The California Credit Union Domain Story Unfolds Into The Internet Void.
by Ed Murray
Once again a major Credit Union has failed to secure its name and all aspects of the name, suffering among other things, an invisible assault by the Internet Buccaneers. High weirdness as the trail of the Internet Buccaneers leads to the Hermit Kingdom.
Los Angeles Teachers Credit Union
California Credit Union began in the mid-1930s as the Los Angeles Teachers Credit Union. Today it has about 70,000 members, 13 branches, and $1.3 billion in assets. The membership is open to public and private, current and retired, educators and school district employees in California. It is also possible to qualify for membership if you or your children attend school in California. It is a strong credit union, but if you look at their all-important internet domain situation, their web marketing strategy comes into question. Although a well-established operation when the internet came along, they missed both the early opportunities and the more recent ones. Most of the best net domain names were snatched away, including the ones of their very own name. Were they sleepwalking through all these recent years as the internet exploded on civilization? Many companies were, much to their own distress later on.
In previous parts to this series, it has been shown that the internet buccaneers cruise the internet ocean looking for opportunities to obtain names that business organizations have failed to get and register for themselves. Sometimes businesses, in this case credit unions, have failed to get even their own names, which others have grabbed. The internet buccaneers will set up “pay-per-click” web pages and actually direct traffic away from the place it would ordinarily go, and making some money along the way. Let’s look at the situation at California Credit Union. Although they have been around since 1933, they must have slept through most of the dot com boom. Their website is CaliforniaCU.org. They registered this site on November 23, 2000. They also registered CaliforniaCU.com, although it is only used to “redirect” traffic to their main web site, CaliforniaCU.org. At that time, in November 2000, many possibilities existed to protect their name, including domains of their own name: California Credit Union. Why they did not at least protect their full name is a mystery. Maybe they wanted to get the shortest name they could think of, and the heck with the rest? If you have been following this series of articles, you can guess what happened.
The Internet Buccaneers Discover California Credit Union
You remember the Brisbane Blokes? The Aussies from Fortitude Valley (Brisbane area) who took a bite out of the Lockheed Missile FCU that became Star One Credit Union? The Brisbane Blokes found California Credit Union.com available and floating on the internet sea untethered on November 22, 2001. This was one full year after the “real” California Credit Union started their website as CaliforniaCU.org. The blokes got busy and put up a “pay-per-click” page, where there are links on the main page, which go to other links, which continue to other links, an inverse pyramid of hundreds of “click through” links, providing them with a stream of income from anyone clicking on a link. The main page links are distinctly finance related – banking, mortgage, offshore banking, internet banking, and much more. This is all legal, and anyone trying to find California Credit Union by typing that name into a browser with a dot com on the end will be taken to a website set up by the “Brisbane Blokes”, as I call them. Imagine how many folks have tried to find the “real” California Credit Union since 2001, over ten years ago, and been directed elsewhere? We will never know. For California Credit Union, it’s like throwing away money and customers. The main I.P. server is not in the United States, and CaliforniaCreditUnion.com is holding forth up north, in Burnaby, Canada, at IP 22.214.171.124., The story, unfortunately doesn’t end there.
California Credit Union Gets A Trademark But UnableTo Protect It With A Domain Name
On June 4, 2007 California Credit Union filed for a Trademark. The logo showed an orange, with the words “California Credit Union.” This was already six years after the Brisbane Blokes had found their domain name unprotected and snagged it, so although they had a trademark filed, they could not use it to acquire the domain, because the trademark was so long after the date of the domain filing. The trademark was finally registered on November 4, 2008 and it does offer some protection, but as far as the domain names, it was too little, too late. They had lost their own name, and unless they want to pony up some substantial cash in the future to buy it from the Brisbane Blokes, they will never get it as cheaply as they could have back before November 22, 2001. A lesson learned? It does not seem so.
