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Posted on Jun 14, 2023 Updated on Jun 14, 2023, 2:47 pm CDT
The far-right’s go-to domain name registrar, Epik, recently announced that it has been sold.
The company is framing the sale as the answer to its monetary and reputational woes, as well as the concerns of disgruntled customers who claim Epik is keeping enormous sums of their cash and failing to register, renew, and transfer their domains.
Epik faced a litany of problems in the last two years. In September 2021 it was so thoroughly hacked that an expert described it as “the worst I’ve seen in 20 years.”
The hack led to revelations about the neo-Nazis, Capitol rioters, and Republican Party of Texas—not to be confused with one another—that registered their domains with the company. Then last September, founder Rob Monster abruptly stepped down as chief executive officer. Complaints subsequently began escalating from customers claiming Epik converted the proceeds of their domain sales and transfers into Masterbucks, the company’s payment platform, without permission and that they were unable to withdraw those funds.
Rather than soothe concerns, the sale is causing panic as rumors fly that Epik is using the sale to divest itself of debt-ridden assets, keep clients’ money, and continue operating under a new entity.
Epik’s effort to actively distance itself from Masterbucks before and after the sale by claiming that they are separate entities is fueling such fears.
Simultaneously, new documents from a court case show that Monster has grown paranoid about being left with the company’s debt in the sale and potentially being murdered.
Epik was also recently warned by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) that it was in breach of its contract. ICANN is the international consortium that accredits domain registrars. Without ICANN, Epik’s clients could lose the domains they have registered with the company.
Epik’s disgruntled customers and observers both harbor suspicions that the sale is merely a vehicle for avoiding paying its significant debts. They’ve accused Epik of intentionally transferring funds it owes clients into Masterbucks, then severing that from the sale, leaving clients with no way to collect their money. Some suspect that Monster is on both sides of the transaction, which the parties deny.
Epik has said that proceeds from the sale are intended to make its debtors whole. Some have reportedly been paid. Others are still waiting for tens of thousands of dollars and growing increasingly fearful that they’ll never get it. Court documents indicate that clients may have cause for concern. Those documents, which have not been previously reported, include an asset purchase agreement which shows that some of the assets Epik’s clients say are wrongfully holding their cash are specifically excluded from the sale, namely Epik’s Masterbucks.
According to those documents, an attorney who represented Epik client Matthew Adkisson in his case against the company sounded the alarm about the sale being used to avoid paying debts.
“Our client is very concerned, and with good reason, that this so-called asset sale will serve only to transfer the valuable assets of the company to a third party, leaving it unable to re-pay consumers like Mr. Adkisson, causing irreparable harm,” attorney David Perez wrote Monster in an email on May 13.
“We are also concerned that, by definition, what the company is now selling includes assets that necessarily belong to consumers like Mr. Adkisson.”
This email, the asset purchase agreement, and other correspondence between the parties and their lawyers are contained in a declaration Perez filed in support of Adkisson’s motion for a temporary restraining order to halt the sale.
Perez didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Adkisson sued Epik in March, alleging that it embezzled over $300,000 from him and improperly commingled funds.
He filed the restraining order to stall the sale to ensure he got paid before it concluded. According to Perez’s declaration, in January, Epik’s lawyer admitted that the company misappropriated Adkisson’s money.
“Epik’s counsel admitted that Epik owed Adkisson the $327,000 it had promised to hold in escrow, and that sometime after Adkisson wired the funds to Epik, it was misappropriated, embezzled or both,” it states. “Epik’s counsel further claimed that the company was ‘cash strapped’ and that Mr. Adkisson’s escrow funds were misappropriated and used to pay other debts without his authorization.”
The parties agreed to settle the case on June 2.
For months, clients have complained that Epik wasn’t registering, renewing, or transferring domains they paid for. In November, Monster’s replacement, Brian Royce, told the Daily Dot he’d taken the reins of a clusterfuck.
Since Royce took over, Epik customers have grown increasingly convinced that their money disappeared into a black hole. Many claim Epik ceased responding to all communications.
“Does anyone work here anymore?? I need help,” a person recently wrote on Epik’s Facebook page. Another commenter opined that Epik must’ve gone out of business.
