It happens all the time: you click on a link and the website that comes up is not what you expected. If you’re lucky, the page is simply gone, but the site may look oddly similar and contain links for the subject you’re interested in, or it may be a trap bristling with malware and spam. In any case, you probably shrug and move on, pausing briefly to delete the bookmark if there is one, but you likely don’t spend much time wondering what happened.

What happened is that the website owner quit. Maybe she or he died, or their lives and interests changed, or the company went broke. Possibly the owner just forgot to renew the domain registration. Whatever the cause, abandoned domains rarely just die quietly forgotten any more. Usually they are snapped up even if they are not high-traffic, popular sites, often by a domain registrar hoping to cash in on, but increasingly by people with worse intentions in mind.

Not long ago, it was not uncommon for websites of churches, schools and government institutions that had lapsed to be grabbed up by Web porn purveyors. They may have done it more for the shock value rather than to make money, but in more recent times even more sinister characters have been doing much the same.

Nowadays, an abandoned website may present an irresistible temptation to hackers and spammers to walk in and take over. However, unlike the sleaze merchants, they are not interested in alerting any visitors of the site’s new ownership or content but to use the trust the previous owners earned. And at the very least, the crooks now have a site from which they can attempt to infect visitors’ computers.

Sometimes they can harvest data directly from the site itself or even compromise the webhost, but more often old users inadvertently provide the breaches by continuing to send them email, or accessing closed areas. This way the bad guys can easily collect passwords and other sensitive information which they can use themselves, or sell to other criminals.

This is a real danger, especially with sites that have any sort of following or page ranking. Moreover, our currently-overheated political landscape, where domains are often deserted by candidates immediately after an election but still may be visited by their supporters, provides plenty of juicy targets. Spammers have actually been able to access some deserted sites still-functioning email accounts to pour out their garbage – which looks like it’s coming from an acceptable source, because the source formerly was.

So what is a website owner who wants to get out from under their old site to do? If you have a new site with a different name, get a Web alias for a year or two so that visitors to the old site will be automatically redirected over to the new, wherever it may be. And be sure to put up notifications on your new homepage.

If you’re really and truly done, however, and don’t even want to leave a “good-bye and thanks for visiting” page, don’t just walk away. The best thing for everybody is to park the domain for awhile until it’s forgotten. It’s the only way to make sure you’re not leaving a potential mess behind.

SWCP can easily provide both those services for our customers. And we provide free WHO-is privacy if you want to conceal your domain registration information, too. You can check domain availability online. Call or email us for more information.