When a high-profile act of violence occurs, certain reactions are predictable. The White House will respond with a sober statement. Reporters will throw themselves into hyperdrive. And people will start buying up domain names.
Just as after 9/11 and the death of Osama bin Laden, you can now find web addresses related to this week’s unforgettable event on registrar auction sites. Go Daddy, the largest domain name registrar, tells TIME that on Monday it saw a 430% increase in registrations that included words such as Boston, marathon and bomb. The next day, that spiked to 555%.
By Friday morning, as the manhunt in Boston took over televisions and drove residents into their homes, domain names related to the suspects were for sale: thetsarnaevbrothers.info was listed in Go Daddy’s auction forum at $2,000. On Thursday evening, interested parties could find names such as bostonmarathonmassacre.com, listed at $40, or explosionsatbostonmarathon.com, listed at $99. And though the prices were changed by Friday morning, some sellers had tagged their new commodities with hefty prices: bostonmarathonheroes.com had a starting bid of $3,500. If bidders chose to “buy now,” bostonmarathonvictimsfund.com could be theirs for $10,000.
The ostensible motive for those snatching up the domain names, many of whom buy their goods by proxy so that their personal names aren’t associated with the registration record, is to make money off of an event that is dominating the news. But Internet domain name attorney Ari Goldberger says those plans are unlikely to pan out. “It’s a crazy phenomenon,” he says. “These names have very little value … No one’s going to buy a domain name for $10,000.”
Few people would think to type in a domain name related to the event instead of searching for keywords associated with it, he says. And that inclination will likely be lessened as the news story fades into the past. “Of course, a tragic event like this is a huge event. But it’s a passing event,” he says. “In six months, are people really going to be typing this in? No, I don’t think so.” Workarounds are easy, too: Why spend ten grand on bostonmarathonvictimfund.com when you can still register helpbostonvictims.com on GoDaddy for $9.99?
Goldberger attributes the domain name rushes to how cheap and easy registering names is these days. There’s little downside, he says, even if there’s only a one-in-a-billion chance someone will shell out the money for them. He also theorizes that some shoppers might be trying to buy a slice of history, that it’s a way to feel like one is participating in news that has gripped the world. Though that doesn’t explain why someone would put the name up for auction after they had it.
It’s not just violent news that prompts runs on domain names. The selection of Pope Francis and death of Michael Jackson yielded their own Go Daddy sprees. And in general, there’s nothing illegal about it. Though the federal government has outlawed cybersquatting, a trademark has to be violated in order for that to be crime. The real concern, Goldberger notes, is people using such names to perpetrate some kind of fraud—posing as, say, a charity that will help victims of the bombing and pocketing the cash. On Thursday, the FBI tweeted a warning that there had been reports of malware and social media fraud, though the link has since been removed.
Legality aside, the appearance of trying to exploit a tragedy like the Boston Marathon bombing will, of course, seem distasteful to many. Goldberger, for one, thinks people have greater moral affronts to worry about. “The notion that the first thing you think about when one of these tragic things happens is profits, I guess it’s in poor taste,” he says. “But of the things that are out there, it’s not that big of a deal.”