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Consumers turn Web into Weapon

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Technology Next Index Previous

Consumers turn Web into weapon
They use power of Internet to fight firms ranging from the auto giants to the airlines

Robin Buckson / The Detroit News
Barbara Wright, a Milan, Mich., resident says her 1995 Windstar blew a gasket in October. It's been driven 112,000 miles, so she doesn't qualify for the warranty extension, but she hasn't given up.

By Mark Truby and Dina ElBoghdady / The Detroit News

    DEARBORN -- When his 1995 Ford Windstar blew a head gasket last April, Chuck Cantanese became the proverbial squeaky wheel.
   He did his homework on the checkered history of his minivan's 3.8-liter, V-6 engine and hounded Ford Motor Co. to pay his $1,000 repair bill, to no avail.
   Then Cantanese, 38, of Independence, Ky., got an unexpected call from Ford. He had been selected for a customer satisfaction program, Ford told Cantanese. And he was eligible to receive money for recent repairs.
   Afterward, Cantanese felt Ford wanted to quietly appease him without admitting the engine problem. He wondered if there were other Ford owners stuck with defective engines. So he took to the Internet, launching a Web site in November filled with information about the bad engines.
   Soon his site was swarming with thousands of Ford owners whose vehicles also had blown head gaskets. Soon afterward, two class-action lawsuits were filed against Ford.
   Facing a customer backlash, Ford announced a warranty extension program that could cost more than $200 million and covers 718,000 vehicles with potentially defective head gaskets.
   The episode illustrates how the Internet is empowering consumers as never before. In cyberspace, the Davids have a new slingshot to aim at corporate Goliaths, ranging from automakers to airlines.
   "It's really a great leveler," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington "It's absolutely clear the Internet is causing an upsurge in complaints. Now you can surf the Net and find out how to be a more effective consumer advocate."
   Before the Internet, consumers who felt jilted may have paraded in front of corporate headquarters or dealerships with placards, called a consumer group or headed to small claims court.
   These days, they can log on and find the nearest chat room or Web site and speak to the world without leaving their den.
   And more and more, the information superhighway is becoming their road to restitution.
   The head gasket episode is a case in point. Ford owners are receiving letters extending the warranty to seven years and 100,000 miles for the 1995 Ford Windstar, 1994 and 1995 Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable and 1994 Lincoln Continental.
   The program -- one of the largest and costliest voluntary service actions ever -- includes reimbursement of past repair bills, coupons toward future vehicle purchases and even some vehicle buybacks.
   For its part, Ford said it extended the warranty to 60,000 on the Tauruses, Sables and Windstars and 75,000 miles on the Continental in June 1998 and increased the warranty in February as the company learned owners had problems beyond these points.
   "Yes there was a lot of disgruntled traffic on the Web and we listened," Ford spokesman Mike Vaughn said. "We listened to everyone, we looked at the data and this decision to extend the warrantly was based on what is right for the customer."
   It wasn't the first time the Internet affected a controversy within the auto industry.
   Flaming Fords
   A couple in Marietta, Ga., turned to the Internet when their 1985 Ford Ranger burst into flames in their driveway in November 1995 because of a problem with the ignition switch.
   Edward and Debra Goldgehn shared their experience with Net surfers on their now-defunct Association of Flaming Ford Owners Web site (www.flamingfords.com) that featured photos of charred vehicles and a list of affected models.
   The site became a repository of information for consumers and reporters and generated publicity that helped prod Ford to recall 8.7 million cars and trucks, the largest ever at the time for a single automaker.
   Truman Trekell of Texas undertook a similar endeavor last year when he learned on an Internet Web site that the 1999 Dodge Dakota R/T pickup he bought hauled 2,000 pounds -- not 6,400 pounds as advertised in the company's brochures and owners' manuals.
   When DaimlerChrysler AG officials would not meet with him, Trekell posted his concerns with a newsgroup for Dakota RT owners. Some owners filed a class-action lawsuit in California last summer.
   Within a month of the filing, the automaker offered disgruntled Dakota owners the option of a full refund, a trade-in for another vehicle at window sticker prices, an extended warranty or $500 in parts, Trekell said.