Strange Connections Revealed
Five years after the Brisbane Blokes found the unprotected CaliforniaCreditUnion.com, the other group from the Land of Oz, the ones I call the Nobby Beach Boyz, grabbed CaliforniaCreditUnion.org. This was created on November 17, 2006. The web page on this currently is re-directed to CaliforniaCreditUnion.com. The bewildering network of IP servers, registrants, and hidden ownership continues to look like a larger and larger spider web, impossible to determine who is the actual owner. Consider this: Although CaliforniaCreditUnion.org was registered to the un-named group or blokes from Nobby Beach, Australia (The Nobby Beach Boyz as I call them), the main server is listed as 126.96.36.199, in Nassau, Bahamas. This is the same server that the “Panamanians” were using to house PremierAmerica.org. The same IP server that houses all the “craigs list” misspellings (see Domain Name Games – Part 2 to follow this). So we have some links, the CaliforniaCreditUnion.org, (the Nobby Beach Boyz), have redirected their site to CaliforniaCreditUnion.com, the Brisbane Blokes site, but their stated IP is the same as the “Panamanian’s” PremierAmerica.org IP server. Do the connections mean the owner(s) are the same or are they business partners? Hold on, it gets stranger.
The Buccaneer Trail Leads To The Hermit Kingdom
Remember that the California Credit Union began as the Los Angeles Teachers Credit Union. And remember Big Jim’s stern instructions to always protect all your names, past and present, with domains. Because you never know. Here’s some interesting things that have happened to the old Los Angeles Teachers Credit Union name over the years. The short version or abbreviation would be LATU, that would be the best name for a dot-com domain. So who got LATU.com? Just a few years ago, May 30, 2005, LATU.com was registered by an outfit called MediaBlue, a domain registration company in Gwangju, Korea! If you go to LATU.com you will see a familiar page layout with things to “click” on, in this case a lot of links to getting a PhD, an online Bachelor Degree, Psychology School, an Accounting Associates Degree, and similar online educational opportunities, with links that go to links which go to other links. The listed server 188.8.131.52 is in Nassau, Bahamas, the same IP server that hosts StaroneCreditUnion.org, registered to the “Brisbane Blokes” (see Domain Name Games Part 2). What does this new revelation mean? Is MediaBlue shielding the group that is really behind all these faux sites? Are the Koreans the real owners of the domains registered in Panama, Nobby Beach, Australia, Fortitude Valley (Brisbane), Australia, Burnaby, Canada and other offshore hide-outs? Could it be that it is actually a shadowy group of Korean businessmen, not “Aussies”, or “Panamanians” or “Canadians” behind this web of “credit union” sites? A world-wide net of off-shore IPs housing these hundreds of websites? We may never know. Until now, it is an important clue, a startling link from the Hermit Kingdom of Korea to the IP server in the Bahamas hosting StarOneCreditUnion. Again, as Dave Emory is fond of saying, “Food for thought, and grounds for further investigation.”
LATU names Grabbed Up.
While we are exploring the old LATU name, let’s look at a couple of other extensions. We observe that possibly a mysterious group of Koreans got LATU.com, but who got .org? The LATU.org was created on February 5, 2003 and registered to Alliance for Development in North Carolina. It currently hosts Mountain Shepherds, a community owned travel company designed for South Indian tourists and travelers choosing to explore the Garwal Himalayas. Their web page says “North Welcomes South”.
LATU.net, the other logical extension that was up for grabs, was created on April 7, 1999. The registrant is Lance Turner of Winter Park, Florida, with the main IP server in Hernden, Virginia. The site is for creative development of web-based modules for ecommerce stores.
More Names Go South and East
Some other names and abbreviations that were not protected include the great abbreviation CCU.org. This was left on the table by the California Credit Union, and was picked up on October 31, 2000 by a Mr. Tim Flannery, and registered in Drums, PA. (The same town where Premier.com, the Pet Products company is registered. ) CCU.org is now Colorado Credit Union. This credit union started in 1973, as a small cu for Johns Manville employees. In 2009 they merged with the Brighton, Colorado, Federal Credit Union, and expanded their membership. Their 2010 annual report states assets of $100,978,656. So at least in this instance, another “real” credit union benefited with the great name left by California Credit Union.
