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Vonage spams customers, burns influentials, gets people really angry

Vonage is harvesting names from their refer-a-friend program to send spam promotions.

I am a Vonage customer.  In December, 2004 I entered 18 friends’ email addresses in their refer-a-friend program.  This was clearly intended to be a one-time referral, on an opt-in basis, from me to my friends. 30 months later ….

Vonage1 Vonage crossed all lines of good taste, privacy, and ethics.  They send a mass email to my friends — USING MY NAME — in a shameless promotion.  In fact, my name was used in the email 3 times, as if I had endorsed the message and gave permission to use my friends’ names.

  • Vonage is harvesting names from their refer-a-friend program to send spam promotions.
  • Vonage is violating their customers privacy by using data from customer accounts for a marketing campaign.
  • Vonage has used their customers names for testimonials without permission of the customers.

Wow.  Vonage is so evil on so many levels.  And stupid.

What they did …

  • creates massive, insane anger
  • is illegal – violates both CAN-SPAM and privacy statutes
  • perverts the trust of their best customers, those who were willing to recommend them to their friends
  • turns influentials into enemies

Warning: If you use the Vonage refer-a-friend program, they will harvest your friends’ email address and spam them for years, using your name.

If this has happened to you:

1. Repost this message (and link back here)
2. Comment on this blog If the rest of their customers are as angry as I am, this won’t be the end of it.
3. Digg this

(The saddest thing is that Vonage could have been a truly great company. Google great, Salesforce.com great.  All they had to do was not be the phone company — a very low bar. But they are so much more horrible that even the phone companies ever were. Worse service, worse support, and a crappy attitude.  What a shame.)

Related Posts:

  1. Vonage community forum Customers are getting angry. This is a site NOT controlled by Vonage, and they are about to see the power of their community.
  2. Matt Blumberg, ReturnPath: What An Ugly Way to Use Email
  3. Shel Israel: Slimeball award
  4. Michael Parekh:  Ill-advised marketing tactics
  5. Daniel Terdiman, CNET
  6. Jordan Ayan, SubscriberMail: They could not have really thought this through
  7. Janine Popick, VerticalResponse: Vonage has bad email practices
  8. Mark Brownlow: How the Internet Maginifies Your Mistakes
  9. Mike Clark: Vonage abusing your friends
  10. MailChimp: Vonage abuses tell-a-friend program
  11. AWeber: Why Permissions’ Not Optional
  12. EFF
  13. Al Iverson: Vonage did what?

Update:  Feel free to contact Vonage directly.  They shared my email, so feel free to use theirs.

Meghan Shaw, 732-203-7133, meghan.shaw@vonage.com
Leslie Arena, 732-203-7372, leslie.arena@vonage.com
Michael de Senna, 732-231-6576, michael.desenna@vonage.com
John Yocca, 732-528-2677, john.yocca@vonage.com

Email to a friend:

Privacy: We won't save or reuse these emails.

Comments

  1. Global Neighbourhoods June 21, 2007 at 11:41 pm #

    Andy Sernovitz Gives Vonage the Customer Relations Slimeball Award

  2. olivier blanchard June 22, 2007 at 12:17 am #

    When will they learn. *Sigh*

  3. Ken Skorupski June 22, 2007 at 1:50 pm #

    I have been a customer of Vonage for several years now and while I understand that some people have had problems with service, I am not one of them.
    This whole refer-a-friend marketing gimmick has been around for years and Vonage is certainly not the first to use it.
    No question the huge delay in sending out the mass e-mailing was ill-advised, but I am curious about something. Given the over abundance of spam we are all subjected to, did any of these folks that gave Vonage all their friend’s e-mail addresses bother to get their friend’s permission first?

  4. Andy Sernovitz June 22, 2007 at 2:05 pm #

    This issue isn’t about having a refer-a-friend program. It’s OK for me to email a friend about a company, and it’s OK for me to use a company’s form to send the message.
    Those kinds of word of mouth are genuine and honest, driven by a customer’s desire to share a company they like.
    What is NOT OK is for the company to harvest my friends’ email and add them to a mass email list. Neither me nor my friend gave them permission to us this way. And using my name in the mass promotion, as if I approved it, is so over the top that it’s flabbergasting.

  5. Art June 22, 2007 at 7:09 pm #

    Anyone who types someone else’s email address into a third party form or site for ANY reason without that person’s permission is the idiot.
    Sorry Andy, I understand why you are mad – but your friends have a right to mad at you. All Vonage did was make it obvious it was YOU who screwed them. Live and learn.
    Same goes for evite, constant contact, etc.

