Written by: Dan Smith
It’s a common American story, and maybe it’s yours: An entrepreneur with an idea strikes out, takes big risks, works endless hours, struggles, survives and then after years and years of hard work, reaches a level of success.
But then, what if someone tried to steal your hard-fought success? What if an entrepreneurial con-man used your exact website marketing copy, your track record of success, your client testimonials, your reputation, and even said he worked for you for years? Suddenly, you have a new fraudulent competitor who is a virtual mirror image of your own company. You face the prospect of competing … with yourself?
Sound far-fetched? It happened to me, and it could easily happen to you.
My book marketing agency, Smith Publicity, operates in a relatively niche market and sub-set of the publishing industry. I know most of my competitors, and most of them know of my company. I routinely monitor what my competitors are doing, their success, marketing efforts, etc., all basic, routine business intelligence and market monitoring.
Then, I encountered something I never saw coming or even ever imagined.
The standard Google news alerts we set up revealed a competitor we hadn’t heard of, a competitor who claimed to have been in business for ten years. How could we not have known about this agency in our small industry? I was perplexed.
During our typical staff review of this agency’s website, what we read sounded eerily familiar. But, it wasn’t just familiar. We were reading what was essentially our website under this agency’s name. This “agency” that purported to have worked with thousands of authors for over 10 years was using our copyrighted website marketing copy, exact service programs, testimonials, FAQ’s, company tag-lines and unique marketing terms and language we developed. Roughly 70% of his website was my agency’s website, with the name switched. Throughout our office, the anger became palpable as employees who worked so hard to make our company successful saw their own hard work and success, often described word-for-word, being used by someone else.
It gets worse. The supposed head of the agency whom we had never heard of had a LinkedIn profile which indicated he worked for my company for 10 years, and even linked back to our company website. As far as our research determined, this person had absolutely no experience in our industry. It quickly became apparent he was a fraud, and his company a sham.
I had run into a type of corporate identity theft, or perhaps more accurately, “success theft.” Someone tried to steal the success of my company to launch a phony publicity agency in an apparent effort to bilk money from unsuspecting customers. All the while, he was endangering the reputation of my business by claiming his experience came through working for me. A complete fraud, trying to lure customers in, then surely taking the money and running. All on my company’s back, with a direct line from him to me. People could get ripped off by a con-man and believe I was the one who essentially trained him. In a niche industry, this could be devastating.
A scathing e-mail and a very pointed phone call resolved some of the problem. Much, but certainly not all, of the website copy he stole came down, the testimonials were removed, and his false claim of having worked for me was removed from his social networking sites. But he is still out there, and still using some of my copyrighted website material.
The legal process to eliminate everything this imposter stole from me is underway, but it’s a slow and uncertain endeavor. Like most small businesses, I don’t have a legal department. I’m forced to measure expense versus benefit as I pursue him.
To other small business owners, I hope you can learn from my experience and although there’s no foolproof way to prevent success theft, you should minimally consider:
1. As President Reagan famously said, “Trust but verify.” Respect your competitors, but verify that no one is using your copyrighted website material.
2. Set up Google alerts for key phrases related to your business, your slogan, anything specific to your success, and review everything that turns up.
3. Conduct social media searches to verify no one is propping themselves up as legitimate by saying they work or worked for you.
4. Be mindful that success can attract the low-lives of the business world. There are more people than you realize trying to shortcut their way to success on the tails of someone else … and that someone could be you.
Maybe this cautionary tale is truly unusual. Maybe what I encountered is truly unique. Maybe I ran into a one-in-a-million con-man and success thief.
Unfortunately, I don’t think so. If it can happen to my company, it is almost certainly happening to someone else, right now.
Dan Smith is the CEO and Founder of Smith Publicity, a leading book marketing and book publicity agency that has promoted over 1500 authors since 1997. Website: www.SmithPublicity.com.