For five years, 45-year-old mother Sue Scheff said she barely left her Florida home. She wouldn't date or travel, and she missed her 25th class reunion. When she did venture outside and meet people, she would never reveal her last name. "I was just always petrified that people would go home and Google me," she said.
Scheff is a victim of an emerging online trend — "e-venge," or revenge on the Internet. After founding an organization called Parents Universal Resource Experts (PURE) that helps parents of troubled teenagers, Scheff found herself the target of vitriolic attacks on message boards and chat rooms. In online messages Scheff was described as a "fraud," a "con artist" and a "crook." Scheff said the negative descriptions escalated into what she calls a humiliating "mountain of false accusations." She said, "I was definitely caught. Caught in a web of ugliness and a web of evilness."
Scheff said she was so embarrassed that she became housebound. "Literally your reputation can be ruined with the stroke of a key," she said. "I could walk away from it, but it's in cyberspace, it's out there."
There are countless ways for people to exact revenge on each other in cyberspace, and it can be difficult to repair a bruised online image. The Internet has become an arbitrator of behavior, providing people with an opportunity for vengeance or a chance to administer a mild scolding. The Web site www.Caughtya.org publishes photographs of cars parked in handicapped spots. At www.hollabacknyc.blogspot.com people fight back against pesky cat callers. And accused cheaters might join the ranks of thousands of men who are posted on the popular Web site www.DontDateHimGirl.com.
Tasha Cunningham is the creator of the Don't Date Him Girl Web site, which has over a million subscribers and a fair amount of controversy. Cunningham recently won a lawsuit filed by one of the men posted on the site. She said the motto of the Web site is "Don't date him girl, until you've checked him out first," and suggests that the Web site should be used as a liberating tool for women, not a method of revenge. Although she will not step in to remove postings, she said there is a simple solution to avoid being posted on the Web site. "Behave yourself in relationships."
Simply behaving was not the solution for Sue Scheff, who faced escalating online attacks despite winning an unprecedented $11 million defamation suit against one of her Internet critics. Scheff decided to seek help outside of the courtroom and hired the new company ReputationDefender (www.reputationdefender.com) to clean up her smeared Internet reputation. "My whole goal with this project is to try to restore some control to your life," said ReputationDefender's founder Michael Fertik. "In 20 minutes, someone who knows what he's doing or she's doing, and is not that skilled a person, can destroy you," he said. "And it can take 200 hours to repair your reputation."
For $10 dollars a month, ReputationDefender will monitor what's being said about a client online, and for $30 an item will contact Web sites to remove negative content. The more expensive service, MyEdge, attacks bigger problems like Sue Scheff's by pushing positive content up and negative content down the ranks of an Internet search. Fertik said that simply altering the placement of Internet search results can have a major effect for his clients. "If you get something down from the top of page one of Google even to the bottom of page one or to the top of page two, it's seismically different," Fertik said. "If it's the first thing that shows up, you don't get the phone call back. You don't get a second interview. You don't even get a first interview."
To Sue Scheff's relief, an Internet search of her name now results in prominent placement of her own Web sites, like www.suescheff.com and www.helpyourteens.com. She said that a repaired image on the Internet has been nothing short of a life changer, and she hopes that people will "stop before they type" and think about the damage they may cause in other people's lives. "It ruined my life, I fought back. It destroyed my reputation but I fought back."