Over the years stories about intimidation and goons knocking on the doors of various affiliates and search marketers have circulated at industry events. Some of these scary accounts have taken on a life of their own – much like a game of telephone where fact and fiction are often intertwined as the stories are told over and over again.
The victims claim to have seen a variety of intimidation tactics including death threats issued over the phone, visits at their homes from large, scary-looking men, threats involving physical harm, character assignation campaigns, general bullying and harassment, as well as cyber attacks on their websites and ultimately their livelihoods.
Most of the victims say the perpetrators of this behavior are typically overzealous business rivals or companies they spoke out against that are seeking to silence them.
Retelling of these accounts is often reserved for late-night, alcohol-fueled chats at a bar with colleagues at trade shows and conferences. But trying to get the sober details is much harder. It’s difficult to confirm and corroborate many of these stories since the alleged victims are hesitant to speak in depth, or on the record, for fear of future recrimination.
So are these frightening tales the equivalent of urban affiliate myths, exaggeration or truth? Actually, it’s often a combination all three.
One industry watcher, who asked not to be named, was skeptical of some of the stories.
“It’s somewhat of a Curtis Sliwa syndrome,” he says, “where he faked some crimes and attacks as a way to get more attention for himself and the Guardian Angels. These supposed allegations on the part of affiliates are a way to boost their profile. I may be cynical but unless I see a police report I tend to believe these stories are a way to raise themselves in the industry.”
However, he does admit that regardless of the veracity of the accounts, “they seem to resonate with people.”
Anti-adware/spyware expert Ben Edelman knows the feeling of having his work, which typically exposes unethical behavior on the part of an adware vendor, spark a negative response from those he has criticized.
Edelman says that he’s experienced several instances of threats at varying levels from a variety of unhappy companies that he’s exposed. The Cambridge, Mass.-based lawyer and Harvard graduate student says that’s he not willing to speak about all the incidents right now. He declined to speak about two incidents that he referred to as “very, very nasty.”
However, he did recall a time in the fall of 2003 when for two weeks, a private investigator hired by Claria (formerly Gator) was parked in a dark-colored sedan in front of Edelman’s apartment. He claims the driver followed him to class, around the Harvard campus and to other destinations. The driver submitted to questioning in a courtroom and admitted to being hired by Claria. The driver also said he was simply attempting to serve Edelman with a subpoena, a claim Edelman, who is an attorney, disputes, noting that if the driver wanted to serve him he could have simply knocked on Edelman’s door and done so.
Edelman says he found the situation “puzzling but consistent with [his] view of the company, which likes to play hardball.”
Edelman also says the “intimidation efforts were unsuccessful.” Although, he claims the company subsequently “did some other things that were more effective.” Those are the matters he doesn’t want to elaborate on.
Others have also seen the nastier side of how unhappy companies deal with dissent. That fear makes most afraid to even broach the subject.
One PPC search marketer questioned about his experiences with a particular company – one that is often named one of the most prolific at stealing commissions from affiliates – yielded this response about the company’s CEO:
“He’s not a guy to mess with either – do your checking very discreetly. I trust you’ll be thorough as well, but honestly, I believe this guy is not someone you want to piss off. It ain’t national security, but my affiliate income depends on keeping my distance from this man. I can go no further than this and provide no details.”
Another source that was contacted via email about the same subject would only say, “This company is a bunch of thugs. Be very careful and watch your back. Seriously, tread lightly.”
So just how far outside the law will a company go to get its message across?
To put things in perspective, Edelman says, “The people that I’m exposing are powerful people, but not that powerful. They can’t rig elections or bribe the government.”
Regardless, Edelman has taken practical steps just in case a company or individual wants to take out-of-court retribution.
“In the event that my apartment building were to burn down, I have an off-site backup of all files,” he says. “It could happen randomly or intentionally.”
He recalled a story from his mother, who actively pursues nursing home reform, where a colleague of his mom’s had her home burned to the ground. “It was proved to be arson; they just couldn’t prove who did it.”
In his Search Insider column from August 2006, David Berkowitz, director of strategic planning at 360i.com, wrote, “Manage your search engine strategies so well that competitors want to kill you – literally.”
The column detailed a discussion Berkowitz had with an unnamed search marketer in the health care field whose wife reportedly fielded a death threat via the telephone from an angry competitor.
According to Berkowitz, “The victim of the threat competes with his search engine marketing firm. He owns more than a few domains related to his business and services, including a growing number of local variations on the top terms. He gives some of the domains to his SEM, keeps some others and sees which sites can rank highest in the natural search results. For more than a few highly searched terms related to his business, he and his SEM will split ownership of the first and second rankings. The funniest part is that he gets irritated when his SEM holds the No. 1 position, since he’s determined to figure out how he can beat it. For several terms, he’s cornered the market, at times holding at least seven of the top 10 listings.”
Berkowitz explains to Revenue that he was shocked to hear this story and that the recipient of the call “was caught off guard ” and they don’t know who was the source of the phone call.”
