American police seized a travel-focused creative agency’s website after they mistook it for a prostitution platform.
The first sign something was wrong came earlier this month, when staff at Designate – which has worked with clients such as Kuoni and Accor Hotels – noticed their emails had stopped working.
A banner had also appeared on the company’s website branding it “seized” by the United States Department of Justice, NYPD and United States Department of Homeland Security.
“You couldn’t make it up,” said Jason Triandafyllou, a partner at Designate. “I first thought it was a hack.”
It took numerous emails and phone calls with a special agent in New York, a court judgment and a stipulation releasing the US of all liability before Designate’s website was back online eight days later.
The only explanation Triandafyllou has been given is the domain name was one of 400 sites identified during an investigation into prostitution.
He speculated it could be something linked to the name before Designate bought it in 2008.
Triandafyllou added: “Anyone looking at our website would be faced with this rather frightening ‘seized’ message – and our website is our shop window, so my big concern was for our reputation and any clients who were looking.
“We have no way of knowing what we have lost. It’s funny on a level, it’s a great story, but you don’t know how much impact it has had. Almost certainly we have lost opportunity.”
The forced closure has also wiped the company’s online ranking and SEO on Google.
He warned all businesspeople that the US government has the right to seize any .com URL.
However, Designate is not planning to revert back to a .co.uk name because “it feels like a retrograde step”, Triandafyllou said, lightheartedly adding – “a bit Brexit Britain”.
He said: “It’s a risk, but I’m hoping now we have been through this, lightning doesn’t strike twice.
“It is definitely a warning that should get out there – to my knowledge we have nothing to do with prostitution and who knows how many other websites like us were caught up in it?
“The long arm of the US law can reach wherever you are – it’s like big brother.”
Homeland Security has been contacted for comment.