At the beginning of 2016, a man we’ll call John opened his second business location — his first in Boise — and started hiring employees. As with any hiring process, this required time to review résumés, identify ideal candidates and set up interviews.
Unfortunately, one of the résumés that didn’t make the cut belonged to a person we’ll call Tom. For Tom, that rejection was a personal attack of the highest magnitude.
For about a month after the grand opening, John’s new location hummed like a freshly oiled engine. Profits were up, customers were happy, and John had high hopes for his new Boise location.
That optimism quickly gave way into confusion. Without any warning, business dropped off seemingly overnight. Customers were coming in more and more infrequently. John’s online reviews were plummeting, and there was no explanation.
Things came to a head when John found himself faced with a news crew from a local TV station. The station had received reports that John’s equipment allegedly damaged customers’ property, and the crew was there to do an exposé. Considering it was the first John had heard of the issue, he was taken aback.
Only when John started looking more carefully into his online reviews — an ever-growing onslaught of negativity — did he find a clue that something was amiss. Across all the major review websites, it appeared that the same small group of 10 people was responsible for every negative review.
Tom’s was one of the names John recognized, and his comments were extreme. He claimed everything from the owner screaming profanities to employees openly stealing from customers. Concerned, John contacted Tom, wanting to learn more about these alleged incidents. Tom’s response was less than civil.
In the course of a week, the number of negative reviews by the same 10 names doubled. The content was now far more scathing, including John’s personal address and phone number and soliciting others to harass him.
A Facebook page appeared with details about a fictitious class-action lawsuit against John’s business. It was populated with comments from the very same people who had left the negative reviews. John’s son immediately started receiving offensive and threatening Facebook messages from members of this group.
Just as John was sorting through this information, he was contacted by the police. Tom had contacted them, “concerned for his safety,” and provided them with an email supposedly from John that explicitly threatened to murder Tom and his family. Needless to say, John had never sent such an email.
It was at this time that John hired my company to get to the bottom of what was going on. What we found was even more disturbing: Every member of that 10-person group bombarding the internet with negative reviews was fake. Each account had been created with an email address that belonged to Tom.
Every event tied back to one person, and to one incident: the rejection of Tom’s résumé.
While I have changed John’s and Tom’s names, this is a real case. And it reflects a new reality: Like it or not, a business’s reputation is now inseparably shackled to its social media perception, and the slightest frustration from the wrong customer can spark an inferno of lies that will exist forever online.
The psychology behind these incidents ties into the theory that a person’s behavior online is far more malicious than it ever would in person because they feel like they’re anonymous, that it’s just a game, and that the real consequences don’t exist. As seen with John’s case, that perception couldn’t be more distant from the truth.
Neal Custer is president of Reveal Digital Forensics & Security, a subsidiary of Custer Agency Inc., and an adjunct professor at Boise State University. firstname.lastname@example.org. Written in collaboration with Dylan Evans, Reveal’s vice president of operations.