The sale appeared to come in the nick of time. Epik’s clients were growing increasingly irate, threatening lawsuits, and talking about going to the authorities, including the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Following the sale, the new company, also called Epik, promised that it would get the registrar working to fix the problems with domains and start paying its debts to clients and ICANN. Given the sale’s opacity, much remains unknown about Epik’s debts, including how much debt it transferred to entities that were excluded from the sale.
Igor Gabrielan says Epik owes him $55,000. Via email and correspondence on NamePros, an online community for domain investors, Gabrielan provided the Daily Dot with emails, direct messages, and screenshots from his profiles on Epik and Masterbucks showing that he’s been trying to get his money since September.
Gabrielan told the Daily Dot that he lives near Kharkiv, Ukraine. Due to wartime chaos and restrictions on the banking system, he withdrew some funds, but left the remaining $55,000 in his account at Epik.
“When our troops repulsed the Russian attacks and the situation partially stabilized, I wanted to withdraw money to a Ukrainian bank,” Gabrielan said. “At first, Epik’s website did not even allow for a withdrawal request. Finally, on October 14, 2022, I made withdrawal requests, but Epik has not paid.”
Give me my $55,433
Gabrielan forwarded emails Epik customer support sent him in September claiming Masterbucks was under “big maintenance” and promising to let him know when it started working again. He replied that Epik should find another way to pay him.
He still hadn’t been paid in November, when he received an email blast from Epik updating customers about the situation at Masterbucks. The email claimed that Masterbucks had debts of $4.5 million when Royce took over and that they’d managed to whittle that down to $800,000.
It’s not clear who got the roughly $3.5 million Epik claims debtors received. Nor is it readily apparent how long Epik owed this debt. Customer complaints about not getting paid increased significantly after Royce became CEO in September.
As of June 12, Gabrielan says he still hasn’t been paid.
“Obviously, they want to steal this money,” Gabrielan wrote. “In my case, this is actually looting, because Epik wants to take advantage of the military situation in Ukraine.”
Epik’s customers haven’t been the only ones waiting to get paid.
One of the entities Epik owed is ICANN, which on June 1 notified Epik that it was in breach of its registrar accreditation agreement (RAA). That notice said that Epik hadn’t paid its fees and that ICANN was receiving complaints from people claiming that it either wasn’t responding or was taking far too long to respond to domain name renewals and transfer requests, the same complaints that its customers have been shouting from every corner of the internet for months.
ICANN has warned domain registrars in the past but the scope of its requirements for Epik to continue operating is significant. A cybersecurity expert also described ICANN publishing a blog about the matter as “unusual.”
Epik losing ICANN accreditation puts its entire business in peril, and could cause its clients to lose the domains they have registered through the company. ICANN could also take control of the domain names or invite other registrars to take them over. This could drive some of Epik’s clients offline, however, because it has long provided service to websites that other registrars won’t touch, like neo-Nazi sites and Gab.
In addition to paying its fees, which Epik says it did following the sale, ICANN told Epik that it must provide a detailed accounting of how it is fixing the issues with each of the hundreds of domains that have been affected by problems with its registrar services and identify all others impacted.
Gwen Carlson, senior director of communications for ICANN, told the Daily Dot via email that it is “closely monitoring” the company’s compliance with the registrar accreditation agreement. Carlson said ICANN is also addressing every complaint it’s received about Epik.
“Should Epik fail to cure the notice of breach, ICANN shall commence the RAA termination process and invoke the DeAccredited Registrar Transition Procedure (DART-P) to transition domain names from the failed business to one in good standing and protect registrants,” Carlson wrote.
Epik has until June 22 to comply.
Carlson noted that a transfer of ownership must comply with ICANN’s terms and requirements, “which includes review and approval.”
Under the terms of the asset purchase agreement contained in the court documents, the new Epik acquired the domain registry and hosting provider Terrahost, the two assets Monster described in emails as the “crown jewels.” Other assets, including Masterbucks, are excluded from the sale, according to those documents. These are to remain property of a new company. On June 8, Epik said in a press release that the new entity will be named Kingdom Ventures, and that Monster will be majority shareholder.
The exclusion of Masterbucks and other assets is stoking fears among some that Epik is using the sale to avoid paying clients like Gabrielan and others.
