their domains because the company was not properly escrowing its registrant data, according to the registrar taking over their domains.

EnCirca, which is taking over up to 6,000 domains previously registered with Pheenix, says the registrar’s shoddy escrow practices mean some of these domains may not be reunited with their rightful owners.

Pheenix “failed to properly escrow domain ownership information for many of the domains utilizing WHOIS proxy services”, EnCirca recently wrote, adding:

We anticipate that many domains will remain unclaimed due to bounced emails or inoperable proxy services. Locating rightful owners will be problematic since the data escrow is often devoid of any identifying ownership information.

To try to mitigate the problem, EnCirca is offering affected registrants the chance to prove ownership by filling out a form and uploading other evidence, such as Pheenix receipts or bank statements.

EnCirca added that because Pheenix disappeared still owing money to registries, the registries may be forcing renewal or restore fees that will then be passed on registrants.

If your domains were at or near expiration, restoring them could be complex and pricey or impossible.

If you’re affected, you can find information here.

Most or all Pheenix customers are likely to be domain investors. It was a drop-catcher, which once had over 500 dummy registrars in its expansive dropnet, most of which it subsequently de-accredited.

But it went AWOL last May, not responding to ICANN or paying its dues, apparently disappearing from the face of the Earth.

ICANN terminated its accreditation in May this year, and initiated a bulk transfer to EnCirca a couple weeks ago (which it only disclosed this week).

EnCirca has experience handling this kind of problem, which is presumably why ICANN gifted it the bulk transfer. In 2018 it took on the domains 49 of Pheenix’s shell registrars, which it says were suffering from the same escrow problems.

Pheenix goes AWOL, gets canned

Drop-catch registrar Pheenix has had its registrar contract terminated by ICANN after apparently going AWOL.

ICANN has been chasing the company for breaches related to Whois and access to registrant data since October 2019, but hasn’t heard a peep out of the outfit for a year.

As I noted when ICANN published its first breach notice last month, ICANN hasn’t been able to connect with Pheenix via email or phone or fax since May 2020.

Since then, it’s also discovered that the company is no longer at the mailing address it has on record.

The registrar has not added any domain names since April 2020. It seems clear it no longer has any interest in doing, or perhaps ability to do, business.

The de-accredited registrar bulk transfer process will now kick in. ICANN will select a registrar to move Pheenix’s 6,000-odd domains to.

Pheenix once specialized in drop-catching, and had over 500 ICANN-accredited registrars to its name. Almost all of those were ditched in November 2017.

Formerly massive drop-catcher faces ICANN probe

Kevin Murphy, April 26, 2021, Domain Registrars

Pheenix, which used to operate a network of hundreds of accredited registrars, now faces potentially losing its last remaining accreditation, due to an ICANN probe.

ICANN told the US-based company in a breach notice last week that it faces additional action unless it fixes a bunch of problems related to domain transfers and Whois before May 14.

According to ICANN, for over a year Pheenix has been declining to provide data showing it is in compliance with the Expired Registration Recovery Policy and the Transfer Policy, related to dozens of domains.

Pheenix was told about at least one such disputed domain as far back as February last year, but ICANN says it’s been unresponsive to its outreach.

It’s also failed to implement an RDAP server, which ICANN has been nagging it about since October 2019. RDAP, the Registration Data Access Protocol, is the successor protocol to Whois.

A quick spot-check reveals that the disputed names are traffic domains once belonging to legitimate organizations, usually with inbound Wikipedia links, that were captured after the organization in question folded and its domains expired. Most were repurposed with low-quality content and advertising.

That fits in with Pheenix’s registrar business model. It was until a few years ago a huge drop-catching player, with over 500 shell accreditations it used to gain speedy access to dropping domains.

But it dumped almost 450 of these in November 2017, and another 50 the following April.

Since then, Pheenix’s primary IANA number (the coveted “888”) has been associated with fewer and fewer domains.

It had 6,930 domains under management at the end of 2020, down from a November 2017 peak of 71,592.

It hasn’t recorded any new domain adds in any gTLDs since April 2020.

According ICANN’s chronology of events, it’s sent dozens of emails, faxes and voicemails over the last year, related to multiple domain names, and it’s only received a single email in response. And that was in May 2020.

Drop-catcher drops almost all remaining registrars

Kevin Murphy, April 23, 2018, Domain Registrars

Drop-catch specialist Pheenix has terminated almost all of its remaining registrar accreditations, leaving it with just its core registrar.

By my count, 50 shell registrars have terminated their ICANN contracts over the last few days, all of them part of the Pheenix dropnet.

Only Pheenix.com remains accredited.

That’s one registrar, down from a peak of about 500 at the end of 2016.

Almost 450 were terminated in November.

With registrars equating to connection time with the .com registry, it looks like Pheenix’s ability to catch dropping names through its own accreditations has been severely diminished.

