Pierce County Pastor William Wolfson buys and sells space on the Internet.
He owns hundreds of domain names: the addresses that carry you to Web pages, the online equivalent of real estate.
Wolfson says he doesnt buy dark alleys. He suspects someone he declines to identify possibly one of several trusted associates with access to his personal information inadvertently slimed him by linking his name to porn.
Online records tie Wolfson, a Puyallup resident and lead pastor of the Parkland-based Church for All Nations, to about two dozen pornographic website names. They include egyptiansluts.com, screwingvirgins.com, and talkherhorny.com.
The domain names tied to Wolfson lead to empty websites: no pictures or video. The sites are parked without content, the equivalent of empty storefronts with pre-made signs, waiting for potential buyers.
Its not a crime to own the domain names. Regardless, the spiritual leader of one of Pierce Countys larger congregations knows it doesnt look good, and he insists he never bought them.
I do own domain names but I certainly dont have anything of that nature nothing of that nature, said Wolfson. I own close to 600 names but I absolutely have never purchased anything of that nature nor would I.
If Wolfson didnt, someone else did someone armed with the pastors home address, phone number and email address, and possibly his credit card. Someone paid to register the names over a few months in 2011. Someone paid to renew the names last year before they expired, and someone paid for an online service that generates money for the owner of the domain names.
After an initial phone conversation with Wolfson on Jan. 17, The News Tribune requested an in-person interview to discuss the matter in depth. The request included an offer to read a draft of this story before publication.
Through his lawyer, Nathan Neiman, Wolfson declined the request, and said he had no prior knowledge of the domain-name purchases.
DOMAINS UP FOR SALE
Wolfson, a husband and father of five children, became the pastor of the Church for All Nations in 1989, when it was still known as Bethel Christian Assembly, and housed at 4041 Tacoma Mall Blvd.
For years, the churchs tall neon sign sent a glowing message to Interstate 5 drivers: CHRIST IS THE ANSWER. Another church now occupies the location, but the sign remains, with different wording (JESUS CARES ABOUT YOU.)
Wolfson and church leaders moved to Parkland in 1999, erecting a 60,000-square-foot sanctuary a megachurch with 3,000 seats, built for a reported cost of $12.6 million.
Until Jan. 17, when The News Tribune spoke to Wolfson about the website names, registration records listed him as the administrative contact, providing his name, email, phone number and home address.
In an initial phone conversation with the newspaper, Wolfson said he was shocked to hear about the sites and did not know about them. He later provided a more detailed answer via email:
Until I got your call I had no idea that names of this nature were registered to me. They were never placed in my primary Go Daddy account. Once I learned of this unauthorized action, I took immediate steps to reverse the process. Thank you for the call and alerting me to this atrocity. At my request, Go Daddy has deleted all of these names.
Go Daddy, an Arizona-based company, is the worlds largest domain registrar. Most of the domain names tied to Wolfson were registered with Go Daddy.
Go Daddy representatives said sites are not simply deleted at a customers request. They remain active until the registration expires. If investigation shows the registration information is invalid, the site will be placed on hold.
Research suggests the sites tied to Wolfsons name are not on hold but many are up for sale. The same online searches that led to Wolfsons name before Jan. 17 now lead to masked registration information.
Wolfson said he asked Go Daddy to delete the site names, but 18 are still listed as available for purchase via online auctions. For example, the requested starting bid for the egyptiansluts site was $300 as of Feb. 13, according to a simple Go Daddy search.
MAINTAINING A DOMAIN
Domain names cost money sometimes not much, sometimes a lot. Its a bit of a gamblers market.
The rights to beer.com reportedly sold for $7 million in 2004. The 2006 bid for sex.com hit $14 million, but such prices are rare. More often, domain names sell for 10 bucks or less in batches. A typical registration fee from Go Daddy runs $14.99, said Richard Merdinger, the companys vice president of domains.
Registering a domain name at Go Daddy is very simple and straightforward, Merdinger said. Youre licensing the use of the domain name.
Go Daddy representatives would not discuss Wolfsons specific case, citing privacy policies but Merdinger outlined the general process of registration.
A prospective buyer searches for a site name to see if its available. If it is, the buyer can register it for the small fee, typically paid by credit card. If its registered to someone else, Go Daddy will see if the name is for sale.
Registration typically lasts for one year. When the expiration date approaches, Go Daddy sends an email to the registrant, warning that its time to renew and pay the annual fee.
Controversies over domain registration often involve cybersquatting: buying a celebritys name, registering a site and demanding a payoff, for example. In politics, its name-jacking, a harassing tactic: Opposing campaigns will buy the most obvious names associated with an opponent.
Registering a domain under someone elses name, using personal information without the individuals knowledge, including a credit card, is more complicated. Businesses sometimes hire third-party contractors to handle name registration, but the arrangement still requires direct permission.
Go Daddy spokeswoman Leela Brennan provided a partial description of the verification process.
Go Daddy reserves the right, if necessary, to substantiate payment through processes ranging from phone verification to requesting documentation; of course, escalation to such processes is done with prudence, Brennan said.
She added that the company couldnt reveal all of its verification procedures for proprietary reasons.