But what about CCU.com? This site is possibly for sale, and if you type the name into your browser you will go to a familier looking links page, that lists “checking accounts, loans, credit union online, online map, and credit union credit card” links to click on. More of interest, something I hadn’t noticed on any other “link” sites, some of the links are in other Asian characters, Chinese, Korean, etc. Although I printed out this page, the next time I went to it all the names were in English, and the Asian links had vanished. This site was registered on May 16, 1995. A long time ago in internet terms. The registered owner seems to be a group in Washington, DC, called Telepathy, which states to be the parent of a company called State Ventures, the publishers of website regional guides. They operate such sites as Pennsylvania.com, Maryland.com, Annapolis.com, etc. The main IP server is 184.108.40.206, and is located on a server farm at Nassau, Bahamas. A familiar site. As described in Domain Name Game Part 2, the “Pompano Beach Surfers” were operating PremierAmerica.com from the same IP server in the Bahamas. It is also the same IP server farm housing LATU.com, the MediaBlue-Korean connection. More connections than a switchboard. The “Pompano Beach Surfers” now connected to Washington DC and the Telepathy group? And did the momentary Asian links on CCU.com mean a connection back to Korea?
And then there is the name of California Credit Union that was turned on its head to become CreditUnionCalifornia.com. This website was created recently, July 4, 2011. How could that happen, you ask? July 4th is an American holiday. Yep, but not in Panama. That’s right, CreditUnionCalifornia was registered at Fundacion Private Whois in Panama. It’s like the PremierAmerica.org site, also registered in Panama, the unwanted “child” of Premier America Credit Union. My, my, what a tangled web gets weaved when we leave our names floating out on the internet sea. CreditUnionCalifornia.com is just like all the other “pay-per-click” sites, with “credit union” links you can click on that take you to hundreds of other links, a forest of links. The main IP server is in Nassau, Bahamas, a familiar address, 220.127.116.11 to be exact. It is the same site that hosts PremierAmerica.org that we explored in Part 2 of this series, and also hosts CaliforniaCreditUnion.org, owned by the Nobby Beach boyz Buccaneers.
The Strange Case of the Reverse Hijacking.
On April 8, 2010 a somewhat strange complaint was filed with WIPO, which is the World International Property Organization. This is the organization that handles domain name disputes. A company from Tulsa, Oklahoma filed a complaint to obtain a website called “freebird.com” from the companies that owned it, mediablue of Gwangju, Republic of Korea, and DomainCA of Seoul, Korea, a “Whois Protect Service”. (Remember that mediablue had registered LATU.com) The claim was that the Tulsa company, called Blue Financial Corporation had received a trademark on October 17, 2006 for the name “FreeBird”. They said that the trademark was for providing temporary use of on-line non-downloadable software for use in electronic authorization, processing and management of card present and card not present credit card, debit card, electronic check transactions and payments conducted via global computer networks.
Blue Financial further claimed that the other party had no rights to use the domain name because Blue Financial had a trademark, and that the domain was being used as a pay-per-click website and that it was being held in an effort to resell it. Looking back on this case, one wonders if these guys from Tulsa and their high-end lawyers knew what they were up against. Probably not, or they might not have bothered to waste their time and money. As it turned out, they were facing not just a little internet domain company, mediablue.com, but one of the most powerful forces in the world engaged in internet technology.
The first thing that happened was that the respondents, mediablue.com, joined by a company called DomainCA, asked that the proceedings be in the Korean language, as the original registration for freebird.com was done in Korean. The Tulsa boys wanted English. The panel allowed the proceedings to be in English, but the respondents could file in Korean. Mediablue and DomainCA further said that the disputed domain name dated back to June 22, 1997, way before the Tulsa group filed their trademark. They said that the complainant was “trying to hijack the Respondent’s domain name.” WIPO found for mediablue and DomainCA, saying that the domain existed six years before the Tulsa group started to use freebird to obtain a trademark. WIPO said that “circumstances warrant a finding of reverse domain name hijacking”. The Koreans were victorious, and the case shows how hard and potentially expensive it is to get names that are registered in foreign lands. Freebird.com remains in the custody of the DomainCA organization to this day.
