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TMCNet:  Toledo merchant pulled into online debate: Businesses get help against cyber trash talk

[March 14, 2010]

Toledo merchant pulled into online debate: Businesses get help against cyber trash talk

Mar 14, 2010 (The Blade - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- TRENT McRITCHIE was looking for customers on the Internet site craigslist.

Instead, the 34-year-old owner of Toledo computer repair shop Komputer Stop was drawn into a debate -- a debate that would eventually get physical.

A classified ad for a computer Mr. McRitchie posted on the popular sales site drew the ire of 28-year-old Robert Custer, who charged -- falsely, Mr. McRitchie wrote on the Internet site -- that the computer in the ad was a used model. Mr. Custer added a notation that potential buyers could get a better deal at Wal-Mart.


The comments led to a debate online between Mr. McRitchie and the Toledo truck-driving trainee followed by an exchange of angry phone calls.

When Mr. Custer took up Mr. McRitchie's invitation to visit the North Reynolds Road store March 4, words quickly turned to violence. Mr. Custer dismissed the confrontation as a "shoving match" but a Toledo police report describes the fight as considerably more violent.

The report, which Mr. McRitchie filed, lists the other man as the aggressor. But looking back, the business owner said: "I could have handled the situation a little different." In the world of electronic commerce critiques, lots of businesses are sick of it and they aren't going to take it anymore.

Although disputes between businesses and online antagonists rarely get physical, growing numbers of business owners who are targets of criticism that they regard as unfair are fighting back by hiring lawyers and Internet reputation-management firms.

Such conflicts are on the rise, experts say, because of an explosion of Web sites that invite consumers to post reviews of products and services.

And, in a time of severe economic stress, firms are hustling for every dollar and unwilling to ignore potentially damaging comments that will pop up each time a potential customer conducts an Internet search.

"It's becoming a huge problem," said 31-year-old Chris Martin, who helps firms repair reputations in the cyber world.

The situation has led to the creation of a number of for-profit services that, although unable to get negative content removed, make it less likely that potential customers will see it.

They help clients create new Web sites and list business on social networking sites such as Facebook, business networking sites such as Linkedin, and other venues that are likely to pop up first when a person conducts a search for the business on a search engine.

Studies have shown that Internet users, when looking up information, rarely venture beyond the first page of search-engine results, executives of such firms said.

Mr. Martin founded the Internet reputation-management firm Reputationhawk.com in Baton Rouge in late 2006.

Court rulings Courts have generally ruled that Web site owners have little responsibility for comments posted by others on the sites, he said.

But about one-third of complaint and review sites allow individuals and businesses to challenge defamatory or untrue postings, Mr. Martin said.

In many instances, he added, the anonymous criticism comes not from customers but from competitors and disgruntled former employees posing as customers.

Kent Campbell, who operates Internet reputation-management firm Kentcampbell.com from Ventura, Calif., has heard plenty of horror stories involving businesses damaged by negative reviews and comments.

A medical practice seeking investors lost out on a $5 million infusion of cash when the investor found false allegations about the business on the Internet. A nonprofit school suffered a 14 percent enrollment decline after a disgruntled former employee knowledgeable about techniques for creating Web pages posted damaging information on the Internet.

To fix such problems, Mr. Campbell's clients pay him up to $7,000 a month.

Some reputation-management firms charge as little as $10 a month for less-complex online programs.

In Toledo, Mr. Custer conceded that he was "flagging" Mr. McRitchie's craigslist advertisements so that potential buyers could see that someone had raised questions about them. He has taken similar action with other ads he questioned.

He acknowledges that he had no interest in buying a computer but said his action was part of the "community policing" common on craigslist.

Mr. McRitchie, who has since stopped selling on craigslist, said of the Web site, "It is not a public forum. It's a place to sell things. These people have no intention of buying anything." He argued that his prices compare favorably to those at major retailers such as Wal-Mart.

According to a report by Toledo police, the two men began struggling after Mr. Custer walked up to the counter and knocked Mr. McRitchie's cap off. The business owner responded by punching the other man and shoving him out the door.

Mr. McRitchie called police, but Mr. Custer was gone by then. Mr. McRitchie filed an assault report. But neither man plans to pursue the matter. Mr. Custer denies he was punched or that he touched the other man's cap. He also doesn't believe his posts were defamatory.

Craigslist did not respond to a request for comment.

Free-speech rights The nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation is an advocate for free-speech rights on the Internet.

Spokesman Rebecca Jeschke understands why businesses are concerned about what people are saying about them in cyberspace. When she needed to find a repair service to fix her dryer last week, she did what many people do: She went to the Internet.

Customers have the right to air gripes, she said. "Courts have found that gripe sites where you complain about a company are well protected," she said. "But that doesn't mean you can lie about a company." Laws of defamation and slander apply to the Internet just as they do to material printed in newspapers and broadcast on television, she added.

Parry Aftab, a lawyer in the New York area who specializes in privacy and security matters, said that businesses concerned about their reputations in the cyber world should act before problems arise.

One of the first things she tells a business is to make sure its name is trademarked and it owns all relevant Internet domain names. For example, a firm named Joe's Hardware should buy joeshardware.com, joeshardware.net, joeshardware.org, and joeshardware.tv.

Also, by signing up for a service offered by search engines such as Google, firms can arrange to get e-mail notification each time a new reference to their business pops up, she added.

Businesses that provide an opportunity for customer feedback should assign an employee to monitor messages before they go on the Internet for all to read, Ms. Aftab said. Similarly, the business should monitor such forums on the Web sites of professional and industry organizations to which it belongs.

In instances when customers register complaints on the Internet, investigate, the lawyer added. A company that determines the complaint is legitimate, it should contact the customer to rectify the situation.

If a competitor is suspected of posing as a customer, the company should contact a lawyer,. she said. A judge can force an Internet service provider to divulge the true identity of someone posting a comment when wrongdoing is suspected.

Competitors who engage in such underhanded practices risk being accused of violating laws on unfair trade practices and consumer fraud, Ms. Aftab said.

Pick your battles When the critic is not a competitor, "pick your battles," the lawyer advised.

Businesses or individuals who believe they are the victims of such comments should carefully read the Web site's terms of service, she said. If the post violates the policy, she advises sending a complaint to site managers in a concise, direct e-mail.

Michael Fertik, chief executive officer and founder of Reputation Defender in Redwood City, Calif., takes in more than $1 million a year for Internet reputation-management services.

He advises businesses to ignore most criticism, even when it is unfair. "It will not get as much attention as you think it's getting," he said. "By responding you can draw more attention to it.

If the criticism begins to attract extensive attention, the business should encourage satisfied customers to post comments describing their experiences, he said.

Businesses should station a laptop computer in the store logged into the particular review site to encourage loyal customers to follow through, he said.

Despite evidence to the contrary, Mr. Fertik warned that "most people believe most of what they read on the Internet." Contact Gary Pakulski at:gpakulski@theblade.comor 419-724-6082.

To see more of The Blade, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.toledoblade.com. Copyright (c) 2010, The Blade, Toledo, Ohio Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email tmsreprints@permissionsgroup.com, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.

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