To Anthony J. Bufort, a Web site builder in Hackensack, N.J., the Internet address plasticash.com was a "rare find" that any credit card company would want.
Last June, when he discovered to his surprise that nobody owned it, he paid $70 to InterNIC, the government-chartered authority that supervises Web names. Once plasticash.com was his, he expected to sell it at a hefty profit.
He faxed his offering to MasterCard International, Visa U.S.A., and others in the card industry. Last month, after nobody responded, he posted it on the eBay Internet auction site, asking a minimum bid of $100,000. There were no takers.
Mr. Bufort, 28, is a member of a speculative subculture that buys up attractive-sounding URLs-universal resource locators, in Web-speak-in hopes that deep-pocketed corporations will see the merits. He and other domain brokers have been registering names right and left, grasping for a share of the money being thrown at the Internet.
Mr. Bufort specializes in financial services names. Besides plasticash, he owns amerimoney.com, cashbonanza.com, and about half a dozen others. His ameribucks.com site-the only one with content on it-offers legal and logistical tips for others interested in trafficking in Web names.
He has not sold any, but said the Web is such an "enormous phenomenon" that it is only a matter of time.
"I see it as a long-term investment," said Mr. Bufort, who has a master's degree in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania and works at Pipeline Inc., a Web development company in Teaneck, N.J.
To maintain each of his URLs he must pay $35 each subsequent year to InterNIC, which is currently administered by Network Solutions Inc. of Herndon, Va.
The enormous-some say ridiculous-valuations Wall Street has placed on "dot-com" companies has turned this type of bartering into an accepted and at times lucrative pursuit. Names for sale-some obscure, some less so-are listed on various Web sites, with wildly uneven asking prices.
At a site called bestdomains.com, among the 2,200 names are "beth.com" and "boatclassified.com," with price tags of $50,000 apiece. The owner of "badluck.com" wants a meager $650.
Large companies including Chase Manhattan Corp. and other banks have bought blocks of names related to their brands to prevent others from using them. They have also bought domain names that denigrate their company images to keep those out of circulation.
It is illegal to "hijack" trademarked names-a crime known as cybersquatting-and Mr. Bufort asserted that he is "not a pirate." Hijackers used to get away with selling trademarked domain names back to companies, but firms have grown savvy and now file infringement suits.
John Grace, executive director of Interbrand Group, a New York consulting firm in the corporate identity field, said similar battles were waged two decades ago when toll-free telephone numbers began proliferating. "Sharks," as he called them, would register "800" numbers that corresponded to corporate names, then try to sell them to the companies.
At the time, Mr. Grace was an advertising executive with a Clairol Inc. account. He recalled a meeting with a man who tried to lock up a certain "800" number. It turned out that he had misspelled "Clairol," so as soon as he left the room, somebody called to register the correct sequence.
"The issues are the same today on the Internet," said Mr. Grace, who sometimes negotiates for domain names on behalf of clients.
Mr. Grace advises clients to figure out if it will cost more to do business with someone who owns a desired name or to find a new name or positioning. Negotiation "might be a worthwhile investment as a cost of doing business," but it might not.
Depending on whom you ask, domain name speculation can either be a cashbonanza or badluck. According to Mr. Bufort, the Internet news company CNET offered $1 million to the private holder of television.com, who refused to sell. He views plasticash.com as "not very far off from television.com" in terms of its appeal.
One expensive domain transaction occurred last year when Compaq Computer Corp. bought Digital Equipment Corp., owner of the Alta Vista search engine. Rights to altavista.com were owned by a San Jose, Calif., company, Altavista Technology Inc. Compaq ended up paying $3 million to Jack Marshall, principal of Altavista Technology.
Companies eager to pump up unique brands might not care much about a generic idea like plasticash, but smaller Internet entrepreneurs may be receptive. Quest Net Corp. of Miami just bought ecreditcard.com for a price it would not disclose. It is using that Web site to offer secured cards with $200 credit limits to subprime customers through what it refers to as a Guatemalan financial institution.
Mall.com Inc. issued a press release saying it had purchased more than 100 "premier" Internet domain names "worth over $1 million in total" to use as part of an on-line sales strategy.
Not everyone believes domain name speculation is a good business, especially at a time when the availability and scope of "high level" domains-the familiar suffixes like .com and .org-are in a state of flux.
Several proposals have been put forward by national and global policy bodies, including the United Nations-sponsored World Intellectual Property Organization, to create new suffixes that would multiply the number of available names exponentially.
Under the WIPO plan, which the United States opposes, .com, .net, .org, and .gov would be supplemented by .store, .firm, .info, and four others.
Such a change might create a "small run" of speculation, but .com would likely remain "the Park Avenue address on the Internet," said Bob Helfant, senior vice president at mail.com, an e-mail service that runs the bestdomains.com Web site.
He said the domain name brokerage business is stagnating and his company no longer pays attention to bestdomains.com. "I don't think there is really a market anymore, predominantly because the domains are pretty much taken," he said.
"Years ago you could go and get banking.com or others that would have value, but nowadays all the cards have been dealt."
Many generic bank-related names do not belong to large financial institutions. Bank.com is owned by CyberFinancialNet Inc. of Flourtown, Pa., which also owns stocks.com. Banks.com is owned by-but not in use by- Ingress Enterprises Inc. of New York.
Banker.com belongs to Coldwell Banker of Morgan Hill, Calif., which uses it on a hosting service called South Valley Internet Web Farm. Financialservices.com belongs to DJH & Co. of Cambridge, Mass., and connects to a bulletin board service under construction.
Banking.com is owned by nFront Inc. of Norcross, Ga., which sells Internet banking systems to community banks.
Mr. Helfant laughed at the $100,000 Mr. Bufort wants for plasticash.com, saying somebody "probably would have offered $5,000 or $10,000."
Mr. Bufort anticipates someone will eventually buy plasticash, but he is suffering some regret over one he let get away: electricash.com.
"I thought, 'It's cute, it's catchy, but we're in the digital age, not the electronic age,'" he said.
A few months after passing on electricash, Mr. Bufort checked internic.com, where domain registrations can be looked up, and found the name had been taken by a Los Angeles man.
"I always wonder: If I had taken that name, would he have bought it from me?"