When Chase Manhattan Bank failed to promptly refund a faulty charge on his credit card, Scott Harrison decided to gripe-'90s style. The 23-year- old 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. We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg."
More than 500 Web site addresses have been registered to express disdain for this company or that aspect of everyday life, from aolsucks.com-the granddaddy of the whole corporate complaint movement-to the generic mybosssucks.com.
Still other gripe sites appear after a traumatic business event. When First Union Corp. bought CoreStates Financial Corp., Philadelphia's last big bank, employees of the former CoreStates started a Web site (http://www.corestates.org). The site attempts to preserve some of the CoreStates culture and memory. But it mostly serves as a complaint site for fired CoreStates employees, and takes special interest in documenting ongoing First Union layoffs.
For example, the CoreStates site includes a copy of a March 17 memo, sent to First Union employees by chairman and chief executive Ed Crutchfield, that attempts to explain the reasons behind the latest downsizing of First Union staff. The site includes several posted messages, some critical, that respond to the Crutchfield memo.
Some gripe sites, like ibmsucks.com, are up on the Internet but are not yet open for business. Many others are registered on the Internet but are unlikely ever to appear. That is because major corporations are registering Web site addresses with the most likely gripe names just to keep the sites out of enemy hands and protect themselves from ridicule.
Financial giant Charles Schwab & Co. registered about 60 names that include schwabsucks.com and screwschwab.com. Ultimately, Internet experts say, these corporate efforts to squelch gripe sites seem fruitless. A Web site operator can always find a derogatory name about a company that has not been taken.
Last winter, Chase Manhattan bought the Web site rights to IHateChase.com, ChaseStinks.com, ChaseSucks.com and even ChaseBlows.com. But that did not stop disgruntled customer Harrison from setting up his own gripe site at the unregistered site name chasebanksucks.com. Mr. Harrison also owns the rights to chasemanhattansucks.com.
Last November, Chase threatened to sue Mr. Harrison, claiming his site links the Chase name with a derogatory term and dilutes the company's trade mark. In a letter to Mr. Harrison, the bank warned that he could be liable for false statements made in the site's guest book, where complaints are registered.
Mr. Harrison, who runs a Manhattan nightclub and dabbles on the side as an Internet Web master, cites his "right of free speech" and has no plans to take down the site.
People send me e-mails saying keep up the good work," Harrison said.
People also tell him they will send him money to support him in the event he is sued. Chase spokesman Ken Herz said he finds it a little odd" someone would go through so much trouble to set up a gripe site-one Mr. Herz says is full of inaccuracies. Chase also criticized the site for trying to make money by selling chasebanksucks.com T-shirts for $15 apiece, but Mr. Harrison appears to have discontinued that effort.
Among gripe site operators, perhaps the biggest potential threat to the banking industry and corporate America is New Jersey lawyer Dan Parisi. In addition to operating the highly profitable whitehouse.com-a pornography site meant to be confused with the federal government's whitehouse.gov-Mr. Parisi also owns the rights to dozens of companynamesucks.com sites targeting big banks and Fortune 500 companies.
Among them: Citigroupsucks.com, BankAmericasucks.com, and MerrillLynchsucks.com. Mr. Parisi's site list also includes AT&T, Sears, Kmart, and Chrysler. None of these sites, as yet, are up and operating on the Internet.
Some Internet watchers call Mr. Parisi a speculator who buys the rights to these sites and tries to resell them at a profit to targeted companies keen on preventing such sites from appearing online.
Mr. Parisi insists that is not the case.
He first ran his whitehouse.com as a free speech and parody site but lost money. He switched to porn on the site-reluctantly, he says - in order to stay solvent.
As for this collection of potential corporate gripe sites, Mr. Parisi said he has no intention of selling them at a profit. "I do not want to blackmail these companies," Mr. Parisi said. "I plan to get as many of these sites as possible so they can be used for complaint sites in the future."