Maintaining your privacy is harder today than it’s ever been. Keeping your personal information safe from strangers is a constant challenge, one you have to be vigilant about.
If you own a website though, there’s a good chance your information is out there where anyone can find it – unless you’ve chosen to invest in domain name privacy.
What is Domain Name Privacy?
Once you’ve finally found the right domain name and verified that the domain name is available, you’ll quickly see that registering it requires providing your contact information to the company you buy it from. They’re then required to pass that information along to the ICANN WHOIS directory, which publishes it for all the world to see.
Domain privacy is an add-on service offered by many domain registration companies that keeps your personal information private, while keeping you in compliance with the law.
What is the ICANN WHOIS Directory?
ICANN (The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) is the nonprofit organization tasked with managing the domain name system of the larger internet. That includes generating new top-level domains and operating root name servers. But the task they’re most known for is running the WHOIS directory.
The WHOIS directory keeps a record of every active website domain and who runs it. ICANN doesn’t manage it entirely on their own, they work with a number of registrants that earn ICANN accreditation in order to offer domain registration services. When you register a domain, you don’t go directly through ICANN, you do so with one of these services. They then provide the required information to ICANN, which adds it to the directory.
Each domain name entry in the WHOIS directory includes a:
- Mailing address
- Phone number
- Email address
This is the contact information for the website’s owner, or whoever runs the site.
For a big company like Amazon that has a company headquarters and can provide email addresses that don’t reveal anyone’s personal information, supplying this information is no big deal. But if you’re an individual starting a website for yourself or run a small business without a physical location, providing personal details like this can be risky.
Why The Directory is Required
The WHOIS directory exists to make sure there’s a clear record of who owns each website on the web. That’s important for cases where a website owner veers into illegal or abusive territory. Without a record of how to find offenders, authorities would have no way to hold them accountable and minimize harm.
Specifically, the WHOIS directory comes into play when:
- Law enforcement agencies need help tracking down suspects in crimes committed online, or where key evidence is found online.
- Businesses or lawyers seek to identify people guilty of stealing or misusing intellectual property, such as plagiarists or people who use images they don’t have the rights for.
- Internet companies want to limit the power of people guilty of spam or other nuisances or malicious behavior online.
While those are good and practical reasons for a directory like this to exist, a number of people and businesses turn to it for other, less useful purposes.
Reasons People Use the Directory
When your contact information is widely available on the web, it inevitably gets into the hands a few types of people:
- Those looking to buy your domain name. If you want a domain name that’s not available, the WHOIS database is one of the first places to do a domain lookup to try to find the person who owns the domain. This is a pretty harmless use of the directory. Even if you’re not interested in selling your domain name, it’s not that obnoxious to hear from people asking.
- Those looking to sell you something. Individuals and businesses that sell various online services often play a numbers game when cold contacting possible prospects. When they can find your information in the directory, they know you have a website and may potentially need what they offer. With the info available in WHOIS, they can call, text, and email. Even if their offers are legitimate, getting a barrage of contact from service providers is something most people wouldn’t welcome.
- Those looking to scam you. Scammers need a way to contact you before they can convince you to wire over that money you don’t actually owe or provide your credit card information for the product they’ll never send. The WHOIS directory is as good a place as any for them to find that information. And it’s easy to scrape for information, so they can get a lot of contact info all at once without much effort.
Whenever contact information becomes accessible, it opens you up to spammers looking for any way to get their foot in the door to start selling to or scamming you. While it may also put you within reach for some legitimate business contacts, the ratio of good contacts to unnecessary or bad ones isn’t usually in your favor.
How to Keep Your Information Out of the Public Directory
While you’re required to provide your information when you buy the domain, it’s not required that the information be easily accessible on the wide web.
And before you think you can just provide fake contact information to solve the problem, that’s not actually a workable solution. For one thing, you need your domain registration company to be able to contact you for all domain name management issues, such as renewal reminders. For another, you’ll be on the wrong side of the law, and if there’s an issue or dispute down the line, ICANN can cancel your domain name or hand it over to someone else.
Technically, you do have the option to create a new email address and invest in a P.O. box to provide legitimate information that isn’t your primary personal contact information. The issue there is you risk missing out on important communication about your domain name if you forget to check it regularly.
But you have a better option. You can remove your contact information from the WHOIS directory without running afoul of the law by using a domain name privacy service.
Instead of seeing your contact information when they search for you, people will see a record where most of the information is redacted for privacy reasons.
Although they’ll still see an email address they can contact about any issues. You won’t be hidden from the law or able to plagiarize with impunity. People will be able to contact the email address provided here—usually one associated with your domain registration company—who can then contact you about any important information that arises.
