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Would you trust a dot-bank site more than a dot-com?

Top-level domain for verified banks only proposed

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Would an exclusive internet address for banks help prevent phishing and identity theft?

That's the hope of a new project from a financial services trade group in the US, which plans to apply to domain name overseer ICANN early next year for a ".bank" top-level domain.

BITS, the technology policy arm of the Financial Services Roundtable, with the support of the American Bankers Association, plans to form a new company to manage the bid.

According to the project's general manager, Craig Schwartz, a .bank domain would increase the level of security and trust when users bank online. Unlike .com or .co.uk addresses, only vetted financial institutions would be able to register a .bank domain.

"Ensuring sub-domains are given only to qualified candidates, that leads to a more secure space from the get-go," Schwartz said.

Today, it's possible for any criminal to buy an address such as log-in-to-your-barclays-account.com, set up a phishing site, and then hope enough people are gullible enough to think it's an official Barclays site and hand over their login credentials.

But only a real bank would be allowed to register a .bank address. Coupled with cryptographic signing using the new DNSSEC domain security standard, this could give consumers a higher degree of confidence in .bank domains than they do in other extensions.

BITS, working with registry services partner VeriSign, is also working on other possible security measures not available in other top-level domains, Schwartz said.

Because .bank domains would be limited to authorised entities, Schwartz said he anticipates fewer than 10,000 .bank addresses being registered.

The Financial Services Roundtable and the ABA together have a membership than comprises the majority of American banks. FSR members alone have revenue of over $1.2 trillion, and many are US subsidiaries of overseas banks.

But BITS is by no means guaranteed to have its .bank application approved.

Under ICANN's rules, between 12 January and 12 April next year, any company with at least $185,000 to spend on processing fees can apply for any string it wants as a top-level domain.

Last month, for example, moves stepped up to bid for .london and .scot.

Despite the pedigree of its supporters, BITS may find itself competing against other applicants for the .bank contract.

As well as legitimate rival bids from banking organisations in other countries, it's possible some crafty investors may risk cash filing spurious .bank applications in the hope of getting paid off to go away.

But the organisation hopes its plan to self-designate as a "community" will smooth its passage through ICANN's convoluted application process, in which a so-called Community Priority Evaluation can enable a well-backed applicant to trump its rivals.

Potentially confusing the .bank value proposition, some large banks may also apply to ICANN for their own "dot-brand" extensions, enabling domains such as mortgage.barclays or johnsmith.hsbc.

"Most of the dot-brand examples people bring up are big, well-known banks," said Schwartz. "But there are thousands of banks around the world that don't have that awareness or don't have the resources [to apply to ICANN] as the large ones do. We see this as an opportunity to reach out to small and medium-sized banks."

Nevertheless, educating the world's internet users to only trust .bank domains when they bank online may take considerable time and marketing money to pull off without confusing consumers.

It may not even be effective at preventing phishing. Recent research from the Anti-Phishing Working Group found that only 9 per cent of phishing attacks use a variation of a real brand today, which suggests that many internet users don't even look in their browser's address bar.

If BITS' bid for .bank is successful, it may take a few years for the domains to find their way into the public consciousness, but BITS thinks the domain may also work as a business-to-business play.

"A B2B opportunity is likely in the first phase, with potentially B2C coming down later," said Schwartz. BITS sees potential benefits using .bank to transmit transactional information between banks, he said.

BITS is also considering applying to ICANN for other financially-oriented extensions, possibly including .insure and .invest, according to Schwartz. ®

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