Can someone hijack a domain?
Domain hijacking is when someone maliciously takes control of a domain name that is already registered to someone else. This can allow the hijacker to redirect traffic, host phishing sites, or otherwise impersonate the original domain owner. Domain hijacking is, unfortunately possible, but there are steps domain owners can take to protect their domains.
How Domain Hijacking Happens
There are a few common ways that attackers can hijack a domain:
If a domain owner forgets to renew their domain registration, the domain can expire. An attacker can then swoop in and register the expired domain in their own name. This is one of the simplest ways to hijack a domain.
To prevent this, domain owners should be sure to renew their domains well before the expiration date. Many registrars will send renewal reminders, which should not be ignored. Setting calendar reminders can also help remember when renewals are due.
Compromised Registrar Account
Domain registrar accounts can sometimes be compromised through phishing, password breaches, or other methods. If an attacker gains access to the registrar account, they can change the domain settings and transfer ownership to themselves.
Using strong, unique passwords is important for registrar accounts. Two-factor authentication should also be enabled for an extra layer of security. Registrar accounts should be treated with the same level of security as email and banking accounts.
Attackers may try to socially engineer domain registrars in order to gain control of a domain. They could pretend to be the domain owner and request that ownership be transferred to them. Registrars have verification processes to prevent this, but an attacker can potentially provide enough personal details obtained from public sources to succeed.
There is little individual domain owners can do to fully prevent social engineering attacks against registrars. However, being aware that such attacks can happen can help detect any suspicious activity if it does occur.
Rather than take control of the domain registration itself, attackers can sometimes hijack DNS settings for the domain. By pointing the nameservers for a domain to their own servers, the traffic can be redirected.
Proper DNS security controls like registry locks can help prevent unauthorized changes to DNS settings. Domain owners should also monitor their DNS settings regularly to check for any tampering.
In rare cases, attackers have been able to exploit technical loopholes to forcibly steal domains without the owner’s consent. This requires sophisticated technical capabilities and insider access to domain systems.
For major top-level domains like .com, protections are in place to prevent outright theft. However, owners of less secure domains could theoretically be vulnerable. There is little individual owners can do aside from being aware it can happen and reporting any suspicious activity.
Protecting Your Domain from Hijacking
While domain hijacking is a real threat, there are steps domain owners can take to protect their assets:
- Renew registrations early – Set calendar reminders for renewal dates and complete renewals with ample time. Pay for multiple years in advance if possible.
- Use strong registrar passwords – Require complex and unique passwords, change them periodically, and enable two-factor authentication.
- Monitor registrar accounts – Watch for any unauthorized changes or transfers by regularly logging in and checking settings.
- Enable registry locks – Registry locks prevent changes to domains without explicit authorization via an unlock process.
- Monitor DNS settings – Use tools like DNS Propagation Checker to check that DNS is configured correctly.
- Use email security – Follow general email security best practices to avoid phishing attacks.
- Be cautious of transfers – Carefully scrutinize any inbound domain transfer requests and do not authorize suspicious ones.
- Use registrar lock services – Services like LockDomain offer additional layers of protection against fraudulent transfers.
- Report issues – If any unauthorized changes do occur, immediately report them to your registrar.
With good processes in place, domain owners can help minimize the risk of their domains being hijacked. However, it is also important to be vigilant and act quickly in response to any suspicious domain activity.
Effects of Domain Hijacking
If an attacker successfully hijacks a domain, they can use that domain for a number of nefarious purposes:
- Phishing – Create fake copies of legitimate websites to steal user information and credentials. This is one of the most common uses of hijacked domains.
- Malware distribution – Host malware installers that get downloaded by users visiting the hijacked domain.
- Search engine spam – Redirect to low-quality websites full of keywords to try and boost search engine rankings.
- Email spam – Send spam email messages using the hijacked domain to bypass antispam filters.
- Identity impersonation – Impersonate an individual, brand, or organization by using their domain without authorization.
- SEO impact – The temporary loss of control of a domain can negatively impact search engine rankings and traffic.
- Loss of email – Email addresses using the hijacked domain may stop working.
- Monetary theft – Attackers may be able to steal revenue from domains that run advertising, affiliate programs, or online stores.
The effects can vary based on the type of domain and how the hijacker makes use of it. But in most cases, a hijacked domain can have significant detrimental impacts for the original domain owner.
High Risk Domains for Hijacking
Some types of domains are more susceptible to hijacking than others:
- Expired/deleted domains – Dormant domains that have expired are easy targets for attackers to repurpose.
- Numerically-named domains – Short numeric domains (like 123.com) are in high demand and risk being targeted.
- Common acronyms – Domains for acronyms like FDA.com or NATO.com could be hijacked for phishing.
- Geographic domains – Country and city domains see lots of traffic and can have weaker protections.
- Brand names – Domains matching major brands are alluring targets, especially when brand owners fail to register similar variations.
- Blockchain names – As cryptocurrency has grown, blockchain name spaces like .eth have become targets.
- New TLDs – Some new top level domains have weaker registration protections than legacy TLDs like .com.
- High traffic sites – Popular domains with lots of traffic offer more potential impact if hijacked.
Domain owners should be extra cautious with these types of high risk domains and implement strong protections. Unused domains that could be targeted should be proactively renewed or deleted entirely.
Recovering From Domain Hijacking
If you are the victim of a domain hijacking, act quickly to start the recovery process:
1. Lock the Domain
Login to your registrar account and implement a registry lock if possible to prevent further changes. Alternatively, you may need to contact your registrar’s support team to have them lock it.
2. Identify the Hijacker
Review the domain’s information to identify the new owner shown and how the domain was transferred to them. Gather any other details you can find.
3. Contact Law Enforcement
Depending on where you and the hijacker are located, contact the appropriate law enforcement agency to file an incident report.
4. Notify Your Registrar
Send a detailed abuse report to your registrar regarding the unauthorized transfer. Provide any evidence you have. Request they restore ownership to you.
5. Dispute the Transfer
Registries like Verisign have defined dispute resolution processes you can initiate to potentially reverse fraudulent transfers after the fact.
6. Update Systems
Once you regain control, update passwords, registry locks, nameservers, etc. to secure the domain against follow-on attacks.
7. Inform Stakeholders
Let customers and partners know if any services were disrupted while you work to restore domain functionality.
With persistence and active engagement of your registrar and registries, many hijacking victims are ultimately able to recover their domains, though it can be an arduous process. Prevention is much easier than cure when it comes to domain hijacking.
- Domain hijacking by malicious parties is a real threat that domain owners need to be aware of.
- Domains can be hijacked through expired registrations, compromised accounts, social engineering, and technical exploits.
- Implement strong registrar account security, enable registry locks, monitor settings, and report issues to protect domains.
- If hijacked, act fast to lock the domain, identify the hijacker, notify authorities, and dispute with your registrar.
- High risk domains like expired names, numeric domains, acronyms, and high traffic sites require extra vigilance.
- With proper precautions and responsive action if issues arise, domain owners can effectively minimize the risk and potential impact of domain hijacking.
So in summary, yes – domain hijacking is unfortunately possible, but protective measures can help shield domain owners from having their online assets stolen or misused by bad actors. Handled properly, determined domain owners can also recover control of domains that have been hijacked. With some prudent precautions, companies and individuals can help keep their domains secure, even in the face of potential attacks.