Lock in Your Web Brand: Why a West Virginia Community Banker Keeps Buying Web Addresses

By Cocheo, Steve | ABA Banking Journal, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Lock in Your Web Brand: Why a West Virginia Community Banker Keeps Buying Web Addresses


Cocheo, Steve, ABA Banking Journal


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Some bankers collect coins. Some bankers collect stamps. Some collect vintage cars, hunting decoys, Southwestern art, or antique firearms.

Brian Thomas collects website addresses.

But for Thomas, this is no mere pastime to take his mind off the hectic world of community banking. Actually, it's something he's been doing for about ten years to stake out potential future opportunities, to avoid market confusion, and to head off web players up to mischief ... or worse.

To date, Thomas has accumulated about 50 website addresses for $398.9 million-assets Clear Mountain Bank, Bruceton Mills, West Va. And Thomas, president and CEO, stands ready to buy the rights to more. He considers his bank's online presence too important to take any chances.

Beginning the "collection"

About a decade ago, Thomas' holding company owned two banks and as the web became more important to banks of all sizes, he purchased website addresses for both institutions. Then, from time to time, if he had a good idea for a new product or service--or one that he thought the company might offer someday--he came up with a suitable address and reserved it by buying it from one of the companies that handle web registrations.

Later, when the company merged the two institutions and changed its name, Thomas says, phishers began attempting to fool the bank's customers with phony addresses. In some cases, they came up with names that sounded reasonable. In other cases the phonies purchased ".net" or other such variants of the more typical ".com" addresses that banks generally buy. The whole idea was to lure customers to the phony sites to steal account information.

The bank fought back on multiple fronts.

First, Thomas arranged to buy variations on Clear Mountain's name, including common spelling errors, such as "mountian."

"We can't prevent every phishing attempt," says Thomas, "but we can make it harder."

The second front hinged on a strategy the bank took around the time of the consolidation of subsidiary banks. Thomas says that on the advice of legal counsel, the bank had decided that its new name would be unique, something that could be trademarked. So the bank hired a local firm to conduct a trademark search and protected both its new name and its logo.

When the phishing attempts began, the wisdom of the advice Thomas had been given came through.

Clear Mountain Bank complained to the internet service provider hosting phishing sites aping its name, and were told that the only way the provider could shut down the phonies were if the bank held a federal trademark and could prove that.

"We faxed them our documentation," says Thomas, with evident satisfaction, "and they took down the other sites immediately."

Phishing isn't the only risk that banks face with their websites and their online presence. There is reputation risk, as well, when the disgruntled decide to start up sites with the name of a bank and "ihate--" in front of the bank name or bankname "sucks.com" and other such hate sites. As Thomas and his team thought of troublesome variations, they bought up the addresses, in a preemptive strike.

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"We have to protect our brand," says Thomas.

Staking claims for proactive marketing

Typically it costs about $10-$20 a year--sometimes less--to buy a web address, so Thomas has been pretty aggressive buying any address that will be protective, or, even more important, proactive.

"There's no requirement that you actually have to use the address," explains Thomas. And once the address is bought, the buyer owns it for the term paid for. When the bank has an idea for an address, staff checks it out on one of the registration sites--two are Network Solutions and Go Daddy--and sees if it is taken. …

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