The View From The 16th Floor Must Be Exhilarating.
Tracking mediablue.com is difficult, it is protected behind high security, but doing so provided some worthwhile information. The registrar of this website, created May 14, 2002, is one of the most powerful internet technology companies in Asia, the Korea Information Certificate Authority (KICA), doing business as DomainCA.com. The KICA was established in 1999 and is accredited to act as a licensed domain certification authority by the Korean government. Over the last few years it has worked on various electronic and internet projects in Costa Rica, Cameroon, Vietnam, the Philippenes, Mongolia, Indonesia, Iran, and Panama. It is highly involved in such things as Public Key Infrastructure to insure secure electronic transactions in many countries, as well as electronic commerce, banking, and stock trading. It’s major shareholders are some of the largest technology companies in the world: Daoutech, Inc., SK Planet Co., Samsung, LG Electronics, Korea Telecommunications, and others. With its subsidiaries signgate.com, and DomainCA.com, a whois protect service, it occupies the 16th Floor of one of the most unique and futuristic building complexes in all of Asia, and perhaps in the world, at 1605 Sangam Dong, Seoul, Korea. The building complex is a gigantic media center, and is referred to as the Nuritkum Square Building.
Nuritkum Square, in Digital Media City, was designed by an American architect, Paul Davis and his partner Steve Ryder. Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Davis divides his time between Los Angeles and Seoul, Korea, which he refers to as “the Paris of Asia.”. His project includes a 500,420 square foot 22 story business tower and a 15 story research and development facility. Contained in this are a production studio and editing suites, a digital pavillion for product exhibition, retail space, a 1,052 stall car parking structure and a central plaza. A bridge spanning between the two towers contains exhibition and meeting spaces. You can “Google” photos and search for Nuritkum Square in Seoul, Korea to see photographs of this stunningly beautiful complex.
Built for, and owned by the Korean Information Technology Industry Promotion Agency, the complex is designed for up-and-coming information technology businesses and provides a space for industry collaboration and interaction with the public. From their perch on the 16th floor of this magnificent structure, the KICA lads surely must have an exhilarating view of the surrounding area, and some of the windows must be able to see the beautiful Hangang River Front, a short distance away.
The Four Clues
What in the world does the reverse domain-name hijacking case, the KICA, mediablue, and freebird.com have to do with all this? How are they all connected to the orphaned credit union names and how do they tie into the Internet Buccaneers? Throughout this trek, four interesting clues appeared:
1. A clue, a faint one, appeared on the web page of PremierAmericaCreditUnion.com. The site that advertises the Micro Bikinis. The English on the page is just not 100%. It’s like a very well-educated foreigner would write things that are almost perfect, but just a little off. When I listed the link categories that appeared on the page, I copied them exactly. Here’s one: “Women Fashion”. Not quite right, it should have been “Women’s Fashion”. Another example was “Bikini String”, which should read “String Bikini”. And then there is “Employment Jobs” wedged between McDonalds Jobs and Walmart Jobs. What kind of a “job” would it be if it were not “employment”?
2. The next clue is from the website CCU.com, the abandoned abbreviation from California Credit Union that was picked up by Telepathy in Washington, DC. The first time I visited the page, half the links were in Korean script. The next visit, which was a day later, it had all reverted to English. The curtain parted for a second, and who was visible behind it? You don’t have to be psychic to guess.
3. Clue #3 is mediablue.com, which was listed as the owner or operator of LATU.com. MediaBlue had its IP server in Gwangju, Korea, but as the reverse-hijacking complaint showed, mediablue.com was tied into KICA and its dba DomainCA.com, operating out of the 16th Floor of the Nuritkum Square IT Complex in Seoul, Korea. A Whois search led to the fact that DomainCA is the registrant (owner) of mediablue.com. DomainCA.com and its parent are the very powerful Korean internet technology companies.