   DaimlerChrysler officials said these options were available to consumers before the lawsuit. But some Dakota owners said they were unaware of the offer and others said they could not get the automaker to honor it.
   "We got all our evidence together on the Internet," Trekell said.
   Web watching
   Corporate America, always sensitive to bad press, is now trying to keep tabs on the Internet, where negative news can spread like a brush fire.
   "I think you are crazy not to pay attention to it," said Jon Austin, Northwest Airlines managing director for corporate communications.
   Northwest monitors certain newsgroups and other forums "to get a sense of what is being said about us and who is saying it," Austin said.
   Ford tries "to keep our finger on the pulse out there and correct any misinformation," Vaughn said.
   Companies complain that for every Web page dedicated to sharing information about legitimate concerns, there is a raft of shrill hate sites fed by angry consumers and disgruntled employees.
   There are an estimated 1,500 business-bashing addresses on the Web. While they may be distasteful or even inaccurate, in lawsuits around the country judges have ruled the sites are protected by the First Amendment.
   One controversial site, www.blueovalnews.com, was nearly shut down last year when Ford objected to the publication of internal documents that showed exhaust problems with the 1999 SVT Mustang Cobra significantly reduced the car's horsepower.
   The courts ruled BlueOvalNews was protected by free speech. Ford recalled the SVT Cobra. BlueOvalNews -- a collection of news and opinions about Ford products -- continues to receive a staggering 100,000 hits a day.
   "I think it's a great thing for consumers," said Robert Lane, who publishes BlueOvalNews from his home near Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn. "If I don't do it, who else will?"
   Net is legal tool
   The sites are a natural draw for lawyers to organize class-action lawsuits against large corporations. Auto companies complain the Internet has provided trial lawyers with a chance to rally plaintiffs around bogus causes.
   "It's gotten to the point where just about anyone can hang a shingle on the Internet," said Jay Cooney, spokesman for DaimlerChrysler.
   "I'm sure the trial lawyers are thrilled to have this tool at their disposal. It makes their work easy."
   Lawyers and consumer advocates dismiss such complaints as public relations rhetoric.
   "The Internet not only allows people to find each other, but helps lawyers obtain information they couldn't obtain before," said Sandusky, Ohio, lawyer Dennis Murray Jr.
   Murray filed a lawsuit in February against Ford on behalf of owners of vehicles susceptible to head gasket failure.
   "You can no longer be snowed about the scope of the problem, " he said.
   Empowering consumers
   Cantanese, a telephone company troubleshooter, said he didn't create his Web site (home.att.net/~ccantanese/ford) to encourage lawsuits. And he doesn't consider it a Ford-bashing site.
   "That would serve no purpose," he said. "My goal was to present facts and give people the resources to act. I believe if people are empowered, they can do anything."
   The Web site includes detailed information about the head gaskets, copies of documents and reams of owner testimonials.
   Cantanese has personally exchanged e-mails with more than 500 Ford owners who have experienced head gasket problems.
   "I read every article he had on there and printed them off, so I knew what happened to everybody else," said Barbara Wright, a Milan, Mich., resident whose 1995 Windstar blew a gasket in October and has since been sitting in her driveway.
   Wright's minivan has been driven 112,000 miles, so she doesn't qualify for the warranty extension, but she hasn't given up.
   "I learned on the Web site you can take them to small claims court," she said.
   Another Windstar owner, Ken Wright of Howell, Mich., paid $1,100 to replace the head gasket and is trying to persuade Ford to include 1996 models in the warranty extension.
   "I would have given up on Ford a long time ago if it hadn't been for that Web site," Wright said.
   "The Internet gives us access all over the country. It banded people together and gave us the power to get Ford to listen. It was all because of communication."
   Ford redesigned the engine in 1996 and began supplying improved aftermarket head gaskets for repairs in 1998, but has pledged to continue evaluating data to determine whether further action is needed.
   While scores of Ford owners are still lobbying to be included in the warranty extension, Cantanese said he is gratified by the results.
   "I had so many people e-mail me and say 'I can't believe I have this vehicle and I can't afford to get it fixed,' " Cantanese said. "A majority of those people now have their vehicles fixed."

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