Brand.com President Mike Zammuto Blackmailed for Bitcoin

The president of an online reputation management company became the target of a $500,000 Bitcoin reputation blackmail scheme. The firm was forced to use its own ORM resources to suppress the attacks and clear the president’s search results.

Mike Zammuto, president of Brand.com, first learned of the extortion plot when he received an anonymous e-mail on February 10, and then another two days later, demanding the equivalent of $500,000 (US) in Bitcoin or the blackmailers threatened to smear the reputation of Zammuto and his company.

After receiving the threats, Mike Zammuto conferred with advisors and did not succumb to the blackmail, ultimately turning the case over to the FBI’s Cyber Crime Division.  The derogatory online posts, including false charges of being a pedophile and having been arrested for fraud, were later determined by investigators to be connected to the blackmail scheme, says Brand.com.

When reached by e-mail, the FBI would neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.

“This is a chilling experience,” Mike Zammuto said.  “Not only is there a practical concern for loss of business, but this is a deeply personal attack, its rattling.”

Web site posts inaccurately accused Mike Zammuto of fraud, molestation

An independent investigation revealed 12 reports on RipOffReport.com, a consumer review website where users can publicly publish information regarding alleged experiences with businesses.  Other items had been available through a Google search but were later removed.

“The posts contain items which are not only totally fictitious but are shocking in how vicious they are. They can only be the work of someone trying to harm me and Brand.com, and not simply criticize me for anything I actually did to them,” Mike Zammuto said. “The blackmailer’s intent was to position me as a crook and a violent deviant and to con well-intentioned online activists into thinking they should help perpetrate this attack out of some sense of justice.”

The company offered to reporters criminal background searches to verify these claims, which showed there is no evidence of either the executive or the company ever being charged with or convicted of the crimes asserted in the posts.

“I am certain he would not have told them he was doing it for money,” said Mike Zammuto. “The allegations contain many specific claims of criminal activity which have never been alleged against me, let alone investigated or prosecuted.”

Why false posts remain online, have legal protection

Although the posts on RipOffReport.com were false, the malicious content was not removed.  Web sites have little motivation to do so due to legal loopholes and lack of financial incentive.

Deep inside the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 is sub-sect 230, which protects online intermediaries that protect websites like Ripoff Report against a range of laws that might otherwise be used to hold them legally responsible for what others say and do, according to Digital Media Law.

Section 230 grants interactive online services of all types, including news websites and blogs, broad immunity from certain types of legal liability stemming from content created by others.  This immunity covers defamation and privacy claims, as well as negligence and other tort claims commonly associated with publication.  This immunity cannot be lost even if the content is edited, so long as your edits do not materially alter the meaning of the original content.

When Mike Zammuto contacted Ripoff Report to inform them the malicious posts were false and part of a blackmail scheme, he was rebuffed. Along with refusing to divulge reviewers’ names, they also do not remove reports from their database.

Speculation from Mike Zammuto is that advertising revenue earned from site visitors incentivizes sites such as Ripoff Report to keep all content posted.

“I have been aware of Ripoff Report’s tactics, and their priorities, for several years now,” Mike Zammuto said. “The site is very clear about its policies when it comes to removing content.”

Mike Zammuto chose not to reach out to Ripoff Report based on previous interactions with the site.

According to the website’s legal disclaimer, the information that Ripoff Report provides is the sole creation of consumers. Ripoff Report expressly states on their website that, “although the First Amendment does not protect defamatory speech, this does not mean that you can contact the Ripoff Report and obtain an author’s name just by claiming that something in a report is false or inaccurate.”

Online reputation blackmail a growing problem

Online reputation blackmail is on the rise. Police in multiple countries are examining a rise in the number of teens who are being ‘sextorted’ – forced to perform actions on video under threat of blackmail – and its connection to several recent suicides.

According to Internet security professional Michael Legary, cyber crime, particularly cyber crime involving digital currency like Bitcoin, has increased dramatically over the past few months.

“A Bitcoin has a secret key that only you know,” he explained to CTV News. He noted that these assets are impossible to regulate because they are not linked to federal resources.

Comments (42)

  • David Tejeras

    I knew bitcoin’s was no good

    March 6, 2014 at 6:10 pm
  • Sean Cooper

    Internet blackmail has increased over the last few months. Has bitcoins revenue increased at a similar rate?

