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Three ways ‘cyber squatting’ messes with your online experience

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Newly elected Pope Francis I has a bunch of cyber squatters trying to get in on his namesake. (Getty Images)

The election of Pope Francis I as the 266th Pontiff of the Catholic Church was a watershed media event this week.

Everyone interested in the Papal elections wanted to get a glimpse of the newly-elected Pope and find out everything they could about the new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

And, of course, there were also people who just wanted to cash in on the Pope's election in whatever way they could.

Want proof? It was reported within hours of the new Pope's election, over 600 domain names containing derivations of the Pontiff's name were snatched up by cyber squatters. These web addresses ranged from Popefrancisi.com, popefrancis.org and many others (although some buyers of domain names have been generous enough to just hand ownership rights over to the Vatican, no questions asked).

It was a surprising digital lapse on part of the Holy See, given that the Vatican has a notoriously labyrinthine policy about the Church's role in cyberspace.

Of course, the reasons for cyber squatters taking up a domain name like the Pope's are purely financial; there's a lot of potential money to be made in selling a domain URL back to a powerful individual or organization.

While cyber squatting isn't exactly new — it's been going on as long as domain names have been available — to folks familiar with the Internet, the rash of URL buys in light of the Pope's election shows that there's still a lot of people out there who want to make some easy money, whether it's ethical or not.

Beyond the immediate financial payoffs of potentially selling a valuable web address for a quick profit, there's other reasons why people engage in cyber squatting, none of them good for you as a user.

Cyber squatting undermines trust in online activity

It's easy for someone to rationalize buying up a domain name strictly to make a quick buck. While there are laws in place that govern buying of trademarked domain names (as well as civil recourse to sue cyber squatters), cyber squatters often use a tactic that's basically the digital version of a drive-by shooting: they register a domain name that's got a trademarked name in it, make a lot of money through misdirected internet traffic, then shut it down quickly.

For many Internet users, it's easy enough to sniff out a fake site. But for those who are inexperienced or maybe not particularly web-savvy, they can be very dangerous: a user may submit personal information to a fake site, like giving away confidential banking information in a phishing scam.

The larger point is this: cyber squatting a domain name might be cheap and easy, but it's not just the e-vultures that want to make a quick buck; there's potentially criminal elements involved that could put your information at risk.

You never know who exactly you're talking to with cyber squatting, especially with social media

One of the more annoying parts of social media like Twitter or Facebook is the explosive growth in fake, cyber squatted profiles of public figures. While Twitter enabled the ability for celebrities to have 'Verified Accounts' and Facebook offers mechanisms to contest a fake celebrity or brand profile, there's still been huge growth in people looking for ways to generate traffic off someone else's celebrity.

For example, typing in www.facebook.com/princecharles links to the site of Charlie Nordholm, not Prince Charles of the United Kingdom.

The reasons for social media cyber squatting are very similar to conventional web domains; there's a lot of potential money to be made off misdirected searches on a social network.

As Alberto Nardelli, chief executive of UnLtdWorld, a business networking site, said:

There's nothing to stop people setting up a page and selling it on. In some cases, the value of a page can be compared to an advert which reaches a million people.

This can undermine a lot of a user's experience on social networks, but it also begs the question: how much can you trust a service yourself if they're not policing themselves enough as is?

Cyber squatting costs businesses a lot of money in ways you might not expect

Running a business on a normal day of the week isn't cheap or easy for a multinational company. Yet imagine having to spend thousands — even millions — of dollars a day on fighting cyber squatters for rights to a company's trademarked domain name.

One big example of this is Apple, which has even gone so far as to file complaints with the World Intellectual Property Organization over domain names like iphone5.com or ipad3.com.

This has even extended into areas involving business competitors, in which an Arizona man bought up domain URLs associated with Ally Financial bank. The problem? He also owned a bank, effectively steering traffic directed to Ally right to his own site.

All of this points to one clear issue for cyber squatters: companies will come after you if you start infringing on their territory. It also means costs of doing business will go up, which could also mean most costs passed down to consumers in the long run.

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