We are Epik LLC. We do not own any alternative universe / resilient ecosystem stuff. We have nothing to do with crypto or https://t.co/7VbKoqGbos
Court documents show Monster himself expressing concerns about being saddled with the debt, which he called the “drippy bag of a badly executed hijack operation” in a May 30 email to Adkisson’s lawyer, Perez. Monster also suggested that Masterbucks had significant liabilities. He wrote that he’d been asked to resign as chairman of Epik in January but refused because “I knew that if I did that, they would bankrupt Epik and leave the Masterbucks holders, and your client, with zero.”
Perez seemed to harbor similar suspicions. On May 30, he emailed Monster, “The ‘buyer’ named in the draft [asset purchase agreement] is ‘Epik LLC.’ Is that an error?”
Monster responded that it was indeed called Epik. He said “NWRA” had set up a “NewCo” in Wyoming. Public records show that Northwest Registered Agent Service created Epik LLC on May 26.
According to the terms of the agreement and a press release Epik sent out on June 8, Monster still owns Masterbucks, which was holding funds. The status of its debt is not clear.
Neither Monster, Royce, nor JM Spear, the president of Registered Agents, who signed the asset purchase agreement as the buyer on behalf of Epik LLC, responded to detailed emails seeking comment on June 8. The next day, an autoreply came from Royce’s email address claiming that it is now a “catch-all account.”
“If you are trying to reach Mr. Royce please note that it is unclear at this time if he will become an employee or not,” it added. On June 13, when a Twitter user claimed he remains CEO of the new entity, Royce denied it, tweeting, “False; Brian is taking a breather.”
It seems Royce needed a break after spending the better part of a year on maneuvers to get Epik ready to be sold, which the company called his “tactical efforts to pivot Epik.com into a scalable and process-driven company.”
But under Royce’s management, multiple Epik clients have claimed that the company converted their funds into Masterbucks without permission, fueling concerns they were shifting money around to get it off its balance sheet.
Perez’s declaration contains an email from a man who claims that he used Epik to sell two domains for $25,000 in late October. He wrote that Epik converted his funds into Masterbucks “which I didn’t consent to—I had asked for USD as my payment option.” He wrote that five months later, he still hadn’t been able to withdraw his money “despite their claims that they are actively sending out funds to Masterbucks holders, albeit delayed.”
Gabrielan provided the Daily Dot with screenshots showing that prior to the sale, his balance was displayed on a subdomain on Epik’s website.
“Now these obligations are not displayed,” he said. “The Masterbucks tab is no longer on the Epik website.”
Gabrielan provided the Daily Dot with a screenshot from Masterbucks’ website showing that it owes him roughly $55,000.
Epik has been trying to distance itself from Masterbucks for months.
In December, Epik scolded a disgruntled customer for giving it a one-star review on Trustpilot.
The reviewer, Kathleen Kalaf, claimed that Royce “intercepted” $100,000 from a domain she sold and transferred into Masterbucks without her permission. Kalaf alleged that she’d set up the sale to have her portion of the funds, $91,000 after Epik’s fee, transfer directly into her bank account. She said her subsequent attempts to withdraw her money from Masterbucks were fruitless.
“It is a very big loss for me because these funds were for my retirement and I am 60 years old,” Kalaf wrote. Kalaf did not respond to a request for comment.
Epik didn’t deny transferring the money to Masterbucks, but claimed that Kalaf was reviewing the wrong company.
“Masterbucks is who you are reviewing here, not Epik,” it wrote, instructing Kalaf to delete the review and write one on Masterbucks’ profile.
Epik owned Masterbucks at the time.
Gabrielan describes Masterbucks as merely a “spreadsheet for tracking commitments.”
“If they kept records of obligations using Excel spreadsheets, then Microsoft would hardly pay for these obligations,” he wrote.
Many people clearly still view Epik and Masterbucks as one and the same. A thread on NamePros started in September, called “The fund can’t be [withdrawn] from Epik.com via Masterbucks wallet,” now extends over 300 pages and thousands of comments, many of them complaints about Epik converting their money into Masterbucks and clients being unable to withdraw the funds. People have continued commenting on this thread until the present day. Trustpilot reviews of Masterbucks complain about Epik, and vice versa.
After news of the sale broke, a Twitter user posted a screenshot showing that they have over $60,000 in Masterbucks and demanded to know when they could withdraw the money.