    March 6, 2014 at 6:11 pm
    • Ann Johnson

      That would be interesting to find out! I bet you they go hand in hand!

      March 6, 2014 at 6:37 pm
  • Brooks Brecker

    Two words: silk road. Can’t trust Bitcoin.

    March 6, 2014 at 6:12 pm
  • Ian Sharkey

    Bitcoin is ridiculous

    March 6, 2014 at 6:12 pm
  • Cliff Stein

    Bitcoin seems like it is built out to promote these type of extortion payments. Seems very shady!!!

    March 6, 2014 at 6:12 pm
  • Angel Santiago

    Bitcoin is scary…

    March 6, 2014 at 6:14 pm
  • Jay G

    It’s time to update the CDA. It’s giving way too much freedom to crooks.

    March 6, 2014 at 6:17 pm
  • MiaWallace

    It does kinda seem like Bitcoin supports extortion payments

    March 6, 2014 at 6:20 pm
  • Brian Newmark

    It is a sad state of the internet that it has turned into a criminal enterprise.

    March 6, 2014 at 6:27 pm
    • Ben Badilla

      Agreed! It’s such a shame.

      March 6, 2014 at 11:04 pm
  • Chris Ondik

    It is crazy to think of the lengths people will go to to try to make quick money.

    March 6, 2014 at 6:29 pm
  • Adam Felch

    Bitcoin??? If I can’t feed my kids with it or buy bullets with it what the crap?

    March 6, 2014 at 6:41 pm
    • Sophie Tran

      Actually.. there is a website where you can buy everyday items like tea with BitCoins. Strangest thing ever.. but seems popular, I’m guessing. I wouldn’t know because I don’t have any BitCoins.

      March 7, 2014 at 11:43 am
  • Harrison Pew

    The more and more I hear about Bitcoin, the more negative I feel about it. I immediately think of extortion.

    March 6, 2014 at 6:50 pm
    • Jordan Scott

      Yea, it started as something that seemed positive, but then took a huge left turn

      March 7, 2014 at 8:35 am
  • Mike G

    Bitcoin is beyond shady.

    March 6, 2014 at 7:04 pm
  • Bill Gerretz

    “…..AND IT’S CONNECTION TO SEVERAL RECENT SUICIDES.” REALLY ?? WHATS GONNA HAVE TO HAPPEN BEFORE THIS ISSUE IS TAKEN AS SERIOUS AS IT SHOULD BE ???

    March 6, 2014 at 7:56 pm
  • Jason Raser

    It’s amazing to hear stories like this then watch the value of Bitcoins fluctuate – no wonder.

    March 6, 2014 at 8:24 pm
  • Katie Scott

    I just really don’t feel comfortable with something that goes completely against the United States Fed. It just seems like right off the bat that is shady…

    March 6, 2014 at 9:38 pm
  • DustenCarlson

    Freedom of speech is a double eged sword. Where extortion and libel are involved, it’s definitely fair game to have some sort of alternative/solution to prevent this sort of stuff from ruining people’s lives.

    March 6, 2014 at 9:41 pm
  • Chris Meier

    When I can use Bitcoin at Walmart, then I’ll consider it 🙂

    March 6, 2014 at 9:50 pm
  • Kyle McGrath

    I wonder if this guy puts extortionist on his resume. Do you think this is directly influencing the value of bitcoin?

    March 6, 2014 at 10:01 pm
    • Sophie Tran

      Interesting question… I don’t know how to answer that yet, but I think this will most definitely affect the value of BitCoin in one way or another.

      March 7, 2014 at 11:40 am
  • Justin DeLisi

    I think Bitcoins will keep growing but for real value we need to be able to use it anywhere

    March 7, 2014 at 6:35 am
  • Tarek Osman

    Until additional legislation is passed regarding the CDA, this will continue to occur. Think about the children that must get bullied on a daily basis using social media and slander sites like this.

    March 7, 2014 at 7:13 am
    • Google-Cide

      @ Tarek Reputation Management industry began in 2006. It is estimated to do $5 Billion dolalrs this year. The issue in my opinion is not the CDA, the issue is Cyber Bullying drives sales in Reputation Management.

      March 11, 2014 at 6:37 am
  • Steve Howell

    Wow, a company incentivized to keep malicious and provably false content on the web? Amazing what can happen when people operate within the anonymity of the internet.

