Two technology giants have been slashed by the double-edge sword of the Net recently as they attempt to fend off spammers looking to sully their reputations.
Companies increasingly are migrating to the Internet to engage in electronic commerce or to create a Web presence for publicity purposes. But anyone who does business on the Internet or is considering setting up a corporate Web site must be aware of a new electronic menace: mass emails circulating the Internet, fraudulently claiming to be from someone affiliated with the company.
Last week a chain email circulated on the Internet claiming to contain information from AOL developers who supposedly had discovered a cookie in AOL 4.0 that would look at the contents of users? computers and report them back to the company. AOL says it was a hoax, but the initial message probably will continue to be forwarded around the Web indefinitely.
Samsung's spam nightmare is far worse than AOLs. For the last four months, over thirteen separate fraudulent spam emails have been sent out with a Samsung header.
And today Samsung found itself issuing yet another statement disclaiming rogue email messages.
How is a company supposed to attempt "damage control" after thousands upon thousands of copies of a fraudulent message--at times sent via a single keystroke by the perpetrator--make their way to the Net community?
It's a battle that corporate America is struggling to win. In the past, companies tackled attacks on their reputations that came via direct mailings or ads, but the dissemination of fraudulent information via the Internet is much more difficult to keep up with.
According to corporate public relations specialists, the best way to protect your online reputation is to create and nurture an active online connection with your customers.
According to Tim Smith of the Niehaus Ryan Group public relations firm, companies that intend to do business on the Net must consider establishing a reputation as a Net-friendly firm a necessary cost of doing business. Smith said that attempting to put out each fire as it happens is far less effective than cultivating a fraud-proof reputation in the first place.
"It is very difficult to have a relationship with someone in an emergency if you don't have one beforehand," Smith said, referring to AOL and Samsung's attempts to reach out to the online community after the fact.
Sang Cho, Samsung's in-house counsel, said that the company is considering filing a civil suit against the suspect of the spam case, but acknowledges that the damage is already done.
"It has taken a lot of time of our employees," Cho said. "Other than that, Samsung Electronics has been affected the most because they are in the business of selling consumer products."
Some of the fraudulent Samsung emails accuse recipients of engaging in Internet terrorism. Some claim to be a Samsung-sanctioned "Word of Clarification," about the spams, and many contain the name and home phone number of an outside counsel for the company. Samsung has repeatedly assured angry spam recipients that it was not responsible for the emails.
Attorneys say that the novelty of the Internet is to blame for the slow response time of authorities in the AOL and Samsung cases.
"A lot of attorneys or investigators don?t understand the Net," said attorney Gil Silberman, who specializes in Internet law. "A lot of people don?t take it seriously?no one?s waving a gun anywhere, although [the suspect is&$93; intentionally causing economic harm."
"Because it is a new activity, the law hasn?t been tested," Silberman said. "People at the state level are not prepared to deal with it."
Samsung has hired computer consultants, private investigators, and another legal firms to investigate the situation, and has attempted to publicize the fraudulent nature of the emails each time another one is circulated. Other than that, attorneys say, there is little else a company can do to protect its reputation.