In 2008, Peter Justen’s newly launched software startup, MyBizHomePage, was gaining traction. It had users in 46 countries and distribution agreements around the U.S. Small business owners were feeding their QuickBooks financial data into Justen’s online dashboard to monitor their monthly cash flow and accounts receivables data better.
The initial momentum fizzled when Justen says he was targeted by a cyberattack after he fired three employees. On numerous websites and social media platforms, MyBizHomePage was tarred as a scam and Justen labeled a felon. His personal information, including ages and home addresses of his family, friends, and investors, were posted anonymously.
His customer database disappeared, his e-mail was hacked, and his bank nearly pulled his home mortgage, Justen says. He had to lay off his six employees and move his business to his garage, while his wife returned to work. Justen says the lowest point came at his son’s private school, when he had to explain that he was not responsible for threats against the institution that seemed to be coming from his e-mail accounts.
“People who know you well stand by you, but people who have only tangential relationships with you stop returning your phone calls,” Justen says, noting he lost $3.5 million in startup capital supplied by investors and himself.
TOUGH TO ERASE
The identity theft, under investigation by the U.S. Secret Service, is extreme but no longer unusual. As managing director of Reputation Advocate, a consulting company in Franklin, Tenn., Steven Wyer, 56, says he has heard it all before: lost income, decades of ethical business practice decimated, and families torn apart by online smear campaigns that, once planted, are nearly impossible to erase.
“The Internet does not play fair. And the body of law that regulates it is narrow and young. The law almost always sides with the Internet service providers while the citizenry is left pretty exposed,” Wyer says. He has his own horror story that he has written about in a book, Violated Online, which details how a lawsuit that was ultimately resolved in his favor ruined his financial services company in the early 2000s. He started Reputation Advocate in 2006 and has since worked with hundreds of clients whose companies have been trashed on review sites, including small businesses that have lost lines of credit after being falsely accused of not withholding payroll taxes.
While a crop of online reputation management services has surfaced in recent years, fighting back is costly and time consuming. It is difficult to find the source of many complaints, short of a federal court order, and when they surface they most often come from competitors or fired employees. Complaint boards and watchdog websites tend to repost content, so one grumble may appear like a systemic problem.
“If you go to the website and show them that certain posts violate their terms and conditions, they stand on the First Amendment and say they’re just a bulletin board and not responsible for what’s posted there. Most of them will never remove the content, even if the person alleging the wrong has a change of heart and asks that it be removed,” Wyer says.
MEASURES TO TAKE
So what’s a business owner facing an online slander campaign to do?
Stay informed, using automated services that send alerts when the company, officers, board of directors, or owners are mentioned online. “Don’t live in denial; know what’s out there and make sure you’re looking at various iterations of your company name, including your URL, because different results will come up,” Wyer says.
If business owners find an attack on themselves or their businesses, they should review the terms and conditions at the website where it is posted and inform the site’s managers. “For instance, nude pictures are a violation on Google (GOOG). You can imagine how personally devastating that might be, if you have a dating relationship that doesn’t turn out well, and pictures are posted of you without your consent,” Wyer says.
Build positive content about the company that positions it as informed and professional. Companies should make sure to fill out all the listings for the business offered by such sites as Superpages.com and claim all the website extensions, such as .net and .biz, for the company name. In addition, “A blog is a great ongoing tool for a business because it keeps you relevant in the consumer’s mind,” Wyer says.
He does not advise rebutting bad reviews on sites such as Yelp, though he acknowledges that other reputation consultants disagree. “When you protest, you’re just drawing people into the digital dirt-kicking. When you’ve stepped into quicksand, you’re just going to get sucked in,” he says. You can certainly ask happy clients to offer genuine feedback about your company on review sites, but don’t ask them to go to bat for you in a dispute, Wyer advises.
Justen has rebuilt his business as a subscription service and rebranded it as FivePlus.co. He’s hoping to launch it formally later this year. He managed to get some of the damaging information about him removed, but it still crops up. “Once on the Web, always on the Web. Anytime I’m in a conversation, I have to warn people proactively and explain what happened to me and my company,” he says. “People think cybercrime isn’t as bad as robbery or guns, but it’s sure not a victimless crime.”