By my count, ICANN currently has 2,495 accredited registrars, having terminated 524 and accredited about 40 since last July, when it said it expected to lose a net 750 over the coming 12 months.

Fifty registrars is worth a minimum of $200,000 in fixed annual fees to ICANN.

ICANN terminates 450 drop-catch registrars

Kevin Murphy, November 6, 2017, Domain Registrars

Almost 450 registrars have lost their ICANN accreditations in recent days, fulfilling predictions of a downturn in the domain name drop-catch market.

By my reckoning, 448 registrars have been terminated in the last week, all of them apparently shells operated by Pheenix, one of the big three drop-catching firms.

Basically, Pheenix has dumped about 90% of its portfolio of accreditations, about 300 of which are less than a year old.

It also means ICANN has lost about 15% of its fee-paying registrars.

Pheenix has saved itself at least $1.2 million in ICANN’s fixed accreditation fees, not including the variable and transaction-based fees.

It has about 50 registrars left in its stable.

The terminated registrars are all either numbered LLCs — “Everest [1-100] LLC” for example — or named after random historical or fictional characters or magic swords.

The move is not unexpected. ICANN predicted it would lose 750 registrars when it compiled its fiscal 2018 budget.

VP Cyrus Namazi said back in July that the drop-catching market is not big enough to support the many hundreds of shell registrars that Pheenix, along with rivals SnapNames/Namejet and DropCatch.com, have created over the last few years.

The downturn, Namazi said back then, is material to ICANN’s budget. I estimated at the time that roughly two thirds of ICANN’s accredited registrar base belonged to the three main drop-catch firms.

Another theory doing the rounds, after Domain Name Wire spotted a Verisign patent filing covering a system for detecting and mitigating “registrar collusion” in the space, is that Verisign is due to shake up the .com drop-catch market with some kind of centralized service.

ICANN reckoned it would start losing registrars in October at a rate of about 250 per quarter, which seems to be playing out as predicted, so the purge has likely only just begun.

ICANN expects to lose 750 registrars in the next year

ICANN is predicting that about 750 accredited registrars will close over the next 12 months due to the over-saturation of the drop-catching market.

ICANN VP Cyrus Namazi made the estimate while explaining ICANN’s fiscal 2018 budget, which is where the projection originated, at the organization’s public meeting in South Africa last week.

He said that ICANN ended its fiscal 2017 last week with 2,989 accredited registrars, but that ICANN expects to lose about 250 per quarter starting from October until this time next year.

These almost 3,000 registrars belong to about 400 registrar families, he said.

By my estimate, roughly two thirds of the registrars are shell accreditations under the ownership of just three companies — Web.com (Namejet and SnapNames), Pheenix, and TurnCommerce (DropCatch.com).

These companies lay out millions of dollars on accreditation fees in order to game ICANN rules and get more connections to registries — mainly Verisign’s .com.

More connections gives them a greater chance of quickly registering potentially valuable domains milliseconds after they are deleted. Drop-catching, in other words.

But Namazi indicated that ICANN’s cautious “best estimate” is that there’s not enough good stuff dropping to justify the number of accreditations these three companies own.

“With the model we have, I believe at the moment the total available market for these sought-after domains that these multifamily registrars are after is not able to withstand the thousands of accreditations that are there,” he said. “Each accreditation costs quite a bit of money.”

Having a registrar accreditation costs $4,000 a year, not including ICANN’s variable and transaction fees.

“We think the market has probably gone beyond what the available market is,” he said.

He cautioned that the situation was “fluid” and that ICANN was keeping an eye on it because these accreditations fees have become material to its budget in the last few years.

If the three drop-catchers do start dumping registrars, it would reveal an extremely short shelf life for their accreditations.

Pheenix upped its registrar count by 300 and DropCatch added 500 to its already huge stable as recently as December 2016.

Pheenix adds 300 more registrars to drop-catch arsenal

Kevin Murphy, December 16, 2016, Domain Services

The domain drop-catching arms race is heating up, with budget player Pheenix this week acquiring 300 more registrar accreditations from ICANN.

According to DI records, the company now has almost 500 registrar accreditations in its family.

More accreditations means more registry connections with which to attempt to acquire expired domains as they return to the available pool.

It also means that Pheenix’s dropnet (a word I just made up that sounds a bit like “botnet” in a pathetic attempt to coin a term for once in my career) is now a bit bigger than that of Web.com, the registrar pool behind Namejet and SnapNames.

It’s still a long way behind TurnCommerce, owner of DropCatch, which two weeks ago added a whopping 500 new accreditations, bringing its total to over 1,250.

An extra 300 accreditations would have cost Pheenix over $1 million in up-front ICANN fees and will incur ongoing fixed annual fees in excess of $1.2 million.