Epik, under its original Twitter account, replied coolly. “We are Epik LLC. Domains Management. We have nothing to do with the alternative ecosystem alternative Masterbucks stuff.”
The company made similar claims about other assets Epik reportedly owned.
We are Epik LLC. We purchased https://t.co/dO8rvMeL5h and the domain clients and business from Epik Holdings Inc. We have nothing to do with crypto or whatever you are referring to as https://t.co/CRnbbBDep3
On Friday, a purported customer in a similar situation wrote on NamePros that Epik, via Masterbucks, owes them $120,000.
“Despite my numerous emails, Brian Royce only deigned to reply to me on May 1, 2023, offering to pay me 5% of the debt (approximately $6,000) while keeping the remaining 95%,” they wrote.
Court records show that under the terms of the asset purchase agreement, which Monster, Royce, and the buyer signed on May 30, Epik sold a slew of assets to a new company also called Epik, with the exception of 21 assets. Masterbucks is first on the list of assets excluded from the sale.
Cybersecurity expert Brad Maloney believes that Epik has done what many have feared: sold the valuable parts and left the indebted ones in an entity that is essentially worthless.
“The sale took the two big things, the registrar business, and Terrahost … everything else was trimmed out,” Maloney told the Daily Dot last week.
He agrees that Epik and Terrahost are the real moneymakers.
Now Monster is left with the rest of Epik. The company’s press release says that he “will change its name to Kingdom Ventures to avoid confusion, and develop key properties like Masterbucks, Amplify, Bitmitigate, and other vital services needed for digital empowerment.”
Monster did not respond to an email asking if he or any of the entities excluded from the sale intend to file for bankruptcy to wipe out the remaining debt.
Emails from the court documents show Monster expressing concern for the people Masterbucks owed money—and for himself.
“At the end of the day, I am willing to let Epik and Terrahost go. The Masterbucks people should all be made whole,” he wrote on May 30. “I should also be compensated and not left with a bunch of debt that I am unable to service.”
In the same email, Monster also suggested he was being “set up.”
Monster claimed that Royce and other Epik executives had conducted a long-running conspiracy to oust him from the company he founded. He also indicated that he feared for his life, writing that he believed “all options were on the table … possibly including lethal.”
“For the record, I do have reason to believe that there have been attempts on my life including recently,” Monster wrote, adding that this was why he’d remained in Asia from January through April. “I am in excellent health and not suicidal.”
Monster also accused a slew of people and entities of conspiring against him, including Royce and other Epik insiders, a large military contractor, “Anonymous-ANTIFA” (whom he blamed for the 2021 hack), and even Wikipedia. He accused the crowdsourced online encyclopedia of creating “a narrative that is completely one-sided” against Epik and himself.
“I believe it can be proven that there has been a multi-year effort to infiltrate, subvert and ultimately hijack Epik, and to destroy my reputation in the process,” he wrote.
Royce has mostly remained mum about the purported disagreement with Monster. His pinned tweet from February may provide some clues as to his view of his performance as CEO versus his predecessor’s, however.
“There is a right way to do business and a wrong way. I fully understand that a CEO has fiduciary duties. A good CEO understands this a bad CEO does not,” Royce wrote.
Since the sale concluded, some of Epik’s clients have said that they’ve been paid. On June 8, Kathleen Kalaf posted on NamePros that she’d received her $91,000 at long last. She wrote that she got paid after Monster texted her for her banking information. Kalaf said that the funds were paid via bank transfer and she didn’t know who’d sent them to her.
Others say they’re still waiting and wondering when, if ever, they’ll get paid.
Gabrielan is one of them. “It seems, they pay Americans and fully ignore non-Americans,” he told the Daily Dot on Monday.
On June 8, a man in Spain told the Daily Dot via email that Epik still owed him thousands of dollars he says it transferred into Masterbucks without his permission. Asked if he wanted to share more details of his story, he demurred.
“Can it be worse for my objective of rescuing my money?” he asked.
Epik, Monster, and Royce are nevertheless framing the sale as a success.
In a release, Royce said, “It’s been one of the biggest challenges and successes in my career so far to have saved Epik from financial collapse.”
Monster added that “After a season of chaos, an orderly transition for the Epik registrar is well underway.”
Claire Goforth is a staff writer at the Daily Dot covering all things politics and technology with a focus on the far right and conspiracy theories.
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