Monday, August 30, 2010

Protecting Your Name From Online Impersonators By Kate E. Hutchinson

The first step in establishing your company’s online reputation is defensive registration. Defensive registration of your name or brand across multiple domain types (.com, .net, etc.) helps to prevent cybersquatters from capitalizing on your reputation, or even smearing your name. This tactic works best when you not only register your name as a domain, but also related variations; don’t just register “yourname”.com but also “yournamecompany”.com.

While the rules for combating domain squatters are fairly settled, using the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy (UDRP) enforced by ICANN, dealing with social media squatters can be far more complicated. For one thing, social media is a vague term in itself, and social networks and sites have no governing body. For another, the social media industry is constantly in flux, evolving and changing, and refusing to stay in one place. So even though there are legal precedents that handed over specific domain names to trademark owners, there is no similar protection for social media usernames on sites like Twitter or Facebook.

Facebook released a feature giving profiles and pages the option for a vanity URL (i.e. in 2009, creating a virtual “land grab” for names on the world’s largest social network. And so, while computer maker Dell was able to handily register the vanity URL Fancher was able to register, even though he had no affiliation with the company. Like domain squatters, Fancher’s motive was to sell the vanity URL, whether to Dell or a competitor.

The most famous example of social media impersonation is probably the recent spoofing of BP. After the BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred, a Twitter account under the name BPGlobalPRbegan posting facetious tweets related the oil spill—but none of them actually came from BP’s PR office.  What unfolded was a public relations nightmare for the oil company, as the fake account accumulated thousands of followers, far outstripping the presence of BP’s actual Twitter account, BP_America

If you are facing the issue of someone using (or misusing) your trademarked name, there is no single course of action to take; each site has its own policy about imposters. However, Jacob Share has published a reference guide to the impersonation policies of the major social networks, including TwitterLinkedIn, and Facebook

Here are my recommendations for dealing with imposters:
  1. Let your network know about the impersonator: this can be done with an email to your distribution list, a post on your official Facebook Page, a tweet from your official Twitter account, or any other social media medium you use, like a company blog. This establishes that you know about the problem and spreads the word not to trust any information that comes from the false account. It also alerts your network that they shouldn’t share any information with the imposter.
  2. Alert the site that an imposter is using your name: Contact the customer service center to let them know that someone else is using your name. There may be a procedure to follow, depending on the site’s policies, but it’s important to alert the proper authorities.
  3. Send a message to the imposter: Handle this with diplomacy—send a polite note to the imposter, letting them know that your name has been trademarked and that you would like them to stop using your name. Because imposters often have a self-serving agenda, treat them with kid gloves. If possible, consult with counsel to make sure that you are legally protected. Keep copies of all correspondence with the imposter, and leave a paper trail in case you need to take further action.
Kate Hutchinson is the Marketing/Social Media Manager for United Domains, Inc. She blogs at the Namecheck blog. You can find her on Twitter at @UD_Namecheck.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily that of Trademarkia.
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