High Stakes Name Game

Competitors accuse Saunders of ‘cybersquatting’

    Sharks and pirates usually conjure up images of the open seas — unless you’re in the Hamptons real estate business.
    Only a few weeks ago, the high-end real estate firm Saunders and Associates, with offices in Bridgehampton and Southampton, dealt with allegations that it had pirated the Internet domain name susanbreitenbach.com and used it to drive Web-browsing house-hunters to the Saunders Web site. Ms. Breitenbach is a top-producing broker for the Corcoran Group, a competing firm.
    Now, another competing firm, Prudential Douglas Elliman, filed suit on June 14 against Saunders and Associates, along with Andrew Saunders, the founder, and Saunders Ventures, accusing them of having “illegally registered various Internet domain names associated with plaintiff so that any customers searching for such brokers online are automatically directed to defendants’ Web sites, rather than plaintiff’s Web site.”
    The complaint further states that the Saunders company “engaged in this deliberate scam in order to grow their fledgling business by deceiving the public and slyly and stealthily diverting clients away from” the competition. It accused the defendants of “at best” trying to “trade on the good will generated by the hard work and customer satisfaction” of Prudential Douglas Elliman by “manipulating unsuspecting clients and potential clients,” and said, “At worst, defendants set in motion a large-scale fraud enabled by modern technology that usurps and converts the business opportunities of others, in connection with which they have been unjustly enriched.”
    Douglas Elliman, the New York City firm that conducts business on the East End under the name of Prudential Douglas Elliman, identifies two brokers in the claim who allegedly had their names used by Saunders: Lori Barbaria, Prudential Douglas Elliman’s top salesperson for 2009 and its eighth-ranked broker nationwide, and Mi­chaela Keszler, an agent who works from the firm’s Southampton office, who, according to the complaint, was in the top 10 percent of gross commission income for the company’s eastern Long Island branch.
    When Andrew Saunders founded his company in 2008, it quickly became known for its top-drawer properties, and its offices, which its Web site describes as being an “experiential setting more reminiscent of a new luxurious hotel lobby than a typical real estate office.” Saunders recently opened a second office in Southampton, joining its flagship headquarters in Bridgehampton.
    Mr. Saunders said that his company uses a very aggressive Web strategy, which has included paying over $30,000 for the Saunders.com name and $100,000 for the jackpot — hamptons realestate. com.
    When the Breitenbach situation came to light, Mr. Saunders immediately returned the name to Ms. Breitenbach. It had been snatched up by the Saunders company when it became available, for only $12.17.
    Mr. Saunders has admitted in news stories that those involved in the technology and marketing cog of the Saunders machine have registered over 3,000 domain names, including, he claims, almost every street and town name in the Hamptons.
    “I hope this isn’t indicative of a ‘higher form of realty,’ ” Paul Brennan, the regional manager of Prudential Douglas Elliman, said Tuesday, referring to the Saunders motto “A higher form of realty.”
    When reached for comment, Mr. Saunders said in an e-mail, “It is regrettable that our competitor would resort to suing us without fully investigating the facts. We will expose those facts and prevail in this matter.”
    The complaint states that the plaintiff is seeking damages, but for now, said Stanley Arkin of Arkin Kaplan Rice, the law firm representing Prudential Doug­las Elliman, “All we hope for is a sensible reply.”
    “We’re most concerned about making sure that this kind of conduct doesn’t happen again,” he said.
    There is big money in the art of registering domain names that may end up in high demand, and this is not the first time that lawyers have been involved. During the summer of 2001, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) launched a suit against Michael Doughney, who had registered the peta.org Web address and used it to direct traffic to his fictional group, People Eating Tasty Animals. In that case, the plaintiff prevailed.