4. The last clue is also from the reverse-hijacking case. The dot com that was the center of the fight was called FreeBird.com. This was at the time owned by mediablue.com, a defendant (respondent) in the case. FreeBird.com is now claimed openly by DomainCA.com. A visit to the FreeBird.com website reveals some interesting things. First, it claims that it is “the Leading Free Bird Site on the Net.” This would be hard to argue. The website page is the all-too-familiar pay-per-click links, half of them for Tablets, PC Tablets, Tablets dorid (sp) and Airline, the other links are for Bird Net, Bird Photos, Bird Sitting, and Oriole Bird. Note the similar “stilted”, not quite right names, Bird Net should be Bird Netting; Oriole Bird should be Oriole Birds; Tablets dorid should be Droid Tablets, etc.. There is no mystery as to the owner of this site, it is the mighty Korean technology company. It is hosted on an IP that is well known by now to the readers of this series, 18.104.22.168, the server farm in the Bahamas that is also hosting CCU.com, Telepathy.com, LATU.com, PremierAmerica.com, and StarOneCreditUnion.org. It’s where the DC Telepaths, the Pompano Beach Surfers, the Brisbane Blokes, and the Mediablues all rub elbows. What a coincidence!
The Vanished Galleons of the Internet Buccaneers.
The Internet Buccaneers. Imagine them dropping anchor in the Bahamas, at the old port of Nassau. They troop into the town, settling into a sleazy pub. The Brisbane Blokes, the boyz from Pompano Beach, the Panamanians, the Nobby Beach bunch, they all sailed the Internet Spanish Main, attacking the big Galleons. In the pub, they’re drinking and wenching, swapping tales of the domain treasures they’ve wrangled from galleons like Star One, Premier America, California.
But these are just imaginations. The dreams of today with the trappings of yesteryear, the romantic times of old on the Spanish Main and other places where the waters of the seven seas lap up against distant lands. The dreams fade as the morning of a new day comes. As the dew on the grass gives way to the morning sun; the laughter in that old pub in Nassau slowly goes silent. The mighty galleons of the Buccaneers become fuzzy, the image starts to dissolve, then fade in the new day.
The stark new day.
Should Credit Unions Read The Good Book?
Maybe the Credit Unions should read the good book once in a while. Especially Ephesians 6:12. “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers….” The flesh and blood Buccaneers are one thing. They are nothing now but a dream, and in their place could be something far more ominous. A powerful corporation, world-wide in scope, with intimate ties to a major government, owned at least in part by some of the largest and most powerful technology companies on earth. Partnered with smart techies from the finest foreign universities. A network that reaches far beyond the Spanish Main, to Africa, Asia, America, and to places not universally known by the average member of our credit unions. In spite of the strength of the credit unions and their several billions in assets, very powerful corporations, focused on the Domain Name Game, can play an international chess game second to none with the credit unions. The buccaneer fleet has vanished and in its place we may have glimpsed a new fleet, a modern navy, so to speak, backed by a large modern State, with virtually unlimited assets and information knowledge. Is it possible that behind the matrix of names and domains, grabbing the unwanted “children” of the Credit Unions, who so foolishly cast them out, is a far bigger player than anyone has imagined? A power that itself is involved in registering domains and issuing certification? A power that has a web that spans the globe, running information technology even to some State Intelligence Agencies? Food for thought, especially for the marketing departments of the credit unions and the executives who have ignored this situation for decades. The domain name game is getting serious.
On shore, I could see the glow of the great camp-fire
burning warmly through the shore-side trees. Someone was
singing, a dull, old, droning sailor’s song, with a droop
and a quaver at the end of every verse, and seemingly no
end to it at all but the patience of the singer. I had
heard it on the voyage more than once and remembered these
“But one man of her crew alive, What put to sea with
Shiver My Timbers, shiver My Soul/Yo Ho He Ho/There are men
whos hearts as black as coal
And they sailed there ship across the ocean blue/A Blood
thirsty captain and a cut throat crew./Its a darker tale as
was ever told/Of a lust for treasure and a love of gold…/
—-Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island