Property developer spams itself in the foot

Sydney company Meriton Investments is facing a public relations disaster after a spam-handed attempt to drum up new customers went seriously awry.

The property development company is being hit by sulphurous fallout from an ill-advised spam campaign based on an e-mail list of dubious provenance, composed primarily of high-profile Queensland IT professionals.

"We are in absolute damage control at the moment," said Meriton business development manager James Roney.

Meriton's difficulties started when the residential apartment developer, owned by property billionaire Harry Triguboff, launched a spam mailout based on a confidential mailing list. Meriton did not have permission to use the list, which appears to be owned by a Queensland industry body, the Gold Coast Regional IT Forum.

Dedicated to IT development, the forum's membership includes hundreds of prominent individuals in business, academic and community circles.

Forum chairman Geoff Provest wants Meriton to destroy all its copies, apologise for misusing the list and provide assurances it will not do so again.

"We are in correspondence with the company, but in my view conducting a public debate won't achieve any purpose," said Provest.

Compounding Meriton's woes, it copied recipients' private e-mail addresses -- 420 of them -- in clear text at the top of each message that went out.

In addition to aiming angry replies at Meriton's list server, recipients found other ways of making their displeasure known. That included unearthing the e-mail addresses of senior Meriton executives and inviting the list to contact them directly. Others posted contact details of the NSW Privacy Commissioner along with suggestions to send individual complaints about the situation.

Many of the responses were sent to every mailbox listed in the original header, further inflaming the situation. "What really irritated me was that everyone shared their indignation with the entire list, so I ended up getting another 20 or 40 emails," said list member Liz Manning, CEO of the Queensland branch of Software Engineering Australia.

How the list came into Meriton's possession is now the subject of an internal company inquiry. According to the Gold Coast Regional IT Forum, the full distribution list was sent out because of a server error and Meriton may have taken a copy at this time.

Meriton's Roney said the list was forwarded to him "through someone that was in [our] office. We saw a marketing opportunity because we were dealing with elite people in the IT world."

Meriton has apologised and Roney said he had been "stuck in meetings for two days trying to sort this mess out while everyone seems to be running for cover".

He pointed out that spamming is not illegal in Australia and said some recipients had responded positively to the spam message by taking up the "investment opportunity" it was offering.

Roney attributed the negative reaction to "a small group of five or six people that are really pushing it. I can apologise until the cows come home but it seems they are either opportunists or they have nothing better to do with their time."

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Pete Young

Computerworld
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