Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Ashley Madison extramarital-affairs site, which has attacked me for accurate reporting on data leak, has been known to threaten customers who disputed bills

A Web site known for its "have an affair" logo threatened to send paperwork to users homes if they disputed their bills. The threats, which the company admitted to using for years, obviously meant customers were at risk of having their spouses find out about efforts to seek affairs.

Ashley Madison, based in Toronto, Canada, claims the practice has been discontinued. But would anyone want to trust a company that has made millions from promoting marital cheating -- and been ordered to pay $11.2 million to settle federal class-action lawsuits from a 2015 data breach?

As the journalist who has written more about Ashley Madison (AM) customers than anyone else in the news world, I frequently receive comments critical of Legal Schnauzer for reporting on those whose poor judgment caused them to associate with a sleazy business. The criticism generally comes under three or four headings: (1) These are private individuals, so their efforts to seek affairs should not be uncovered; (2) Such journalism causes harm to innocent wives and children; (3) Customers aren't hurting anyone, so it isn't fair to identify them; (4) The only purpose of such reporting is to embarrass or harass customers.

Those arguments were hollow all along, but now they are shredded as we learn Ashley Madison itself harassed and threatened to embarrass its own customers, especially those who raised disputes about billing.

Many of the criticisms we've received appear to come from ISPs in Canada, and we have come to sense that they are bots -- either automated or human -- who are programmed or assigned to attack the one journalist in North America who has dared to report on the customers AM has abused. Now, we learn that AM's customer abuse went much deeper than we realized. From a report at CNN:

For years, the "have an affair" website Ashley Madison threatened to send paperwork to users' homes if they disputed their bills -- potentially revealing cheaters to their spouses.

Avid Life Media (now known as Ruby Corp.), the company that runs the website, has confirmed to CNNMoney that these tactics were employed by Ashley Madison until recently. "That past practice stopped when our new CEO Rob Segal and new President James Millership took the helm," company spokeswoman Debra Quinn said.

In other words, "Now that we've been caught, we're going to stop threatening our customers." Reminds me of my nephew when he was a toddler. When his mother (my sister) told him to stop doing something, he would keep right on doing it . . . until she stood up and approached him with a displeased glint in her eye. "Me be good boy now," he would say.

AM pledges to "be a good boy now," but threats to customers were not the only dubious strategy for which the company has been known. From CNN:

Segal and Millership took charge of the company in April. On Monday, those executives revealed another questionable Ashley Madison tactic that they had ended: Many of the "women" on the site had actually been "fembots" -- computer programs imitating women. Avid Life Media said it has been trying to turn itself around ever since a hack last year revealed its users' identities and damaged the company's reputation.

How did the threats to customers come to life? CNN provides the answer:

CNNMoney received a tip from one former Ashley Madison user. He shared two emails he got from customer service representatives when he disputed credit card charges back in 2012.

This former customer, now a 29-year-old lawyer living in Iowa, shared his story but asked to remain anonymous. He said he started a free profile on Ashley Madison -- and immediately got attention.

"I was constantly bombarded with messages from what appeared to be real women," he said. "I purchased about $40 in credits so that I'd have the ability to respond to about a dozen messages in my inbox."

"However, no one responded back. Not one person," he said.

He found that strange. Then he discovered complaints from fellow Ashley Madison customers who all figured out they had been duped by computer programs posing as women.

Suspecting he was fooled too, he complained to Ashley Madison and demanded a refund. But the company gave him a stern response. "If you initiate a charge back, all records will be mailed to your home. We do fight all charge backs," it said in an email. (See copy of such an e-mail at the end of this post.)

How did things turn out for the duped lawyer. Being single, he seemed to weather the storm. It's likely things did not turn out so well for some of his married brethren:

"At the time, I was a single male and wasn't cowed by the threat, but I'm sure others were silenced by it," the man told CNNMoney. He said he filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

The FTC is investigating the company, according to Reuters -- but it's unclear what aspect of the company is under scrutiny.

Other Ashley Madison users have complained about this policy for years on anonymous online forums.

One person, writing as "Shadowman," posted this on in 2012: "They automatically opt you in to recurring charges when your credits expire, and don't make it clear where to opt out. Even though they bill you anonymously, they will . . .  mail (!) you correspondence if you dispute charges. I'm guessing that would suck."

Others complained about similar situations.

"I was not successful with bank dispute because they said they would have to call me at home to ask more questions," one anonymous user posted on a Yahoo Answers forum in 2012. "Yeah right. So that when I talk on phone about it, my family can know. I had to close the dispute."

How far have AM bots gone in harassing me -- apparently trying to thwart my reporting? Well, I'm pretty sure they played a major role in causing hundreds of my documents at Scribd to be wiped out and essentially stolen. My wife and I frequently are targets of bogus spam reports to Facebook, and that likely comes, in part, from AM bots.

Both Scribd and Ashley Madison might soon be facing lawsuits over my stolen intellectual property. I plan on getting that material back and making the thieves wish they had not stolen it in the first place.

That Ashley Madison has a documented history of harassing its own clients for complaining about bills should be useful in a lawsuit that will essentially claim they harassed me for reporting on their sleazy activities.


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