    March 7, 2014 at 8:14 am
    • Google-Cide

      an increasingly networked public is now acting as reporters and sensors wherever and whenever they are connected, creating an ad hoc system of accountability and filling the gaps where mainstream media outlets are censored or fear to tread.

      That emergence still strikes me as positive, on balance, I vastly prefer the communications systems of today to the one-to-many broadcasts from last century.

      March 11, 2014 at 6:32 am
  • Jpileggi

    It’s crazy that people can go on sites like RipOffReport and post anything they want about someone with the sole intent of harming their reputation.

    March 7, 2014 at 8:34 am
  • Chanel Ali

    It seems so dumb to try to damage the reputation of a reputation management company. Also, can we please stop trying to make Bitcoin a thing? Let it go.

    March 7, 2014 at 9:16 am
    • James R. Halloran

      As long as there are things to get away with, people won’t let it go. To those people, everything is about getting a quick buck whether it’s legal or not.

      March 7, 2014 at 9:46 am
  • zscoby43

    It’s one thing to protect your site based on what “anonymous” consumers post on it. But it’s another to have such a bold statement in writing that basically says “We’re not dealing with people just because they’ve been defamed.”

    March 7, 2014 at 9:16 am
  • James R. Halloran

    Sounds like the Communications Decency Act of 1996 needs an update! I mean, it’s 2014 now. Most businesses weren’t even online back in ’96. Now, almost every business depends on what people find about them online.

    March 7, 2014 at 9:44 am
    • Google-Cide

      Though many provisions of the CDA were rightfully found to be unconstitutional, Section 230 remained, allowing the Internet to flourish while fostering free speech.

      CDA 230 is a fundamental shield that allows Yelp to host reviews, Craigslist to host classified ads, and Facebook and Twitter to host users’ posts. Without it, websites and Internet Service Providers would be more expensive, operate with less efficiency, and be motivated to censor.

      March 11, 2014 at 7:15 am
    • disqus_5HARoNIalh

      The USA’s laws are over 200 years old, don’t you think they need an update aswell?

      May 3, 2014 at 6:57 am
  • Samantha

    Why is Bitcoin even still a debate?

    March 7, 2014 at 10:53 am
  • LuckyNo.5

    Extorsion, fraud, slander and bitcoin. Seems like a recipe for a late night drama movie!

    March 7, 2014 at 11:08 am
  • Rob Davis

    Why pick a target for extortionate cyber smearing that specializes in internet reputation? They picked the company that deals with this stuff every day, it makes no sense.

    March 7, 2014 at 11:25 am
  • Nathan Mellor

    This is a crazy story. The internet and bitcoin is still too unstable to have an online currency.

    March 7, 2014 at 1:32 pm
  • Google-Cide

    WMDs weapons of mass defamation. Created the $5 billion dollar reputation management industry. The people destroying your reputation are the very ones offering to fix it and these predators know
    it. When the time is right, you’ll get an email and it’ll be Reputation Management to the rescue antidote in one hand, anthrax in the other.

    OH AND THE NEW PITCH FROM BRAND.COM THEY CLAIM TO BE ABLE TO DEINDEX RIPOFF REPORT FROM GOOGLE, BING and YAHOO.

    If that is true, how was the guy the victim of blackmail?

    And, first he states: ” Mike Zammuto contacted Ripoff Report to inform them the malicious posts were false and part of a blackmail scheme, he was rebuffed.”
    Next he claims: “Mike Zammuto chose not to reach out to Ripoff Report based on previous interactions with the site.”
    Dude were you the victim of a black mail scheme and the CDA?
    Or, did you choose not to Ripoff Report?
    Or, was your email blast claiming to have an injection code to alter search results in Google, Bing and Yahoo true?

    March 11, 2014 at 5:20 am
  • solution reputation

    stop getting scammed by these so called reputation management companies that charge you before work is done.

    Give me a shout at: solutionreputation@gmail.com and ill take care of
    your online reputation at no charge Until the entire situation is fixed!
    thats right, ZERO RISK, if im unable to perform, you dont pay me a
    single penny (95% success rate.) theres no point risking thousands and
    not getting anything for it!!

    I am purely result driven, this
    means you don’t risk anything because if I’m unable to provide you the
    results, you dont pay anything! no catch, no risk, no setup fee, no
    deposit.

    April 14, 2014 at 11:10 am

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