An Auckland telemarketing firm is considering legal action against Internet commentator Bruce Simpson, in the wake of email threats and abusive phone calls directed at its manager, Penelope Webb.
The threats began after Simpson claimed last week that The Web Directory Ltd would be making local Internet users “a prime target for all the low-life spammers” by publishing their email addresses on a CD-Rom. He had earlier criticised the company’s business model on his Aardvark Website.
Webb claims her company’s turnover dropped from $20,000 a week to $3000 last week, “so it has caused us considerable damage. I don’t want to get dirty on it, because it’s cheap-shot journalism, I think. I’m trying not to react too much, but it did upset me greatly last week when I had a couple of death threats and abusive phone calls. We’re referring those to the police.”
Civil action would relate specifically to claims made by Simpson in a Usenet newsgroup posting, and could thus be breaking new ground in this country.
In his newsgroup posting in nz.general, Simpson said that if readers had “a web site and an email address maybe you should be concerned that this company is going to be adding your email address to their CD-Rom and printed product, making YOU a prime target for all the low-life spammers who think nothing of firing off thousands of emails a day using mail-relaying software.”
Simpson said Webb told him his address would be in the directory and when he asked if it could be removed, “she declined, saying that it most certainly would, whether I wanted it to or not.”
Simpson’s email address does not appear anywhere on his Website or in his newsgroup postings and he admits “it turns out I don’t think she’s got my address but she was getting stroppy and threatening me.
“She got quite angry and I tried to stay relatively rational, which probably flustered her.”
Simpson’s account of what was clearly a lively exchange of views was enough to convey the impression to some other people that Web Direct would be gathering and using email addresses without permission.
Subsequent posts in response to Simpson’s raised the idea of redirecting Internet junk mail to Webb personally and to her company’s email addresses. Simpson says he was careful not to respond to these followups and says the threats received by Webb are “not my fault”.
The idea that The Web Directory would be extracting and using email addresses without permission also concerned some ISPs, among them WebWorld, whose managing director Peter Belt sent the company a letter declining permission to use addresses in any of the domains he managed without written permission from the holders. Belt says he was suspicious that the Web Directory Ltd was the company which had called ISPs some time ago requesting lists of customer email addresses.
Webb says she has received the letter “and many others. “I now have letters saying ‘I believe you have my details on your CD-Rom that’s to be released in June.’ And we don’t. We’ve never, ever picked up the phone and contacted a personal or home user.
“Every letter I’ve received I’m responding to straight away and saying ‘to date we have not been in contact with your company to seek authorisation – nonethless, we will take this letter as final that we will not be including your details in the Web Directory. So it’s quite simple – they’re not going to be in there.”
Webb denies telling Simpson his address would be included without his consent and says the Web Directory is a standard telemarketing business, selling entries in a print directory to businesses, at between $163 and $345 per entry.
"I’ve got a couple of personal users, people who’ve enquired via our Web page. We've never ever claimed that we’re going to illegally extract information from anywhere and put it on a CD-Rom. We’ve actually backpedalled on the CD-Rom because there’s been such a panic about it."
Webb admits that a CD-Rom version was referred to on the company’s former Website, but claims it was not being considered until next year’s edition of the directory.
"We’ve got a new [site] up and running. The timing was really poor for us. The company which was hosting our Website – whose service I was never happy with – went belly-up about a month ago and the page had been frozen since then. I couldn’t get in to make any changes."
A statement on the company’s new, completely redesigned Website – at www.webdirect.co.nz - says it is still weighing up plans for a CD version of its directory, "in a read-only format such as PDF" next year.
"The businesses that are included in our directory – like Microsoft and Canon and Hewlett Packard – have all signed a written consent, showing the price and agreeing to go into the directory," says Webb. "We never marketed them on the CD-Rom anyway. We’ve sent a bulk letter to them, and anybody who feels they purchased for inclusion in a CD-Rom is welcome to a refund."
Microsoft New Zealand marketing manager Steve Jenkins confirms that he agreed to a listing and is holding an invoice for $345 for "one alphabetical directory listing, and one complimentary classified entry in the computer services section of their directory. There’s no mention of a CD-Rom."
But Jenkins says he has yet to pay up, because "everything is on computer-printed stationery, there’s no nice letterhead. So we’ve got the cheque created and signed right now, with a note saying to check it’s bona-fide before we pay."
Jenkins says he called the company and spoke to a staff member but has not yet had a mangement response to his query.
Simpson says that prior to his initial article he called the company’s number and spoke to a young woman "and asked a few questions as if I was a customer looking at signing up. I said that if it was coming out in print, wouldn’t it go out of date very quickly and she said oh no, it’s coming out on CD-Rom as well and that will be updated quarterly."
Webb says when Simpson called "a 17 year old girl answered the phone and he said ‘is your company Australian’? Looking at his previous articles, I think he might have a bit of a problem with that. It’s an easy shot, I suppose - this Australian scam company comes in and stitches everybody up.
"But I’ve been consulting to American Express and Pepsi-Cola and people in telemarketing for seven years and it seems to me it’s just targeting a volatile business – especially at the moment with the scam in the publishing companies, with the [false invoicing prosecution] handed out last week, it's an easy time to sensationalise.
"I can't be too personal in my comments, but he was incredibly rude to me on the phone. It's like a little vendetta. I'm just waiting for him to say 'this Australian woman' and then I'll have him for discrimination."
Webb says her company would drop any plans for legal action if Simpson were to make "some sort of retraction". Simpson insists he has said nothing that needs retracting.