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Sunday, December 28, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Net Issues

Net Issues -- Angry Consumers Use New `Anti' Web Sites

Hartford Courant

When Bruce Perens needed to move his late grandmother's belongings from her San Francisco Bay Area home last month, he called Starving Students Movers: "The professional mover with the funny name."

But Perens said he didn't find anything funny about the way the company handled the move, first showing up nine hours late and then expecting to move the family's treasured possessions in the dark.

But instead of writing the company a nasty letter or placing an angry phone call, Perens went to the World Wide Web and created a Starving Student Movers Complaints Web page, where he wrote, "I recommend you let these students continue to starve."

Perens' manner of recourse is becoming more common. Through the Internet, consumers are able to reach millions of others worldwide, warning them of company wrongdoing, defective products or bad service.

These days, a search for many companies on the Web, from Apple Computer to the United States Postal Service, will turn up these "anti" Web sites, where angry consumers freely post their customer-service horror stories.

"Little people for the first time are capable of reaching large audiences," said Martin Margulies, a professor at the Quinnipiac College School of Law in Hamden, Conn. "It's a great leveler of the playing field."

There are such pages as You're in Bad Hands with Allstate, Prudential Misled Me and Down with Snapple. Other companies - Wal-Mart, NYNEX, Prodigy, Bally's Total Fitness, Sony and McDonald's - have non-company sites with addresses that express consumer outrage.

Even Internet search engines are targeted: Just visit the "Alta Vista is Evil" page.

Perens created his starving movers' Web page just two days after the botched move. "I felt it made a lot of sense to tell others about my bad experience," said Perens, 40, of Berkeley, Calif. The situation - dubbed by some the "new crisis in public relations" and by others as "the greatest thing in the world" - is becoming so widespread that new companies are being created to monitor the Web and give corporations a chance to respond to such criticism.

Already, the New York company eWorks! helped Mrs. Fields Cookies dispel a rumor that the company was donating goodies for an O.J. Simpson victory party. Clients of eWorks!, including Northwest Airlines and the H.J. Heinz Co., pay $295 to $645 a month for the monitoring service called eWatch.

"Companies have an obligation to monitor this area," said James Alexander, director of eWatch. "It's no longer optional. There are too many cases where there have been lost revenues because of rumors that have not been responded to."

Alexander said using cyberspace to air complaints is a new phenomenon. "Some people just don't like to use the telephone. They'd rather use their keyboard," he said. "They find release or vent over the Internet. But that person is not having a private dialogue with a corporation. They are having a conversation with 40 million other people."

Still, Alexander said he considers that "the greatest thing in the world."

"The Internet is the single best opportunity that has come along for corporations around the world to show their true character," he said. "Everyone has a gripe. But it's how the companies choose to deal with it that will help define who they are. You can't hide on the Internet."

Others, however, disagree, including Steve Levan, the chief operating officer of Starving Students Movers.

"Given the exposure someone can have - even if he says something that is absolutely true and we did something wrong - is that really a fair representation for the services we provide?" Levan said. "What about the other 39,999 jobs we did where there were no complaints?"

In the Mrs. Fields case, the company eventually decided to respond to the O.J. Simpson victory party rumor because the company noticed an unexplained dip in sales. Seven days after the company issued electronic responses to the rumor on the Net, the rumor disappeared, and sales rebounded, eWatch's Alexander said.

As for Perens and the starving movers, he said that within one week of the posting of his site, he got an apologetic call from the company.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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