3 Reasons Domain Privacy is Worth It
If you go through life trying to be careful who you provide your personal information to, you don’t want the simple act of starting a website to mean that all your personal contact information is out there for anyone to see. For many website owners, domain name privacy is worth it for three main reasons.
1. Protect your personal information.
How comfortable are you with the idea of random strangers knowing your address and phone number? Even if it’s a business address and phone number, rather than a personal one, that’s still probably where you spend a lot of your time each day. The possibility that anybody could figure out where to find you with a simple internet search is disconcerting for many people.
In addition to the general discomfort you might feel, there’s the very real risk of identity theft. Every piece of information about you that becomes easily accessible to thieves puts you a little more at risk of identity theft. With high-level businesses showing up in the news for data breaches with increasing frequency, there’s only so much you can do to fully protect yourself, but every little step you can take to make your personal information harder to find reduces your risk.
2. Reduce spam.
We are all inundated with spam in so many areas of life. Phone calls from strange numbers. Emails from unknown sources shilling products you’d never buy. You’re probably going to deal with some spam no matter what, but when your email address and phone number are easily accessible in a directory, you’re just making it easier for them.
Domain privacy offers you protection from spammers having one more place to find you.
3. Avoid scammers.
If there’s anything worse than spammers it’s scammers. Internet and phone scams are common and it’s another area where the more people know about you, the more likely you are to be targeted.
And the more information scammers have, the more convincing they can be. If they see your domain registration is about to expire, they can pose as your domain registration company and try to get you to pay them rather than your actual company.
Or they could go the other way and attempt domain hijacking by posing as you to your domain registration company to try to convince them to hand over the keys to your domain. That last part is hard to pull off, since companies have put procedures into place to make it domain hijacking very difficult, but having access to your personal information along with details about your domain registration makes pulling off these kinds of scams that much easier.
3 Downsides to Investing in Domain Name Privacy
The reasons to invest in domain name privacy are pretty compelling, but it’s always good to consider all sides of a decision. There are a few downsides to going with domain name privacy as well.
1. It costs money.
Domain name privacy typically means paying an additional fee on top of your domain registration. And it’s not something you pay for once and you’re done, you’ll be paying each year again at renewal time. For some website owners, the cost may be a big enough sticking point to opt not to invest in domain name privacy.
2. It may not offer full protection.
Unfortunately, not all domain registrars are reputable and there have been cases of companies selling the information that customers paid them to keep private. Shielding the information from the WHOIS directory is one thing, but if you want to keep your contact information really safe, then you still need to be careful who you buy domain name privacy from. Make sure it’s a well respected company with a solid reputation for taking care of their customers.
3. It means less transparency.
When potential customers want to confirm the legitimacy of your business, the ability to confirm who you are and where you’re located tells them you’re real. Most customers aren’t going straight to the WHOIS directory for that information, and you can probably provide good information on your website and in your marketing to demonstrate your legitimacy. But allowing the directory to publish your information is one more way to exhibit transparency to your customers.
For most businesses, the benefits of domain name privacy will outweigh the downsides, but there may be some cases where keeping your information public in the directory is worth it.
What Does Domain Privacy Cost?
The cost of adding domain name privacy to your plan varies for different providers, in most cases, it’s pretty affordable. Typically private WHOIS registration costs fall somewhere in the range of $10 to $40 a year. HostGator customers can get it for $14.95 a year.
The good news is that paying for domain privacy is usually simple, as long as you go with the same company you use for domain registration and web hosting. You can automate the process and pay for it all once a year through the same account.
How to Get Domain Name Privacy with HostGator
If you’re ready to add one more level of privacy to your life and website, then investing in domain privacy is pretty simple. Check with your web hosting company to see if they offer it as an add-on service.
If you use HostGator, all you have to do is use launchpad to enable WHOIS privacy. Follow the instructions below:
- Log into your Customer Portal.
- Click on the domain name you want to enable privacy for in order to open the Domain Overview section of the portal.
- Look for the word “Privacy.” You’ll see a red X next to it, indicating you haven’t bought it yet. Click on the word “Change” next to the X.
- Click on the option to select Private on the next page that comes up, and click “Save.”
You’ll probably still get the occasional spam phone calls or emails—we all do—but by investing in domain name privacy, you won’t get as many and you’ll keep you private information safe from strangers.
Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based freelance content writer and lifelong learner with an ongoing curiosity to learn new things. She uses that curiosity, combined with her experience as a freelance business owner, to write about subjects valuable to small business owners on the HostGator blog. You can find her on Twitter at @atxcopywriter.