Bank-Bashing Goes Digital at Internet Gripe Sites
Trigaux, Robert, American Banker
When Chase Manhattan Bank failed to promptly refund a faulty charge on his credit card, Scott Harrison decided to gripe-'90s style. The 23-yearold Chase customer last spring set up his own Web site with the telling name "chasebanksucks.com" to protest what he says is bad service and bullying by a giant corporation.
"This site is dedicated to all those who hate Chase Manhattan Bank, and also to inform others why they should not bank with Chase," Mr. Harrison's Web site says. Above the text appears an animated man in red shorts who walks across the Web page and urinates on the Chase name-over and over again.
Forget old-style picketing. Consumer protests against big business are going digital. To the chagrin of banks and corporate America, Internet gripe sites like Mr. Harrison's and many others that target big companies are proliferating. Conservatively, dozens of banks and more than half of the Fortune 1000 companies have encountered some type of Web site critical of their business.
These electronic billboards on the information highway not only display the operator's personal beef, but usually invite others to share their own complaints and bad experiences with the company. As some banks are learning the hard way, complaint sites can bring pressure on institutions that may not be listening to their retail customers.
People surfing the Internet are catching on. One well-trafficked Web site known as walmartsucks.com chalked up 177,000 "hits," or visits, since it began in August 1997.
Some gripe sites can be gritty in content and graphics, and post all messages received-including the rude and incomprehensible. Other sites edit material before posting and, in fairness, even include copies of letters and other legal correspondence the site may have had with a target company. Still others clearly are seat-of-the-pants operations and get little traffic.
Many banks and corporations targeted by gripe sites are trying to strike back, with varying results.
Some institutions try to register the most likely nasty site names about the bank-just to keep them off the Internet. When that does not work, as in Chase's case with Mr. Harrison's site, some companies threaten to sue rogue Web site operators.
But lawsuits can backfire. When Bally Total Fitness went to court against the California operator of the BallySucks Web site, the company was rebuffed by an unsympathetic judge. The case was dismissed early this year.
Financial institutions argue that their image and trademarks are hurt by the content and derogatory names of many gripe Web sites. In response, the site operators say they are exercising their rights of free speech, and simply offer a place where other poorly treated consumers can air their views.
"I advise corporate clients to gnash their teeth and ignore them when possible," said Jim Butler, an attorney who specializes in Internet law at Arnall Golden & Gregory LLP in Atlanta. Unless the gripe site is clearly libelous, fighting it is "a losing battle," Mr. Butler said.
"If you sue and lose, you fuel the fire for everybody."
Web sites dedicated to sharing complaints about a specific company are not new. But there are more popping up on the Net all the time. More than 80% of Fortune 1,000 companies are victims of some type of trademark misuse on the Internet, according to Cyveillance, a two-year-old Alexandria, Va., company that monitors online abuse for corporate clients.
Two years ago, the typical gripe site was black type on a gray background, said Christopher Young, Cyveillance's president. Now many are sophisticated multimedia Web sites with audio and video components that attract much more attention.
"Gripe sites are not just consumers complaining on Web sites any more," Mr. Young said. "They are sites run by disgruntled employees, and they are chat room postings and message boards. …