Well here’s an interesting one. In July, 2020, Huang Zhiyang filed a suit in the Eastern District of Virginia to quiet title under 28 U.S.C. § 1655, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the Federal Communications Privacy Act, and related Virginia common law claims, claiming that someone had hacked into his account and stolen the domain name 45.com. He said he paid $250,000 for it in April 2015. The public domain name records reflected his ownership until 2018, when the domain name registrar started to mask Whois records. Sometime in 2019 the domain name was transferred out of his control but remained at the same registrar. The registrar said it could not recover the domain name, so Huang Zhiyang turned to the court.
18 U.S.C. § 1655 allows one to remove an incumbrance or cloud upon the title of personal property where the defendant cannot be served or does not voluntarily appear. There are three prerequisites:
- The suit must be one to enforce a legal or equitable lien upon, or claim to, the title to real or personal property, or to remove an encumbrance, lien or cloud upon the title of the property;
- The proceeding must be in aid of some pre-existing claim, not a claim to establish rights in the first instance; and
- The property in question must have a situs within the district in which the suit is brought.
If personal service cannot be effected, 28 U.S.C. § 1655 allows service by publication upon court order. As ordered by the court in this case, Huang Zhiyang published the notice in the Washington Times six times in six weeks and the notice was also sent to the address in the Whois registration and to Verisign, the registry operator for the dot-com registry.
No one appeared for the defendant, so the court ordered the transfer of the domain name to Huang Zhiyang.
But … then another Huang Zhiyang shows up, asking to intervene in the action. It seems that the second Huang Zhiyang was checking his domain names only to discover that his valuable 45.com domain name was gone.1
The court held an evidentiary hearing. Plaintiff Huang Ziyang didn’t show up. The second Huang Zhiyang provided many documents showing that he was the true domain name owner:
Plaintiff claimed to have purchased the domain name 45.com on April 21, 2015 for $250,000 from Xiamen Shiwo Network Technology CO., Ltd., but unlike Intervenor presented no receipt or supporting documentation. The Whois records for 45.com from June 10, 2015, May 12, 2016, April 6, 2017, and April 14, 2018 that Plaintiff provided as exhibits to his Complaint accurately reflect that a Huang Zhiyang was the registrant of the Defendant Domain Name. However, Plaintiff has not proved that he is the Huang Zhiyang to which the records refer. The records include the home address and phone number of Huang Zhiyang, which match the address and phone number of Intervenor, as shown on his ID card, water bill and cellphone bill presented as the hearing. Plaintiff did not provide the Court with a copy of his identification showing his address, nor any documents showing his address and phone number.
Intervenor Huang Zhiyang was declared the true owner of 45.com, the default judgment set aside and the domain name returned to him:
[E]xtraordinary circumstances warrant granting relief from the default order under FRCP 60(b)(6) and returning the Defendant Domain Name to Intervenor. As required by law concerning motions for default judgments, the Court accepted Plaintiff’s representations, as made in the Complaint, that his name was Huang Zhiyang and that he was the rightful owner of Defendant Domain Name, based on documents that showed that the site was registered to a Huang Zhiyang. Plaintiff did not provide documentation of his identity. The Court was not aware that the archival records he submitted were incomplete, omitting the registrant’s email and phone number, which match the Intervenor’s email and phone number. In fact, the email address provided to the Court by Plaintiff’s former counsel and that Plaintiff used to communicate with chambers is firstname.lastname@example.org, which is not the email address associated with 45.com’s domain name registration. Plaintiff appears to have misrepresented himself as the registrant of domain name 45.com and made false allegations regarding his identity and ownership of the Defendant Domain Name. The evidence no longer supports entry of default judgment. Under the circumstances, Mr. Huang is entitled to have Defendant Domain Name transferred back to him.
I’m kind of fascinated by this. Did the plaintiff just take advantage of the coincidence of sharing a name with the true owner? Was the plaintiff’s name Huang Zhiyang at all? How may other domain names has this person, or others like him, stolen in this way? It was just too easy – file a complaint in the true owner’s name, use the public records as evidence of your ownership, then, after all the domain name information got masked because of GDPR, start filing claims that your domain name was gone (of course it hadn’t gone anywhere, it was right where it belonged, with the true owner), and use a quiet title provision of federal law to get it “back” and transferred to a different registrar. I’d guess there is some review of § 1655 claims against domain names going on in the Northern District of Virginia.
Zhiyang v. 45.com, Civ. No. 1:20-cv-00836 (N.D. Va. Jan. 13, 2021) (Report and Recommendation granting default judgment)
Zhiyang v. 45.com, Civ. No. 1:20-cv-00836 (N.D. Va. Aug. 20, 2021) (Report and Recommendation granting granting relief from final judgment)
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