Cybersquatting in the 2016 Presidential Race
When Sen. Ted Cruz announced Carly Fiorina as his vice presidential candidate last week, the campaign was ready with signs, stickers and a fancy website to announce the new team. While most campaign websites use the last name of both candidates (ObamaBiden.com, RomneyRyan.com), this one was CruzCarly.com. Why not CruzFiorina.com?
Matt Mackowiak, founder of Potomac Strategy Group in Washington D.C., has an idea.
"I guess they were worried that people couldn't correctly spell Fiorina," Mackowiak said. "Honestly, because people often mispronounce her last name, even though it's not that difficult. So I guess they made a decision that that would be easier."
But there's another possible reason. The Cruz campaign doesn't own CruzFiorina.com. Mackowiak does.
On Wednesday April 27, rumors started to spread that Sen. Cruz was going to name Fiorina as his vice presidential pick. Soon after, Mackowiak hit the internet.
"I just went to go see if the domain existed. Someone owned it, but it was essentially someone who is a broker," Mackowiak said. "And he said, make me an offer. And so I did, and he said no. And I made him another offer, and he said yes. I was amazed."
So Mackowiak took the site and put up his own web page highlighting his efforts to raise money for cancer research. The move brought him some national attention in the hours after the Cruz-Fiorina ticket was announced, including a mention on the Rachel Maddow show.
"I don't intend to do anything nefarious with this. There is someone who owns TedCruz.com that has done something nefarious with it and has refused to sell the site to Cruz's campaign," Mackowiak explained. "And that's why his campaign web address is TedCruz.org."
But, as he said earlier, he wasn’t the first person to think about buying CruzFiorina.com. He got it from a broker — someone who registered that address way back in Feb. 2015, before Cruz or Fiorina had even announced they were running for president.
Gambling on 2016
Mackowiak didn’t tell me who he bought it from, but it could have been someone like University of Georgia student Steven Grambergs. He got into the speculative domain market in early 2015.
“I remember last year, about January, I read an article, something about RomneyRyan.com sold for like $8,800," Grambergs said.
So he did what any college junior who needs some extra beer money would do: He figured out how to make some money.
“I pretty much made a big old spreadsheet with about 16 of the 17 candidates," Grambergs said. "And I cross-examined who would be potential running mates. I poured in about 200-300 domain names.”
He ended up with about 130 names that weren’t already taken. And of those, he was pretty sure he had a few winners.
“Back when Rubio was still in, I thought Trump-Rubio was the ticket, because he kind of needed to balance out the Hispanic vote with all the things he said. And Florida is a battleground state," Grambergs said. "I thought Trump-Rubio would be it for sure. In fact I’ve just gotten a few offers for it today.”
But what about the other 129 domains? Has this gamble been worth it? He spent between one and four dollars for each domain, and on some he’s made 2,000-percent return on the investment. Not big money, but a nice return.
It's Not Personal, It's Business
Jeremy Pegg is also a political cybersquatter and a D.C.-based lawyer. He purchased about 170 domains for the 2016 elections. And he’s had a little luck selling some back. He sold Cruz2016.com for $1,500. But the rest are still up for grabs.
Including his extensive collection of Hillary Clinton sites:
But he doesn’t have the combination that many political pundits have started to mention as a top ticket for the Democrats: ClintonCastro.com.
That domain name is owned by Jonathan Walczak. He snatched it up a long time ago.
“I was sitting at work the day they announced that Julian Castro was going to be the main speaker at the DNC in 2012," Walczak said. "And immediately I thought, well this guy is a perfect match for Hillary. He’s young, he’s male, he’s Latino, he’s from a Southern state, he’s telegenic.”
While all that makes sense, and the same things are now being said by pundits across the country, not everyone thinks ClintonCastro.com was a good investment. Especially Pegg, who says Castro is easy to tear down as a VP candidate because San Antonio has a weak mayor system. So Castro didn’t really do much. But maybe there’s another reason Pegg is eager to tear down Castro.
“That guy wouldn’t sell his domain to me,” Pegg said.
Pegg couldn’t pay Walczak’s asking price, which is listed quite publicly on ClintonCastro.com. There you’ll find a picture of his more recent college loan statement. With a big red arrow pointing to his remaining balance: $79,484.80.
“I’m not looking to get rich," Walczak said, "I would just love to pay off my student loans and not wake up every morning with that suffocating feeling hanging over my head.”
Maybe Walczak will strike it big, or maybe he’ll end up sitting on a site that nobody wants to buy. This late in the campaign any domain not starting with Clinton, Sanders, Trump or Cruz…is worth nothing.
Making chicken salad out of...well, you know
So what about all those Clinton sites Jeremy Pegg bought? Even if he gets lucky on one, there will be several more left worthless.
“With the Hillary domains, with the Clinton domains, I’m going to turn them into Harry Potter relation-shipping fan fiction. And that’s going to be….really fun," Pegg said.
Like the 2016 campaign hasn’t been weird enough. pretty soon you’ll be able to go to ClintonOmalley.com and read about how Hermione Granger and Draco Malfoy had a brief tryst before she final married Ron Weasley.
Oh come on....couldn’t you see that happening?