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by Matt Slater
01 November 2013
We’ve noticed that various online publications and communities frequently recommend performing a China WHOIS domain lookup as a way to verify a Chinese company.
This is quite an interesting approach and one that we felt was worth looking at here. Just how useful is carrying out a China WHOIS lookup on a Chinese company?
Before we go into further detail about China WHOIS lookups and how useful they might be, it’s worth quickly explaining what WHOIS actually means.
As the name suggests, WHOIS is a way to lookup who is behind a particular internet domain name such as ‘chinacheckup.com’ or ‘baidu.com’.
Information about the owner of each domain name (the registrant) is acquired at the time of registration and then stored in WHOIS databases. Anyone can request this information about any domain.
The WHOIS record will show the name, address, telephone number and email address of any registrant (and potentially more information).
There’s no shortage of websites that provide WHOIS data for free online. Just search for ‘whois lookup’ or something similar and you’ll have plenty to choose from. The most popular WHOIS lookup website is probably whois.sc.
Most of these sites provide the basic data about a domain registration for free, and offer extra services (such as seeing other domains that the registrant owns) as a paid service. Looking up the registrant details for one domain is always free and fast, though.
Let’s take a real Chinese company as an example for a China WHOIS lookup:
We know that their domain is dengsheng.net. We can go to whois.sc and enter that domain (you don’t need the ‘www’ part – that’s called a subdomain):
That will give us a lot of information about the registrant for this domain. Here’s a small snippet of some of the data it returns:
So we can see that this domain was registered by someone called Zheliang Li, for an organisation called Shandong Dengsheng Laobao Yongpin Youxian Gongsi.
As you can see, this information could be useful in assessing whether or not a Chinese company is legitimate.
However, there’s a large misconception (and several smaller ones) that people seem to have regarding WHOIS lookups, which we think reduces their usefulness.
It seems that a lot of people are tempted to view a China WHOIS lookup as a way to access some sort of official record about a Chinese company.
The data returned for the Chinese company above certainly seems to fit that image. But it would be wrong to think that a WHOIS search can ever really confirm anything.
A suspicious China WHOIS record might suggest that the Chinese company is not legitimate, but it can never confirm that.
Similarly, a WHOIS record that seems to check out (like the one above) can’t confirm that the company is legitimate. In all cases, better research using more appropriate records is required.
The first issue with WHOIS lookups is that the domain name a company is using in no way equates with the company itself.
What we mean by that is that any company could register any available domain name at any time. There is no restriction or verification involved in domain registrations.
One company might operate several different domains for different purposes, or own no domains at all. Because of these issues, the fact that a particular company owns or doesn’t own a domain name (and how long that has been the case) doesn’t really mean anything. It can’t be used to confirm whether the company is legitimate or not, or even to suggest what might be going on.
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One aspect of this issue that we see cropping up a lot online is the suggestion that looking at how long a company has owned a particular domain for could suggest how legitimate they are. This seems to be common advice when people are trying to determine whether a Chinese supplier they’ve found is legitimate or fraudulent. The idea is that if the company in question has only owned its domain for a few weeks or months, it should be treated as suspicious.
We don’t think this is true at all. A totally legitimate company might have recently decided to establish an online presence (this is very possible for a well-established Chinese factory, for example) or has decided to switch domains.
Further, it’s possible that someone could have registered a domain name for a company that they actually have nothing to do with in order to carry out fraudulent activities. They may well have made the registration some time ago if no-one has moved to stop them.
A simple WHOIS check would be unlikely to reveal this issue.
Another problem with WHOIS data is that many domain registration agencies offer ‘domain privacy’. This means that they will enter their own contact details into the public WHOIS record instead of the registrant’s.
In these cases, the record would simply return the registration agency’s details and reveal nothing about the actual registrant. Some people might wrongly interpret this as suspicious, because the WHOIS record appears to bear no relation to the company in question.
A specific issue for China WHOIS lookups is the tendency for people without much understanding of the Chinese language and related knowledge to misinterpret perfectly innocent WHOIS and domain information as suspicious. We have seen this occur in online advice threads surrounding Chinese company’s domain names and fraud checks.
A common issue is that Chinese companies often register domains that appear meaningless or even garbage-like to English speakers. For example a Chinese company that registers a domain based on the acronym of their company name in pinyin. This results in domain names like ‘xzlbypgs’ and so on.
Also, the use of numbers in domain names is much more common in Chinese than in English, largely because of the greater association of meaning with particular numbers in Chinese. Again, the resulting domain names seem meaningless to English speakers.
Due to things like email spam, English speakers have come to associate domain names that they find meaningless as untrustworthy.
Another language issue with WHOIS lookups is that there is inconsistent support for internationalisation in WHOIS records. Some data providers support Chinese text and some do not. Because of this, some Chinese companies opt to offer registrant details in pinyin and not Chinese characters.
Combined with a sometimes patchy knowledge of pinyin on the part of Chinese native speakers (if you think this is odd, consider how good your knowledge of English IPA is) and incorrect machine parsing of pinyin, this results in garbled entries such as ‘weifangshigaomishichaoyangjiedao3300hao’ for the company shown above. Again, English speakers are prone to wrongly interpret this as suspicious or ‘low quality’.
As you can see, we don’t believe that a China WHOIS lookup on Chinese companies offers much value to those trying to determine the legitimacy of a Chinese company. They seem tempting because they’re fast, free and seem to require no Chinese language knowledge.
But they rarely offer any genuinely useful information about a Chinese company.
A much better way to lookup a Chinese company is through the AIC (Administration of Industry and Commerce) website for the province it is registered in. AIC websites provide public registration records for all of the companies registered in their jurisdiction. These records provide useful information such as the registered name, registered address and business scope of a Chinese company.
Searching AIC websites requires some knowledge of the Chinese language, firstly to find the relevant AIC website and secondly to navigate its interface. The returned registration record for a company will also be in Chinese. However, because it’s official registration information, the data provided is much more useful in assessing a Chinese company.
If you’d like a convenient and affordable way to retrieve registration information about a Chinese company, you might be interested in China Checkup’s online company verification services.
We only need the name of a Chinese company and some identifying information such as their website address in order to retrieve the registration records for the company, and fully translate and explain them in clear English.
We also provide further relevant information that you will find useful in assessing a Chinese company.
Hi there, I'm Matt, the Founder & CEO of China Checkup. Originally from the UK, I am now based in Brisbane, Australia.
Frustrated by the scarcity of concise, high-quality and timely information about Chinese companies, I setup China Checkup whilst living in Shanghai in 2013.
My team are proud that China Checkup's company verification reports have now helped thousands of clients from all corners of the world to do business in China more safely.
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