For the most part, Edelman admits that the bulk of threats he receives are legal “and don’t involve henchmen.”
“Most are threats to see me in court,” Edelman says. “But most are not followed through, because I have the documentation to back up my allegations and I am correct. The best way to protect myself is to be right every single time and be able to prove that I’m right. The bottom line is that if people want to mess with me, they will lose because I have the facts to protect myself.”
Still, that doesn’t stop other threats that take advantage of technology. The most common are DNS (denial of service) and DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks. But someone looking to harm your business via your website can unleash a variety of deadly technical attacks using spam, adware, spyware, Windows Messenger boxes, various worms, trojans, phishing, SQL injection, cross-scripting attacks, botnets, UA porn running, traffic laundering, viruses and rootkits, according to a spyware researcher, who asked not to be named.
In February 2005, Edelman fell victim to a massive DDoS attack that knocked his server off-line for nearly two days. His Web-hosting company claimed he was the target of the biggest DDoS attack they’ve ever suffered – some 600 MB per second. Edelman says Claria did not perpetrate the attack and he still doesn’t know who was responsible.
This potentially harmful behavior is why many of those posting on public message boards claim they prefer to post anonymously.
“It’s not about saying whatever you want without backlash,” says one very vocal poster in an affiliate forum, who asked not to be named. “It’s about protecting your business and your livelihood.”
An event that took place nearly four years ago is probably the one that sparked most of the talk of goons and henchmen being dispatched to the front doors of several affiliates – most of them very vocal posters on the AbestWeb.com forum. Many of the frequent contributors to that message board and community strongly voiced their opinions on the actions of World Media.
At the time, Virus Port had merged with World Media, a big adware company and one of the first to garner people’s attention for redirecting affiliate links. World Media had a huge installed base of users for its popular bundled peer-to-peer program called Morpheus. Many of the ABW posters were not happy with the company’s actions and posted their complaints.
Kellie Stevens, the president of AffiliateFairPlay.com, was among those who received a knock on her front door – but it wasn’t “muscle.” She claims that World Media hired a local private investigator and dispatched him to her home. She refused to let him inside and instead spoke briefly to him through the cracked door so she could get his business card.
Stevens described the man as “preppy and not threatening.” Later that evening she called the PI and had a lengthy discussion with him. He told her he was hired by World Media. He didn’t know the specifics of the situation or why. He was just letting her know that the company was considering filing both civil and criminal charges against her because of something she posted on a message board. She says the conversation went on for about 20 minutes as she explained the situation and the PI, who was also an ex-FBI agent, ended their talk by saying that people have the right to free speech and that, if in the future Stevens needed any help, she could call him.
“I’m careful about what I say and post and I have accurate information,” she says. “As long as I’m accurate in my reporting they [companies] may not like it, but I’m not just trying to cause a flame fest or incite a riot, though I’m aware it can happen.”
A very successful search affiliate says there are a handful of companies that he believes are “dangerous from a business perspective but not a physical one.”
“I point out issues with these companies all the time. I post on message boards. I file consumer complaints. I send information to the CDT [Center for Democracy and Technology]. I have been a thorn in the side of many adware companies,” he says. “My sites are all publicly registered. My name and address are all there. It wouldn’t take much more than five minutes for someone to track me down and it hasn’t happened yet. So, I’m not worried they are going to show up on my doorstep, I’m more worried they are going to launch a DDoS attack and shut down all my sites.”
Still, others who received visitors to their home during the World Media matter say they were intimidated.
“People who might have taken the activism to the next level stopped,” Edelman says. “So it worked – not that those tactics are acceptable, because they are not.”
For most affiliate marketers, the idea of someone showing up at their home is truly frightening – mostly because they work alone and use only the computer to connect to others. It’s not like the typical worker who heads to an office filled with other people, where visitors come and go all day.
“Part of what is scary for most of these people is having others out in the virtual world know where they live, and usually just putting that fear into them is enough to make them stop whatever their activities were,” says one industry observer who asked to remain anonymous.
Berkowitz says this behavior definitely surprises him. Although, he explains that there may be times when a threat is slightly more “merited,” because the person being threatened is not operating in a totally ethical and above-board manner.
“At least when it comes to search there are many ways to game the system,” Berkowitz says. Still, he admits, it’s obviously something that needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.
On the flip side, Andy Rodriguez, president of Andy Rodriguez Consulting, an outsourced program management firm, is not at all surprised that this type of strong-arm behavior takes place.
“In this industry, the amount of cash and the revenue potential attracts a lot of people that don’t always make the best decisions and it’s easy to see why threats and violence can come up. Plus, in this day and age, people have the tools and technology to use DNS and computer attacks. It’s the same type of intimidation but they don’t have to go to your front door,” Rodriguez says. “The good news is that the government has the same tools and technology to track down the criminals and those threatening others.”
The bottom line according to Stevens is, “When there is a lot of money to be protected, people will go to great lengths and you need to keep that mind.”