In Wolfsons case, if someone wanted to register domains without his knowledge, the unknown individual would require access to Wolfsons personal information including a credit card. Apart from registering the names, the individual would have had to update the domain registrations annually and buy additional services to generate revenue from the websites a chain of activity that stretches for almost two years, according to online records.
During a series of email exchanges on Jan. 22, Wolfson said he had spoken to the Pierce County Sheriffs Department about the alleged unauthorized use of his identity to register the domain names.
Sheriffs spokesman Ed Troyer said Wolfson called the agency, but as of Friday had not filed a formal complaint. Without that, the department is unlikely to act.
WOLFSON CLAIMS FRAUD
The News Tribune asked Wolfson to consider an interview in person, suggesting his financial records might provide answers to the mystery of the porn-site names. If they were bought without his knowledge, did someone steal his credit-card information?
Wolfson referred those and other questions to his attorney, Nathan Neiman.
In a Jan. 22 note, Neiman said his office is investigating the domain-name registrations.
Dr. Wolfson is adamant that he is the victim of someones misconduct, Neiman wrote.
He added that it appeared most of the porn-site names were registered over the course of a few days in January and February 2012 meaning the annual reminder to renew would not have reached Wolfsons email yet.
Online registration records tell a different story.
The site names were registered between mid-January and early April 2011. All were tied to Wolfsons name and email address. All were renewed shortly before they expired in 2012 a direct action that requires payment. Additional records show continuing activity to update the sites and profit from them.
For example, the domain name naughtygoodgirls.com was registered in Wolfsons name on Jan. 25, 2011. The registration was renewed a year later again in Wolfsons name on Jan. 26, 2012. Similar renewal activity appears in registration records tied to the other porn-site names.
A Feb. 12 letter from Neiman to The News Tribune provided additional explanation. Wolfson said he has received more than 1,100 emails from Go Daddy, reflecting his activities in the domain-name market.
Of those emails, 700 are unopened, Neiman wrote. If they include reminders to renew registrations, Wolfson didnt see them.
Dr. Wolfson did not open those emails and did not receive notice that names had been registered without his knowledge or authorization, Neimans letter said.
Wolfsons forays as a domain investor reflect a side business separate from his religious activities. He owns lifecoachinternational.com, the home base for his activities as a speaker and business consultant.
Many of the domain names he owns (roughly 600) appear for sale at a website called 4-letterdomains.com. Contact information on the site ties to Wolfsons business address and phone number in Bellevue (the same contact information is tied to his lifecoach site). Wolfson also is the listed registrant and administrative contact for the 4-letterdomains site.
According to Neimans letter, Wolfson relies on an executive account manager and a business partner to manage his domain-name investments. Neiman did not identify either person, but he said both denied knowledge of the racy domain names, and were not aware of them.
The account manager told Neiman that unauthorized conduct could go unnoticed in a large portfolio of domain names, and that online registration records cant always be trusted.
Essentially, anyone with a computer, an email address and access to credit-card information could set up an account in someone elses name, Neimans letter stated.
The account manager added that all the names Wolfson registered and acknowledges owning are business oriented and free from sexual suggestions.
Those names appear at the 4-letterdomains site, registered under Wolfsons name. Most of the names are just what they sound like: various four-letter combinations promoted as quick and easy names for search purposes, such as bpat.com or dumh.com. A few are pronounceable, such as coffeegossips.com and yourcaught.com.
Wolfsons 4-letter site doesnt list the porn names, but some of the offerings he sells veer into adult territory (one example: miraculousorgasms.com). Several site names feature variations of the word enhance, such as enhancerromancer.com, enhancementexplosion.com and enhancementdevil.com.
Additional records of the porn domain names Wolfson disavows suggest he has profited from them, whether he knows it or not.
In July 2012, the site names were transferred to a Go Daddy service called Cash Parking. Go Daddy promotes the service as a system that quickly and easily lets you earn money from your existing domain portfolio. Each time someone clicks on advertising that generates revenue on your parked pages, you share in the revenue.
A one-year Cash Parking plan costs $10.79 a month, according to Go Daddys promotional information. A domain investor who owns 100 domains might generate as much as $800 per month, according to Go Daddys sales pitch.
Again, the service requires direct action and payment from the domain owner. Payments are generated monthly (either by check or direct deposit). Go Daddy also provides monthly reports via email of generated revenue, according to the terms of the companys Cash Parking Service agreement.
Registration records for the porn sites show they were shifted out of the Cash Parking service on Jan. 19 two days after The News Tribune spoke to Wolfson about the sites.
The letter from Wolfsons lawyer suggests one possible answer to the domain-name mystery, but stops short of identifying a culprit:
At least four individuals have remote access to Dr. Wolfsons computer and possess all of his passwords, the letter states. While this appears to be a great security risk, Dr. Wolfson has hand-selected trustworthy individuals to assist him when he is travelling or cannot access his accounts. Several of these individuals possessed all of the information required to make charges to Dr. Wolfsons credit card(s).
While Dr. Wolfson has his opinion concerning the identity of the person who may have caused these names to be registered, neither Dr. Wolfson nor this office will engage in unfounded finger pointing. Stated differently, while we may believe that we know who registered these names, we will not proceed on mere surmise.
Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486