  6. Andy Sernovitz June 22, 2007 at 7:28 pm #

    Art –
    You’re mis-reading the situation. It is perfectly acceptable to use a tell-a-friend form on a web site to send something to your friends. That is why EVERY major web site, newspaper site, shopping site, etc. has an “email this page” link. It’s just a convenience.
    It is not acceptable for those web sites to harvest those names for marketing.

  7. David Gillam June 23, 2007 at 2:14 pm #

    It is acceptable to provide a code number to an existing customer, that prospective customers can use to give credit where credit is due. Under this method, the customer uses his/her own email account to notify his/her friends/family/etc. about the company offer. This makes the advertisement personal and honest.
    It is not acceptable to abdicate one’s communication responsibility to the company. If one does, one is essentially selling one’s friends to that company. EVERY company that wants you to give them your address book has in tiny type somewhere a disclaimer that by giving them the list, you are authorizing them to do pretty much anything they want with it, forever. If you don’t read the fine print, then that’s your failure – ask any lawyer.
    I disagree with what Vonage did/does. I used to be a Vonage customer, but left for another VOIP provider to save money, and ensure that I retain my phone number. Yes, I’ve been spooked by all the legal/finance troubles Vonage is having. I’m doubly-glad I never gave up my friends to Vonage’s database.
    To be clear: You gave Vonage your friends’ addresses, to use any way they wish, whenever they wish. If someone is guilty of harvesting, it is you. Vonage is guilty only insofar as they asked you to be a partner in the harvesting and marketing.
    Don’t use a site’s “email a link to this” button. Use your browser’s same capability. If nothing else, simply copy/paste the URL to an email to your friend.

  8. Andy Sernovitz June 23, 2007 at 2:38 pm #

    It’s sad that their is such distrust of companies…a form is a form. You shouldn’t have to worry when you use a form that someone will swipe your friends’ names. (I don’t – they are not stored in any form.)
    It’s sleazy behavior from companies like Vonage that prevent all of us from having an open, sharing web community.

  9. Phils Osophies June 23, 2007 at 11:43 pm #

    Andy Sernovitzs Damn, I Wish Id Thought of That!: Vonage spams customers, burns influentials, gets people really angry

    Hey friends, Im sorry if I ever added you to my Vonage referafriend page. Read the link tor a little more info. I was originally referred there by Matt Blumbergs Blog.
    http://www.damniwish.com/2007/06/vonagespams&

  10. Mark June 24, 2007 at 8:09 am #

    I got spam from Vonage the other day which used my brother-in-law’s name. My brother-in-law used to be a Vonage customer, but he dropped them many months ago because of poor service. I guess he must have given up my address for the referral program, but it was a long time ago (shame on him, I thought he knew better).
    So I’m a little bit mad at my brother-in-law and extremely angry at Vonage. Not only did they spam me, they *fraudulently* spammed me because my brother-in-law would never recommend Vonage now.
    I used to feel bad for Vonage in their uphill battle against the network owners and software patent abusers, but now I could care less.

  11. Bob Ralian June 24, 2007 at 11:19 am #

    Wow. Seems like the bar of expectations for the behavior of online companies is pretty low, seeing that some people here lay the blame with the referrer rather than Vonage. Andy is absolutely right to be upset with Vonage. They violated the trust of their customers. If we don’t express outrage at behavior like this, how can we expect companies to behave better?
    David, to address your assertion that all websites have legal clauses allowing them to pull something like this; my website is about the most inane, non-corporate website you can find, and even we have the integrity to treat a tell-a-friend form the way it should be treated. We don’t hold onto the email addresses people send through the form. You should be able to expect as much from Vonage, a serious company offering a commercial product.

  12. Michael Boyd Clark Journal/Blog June 25, 2007 at 7:43 am #

    Vonage Abusing Your Friends

    Vonage, the VoIP service, has a feature where their users can refer their friends to the service. If you sign up from one of those referrals, you get a free month of service; and your friend gets two free months. In March 2006, I asked one of my friend…

  13. Michael Clark June 25, 2007 at 7:50 am #

    Email addresses for Michael De Seena (last day was June 15th according to the vacation message I got back) and John Yocca don’t work any more. Maybe Vonage is having a lot of rats fleeing a sinking ship, and the new (or remaining) marketing rats are desperate? Does anyone know how Vonage is doing financially?

  14. Adam Covati June 25, 2007 at 10:59 am #

    I have to agree with you Bob, it is pretty scary how little people trust companies with the “email-a-friend” forms. I guess having been in the industry for a while I just assume that any decent company would have a moderately ethical policy. I often forget how “trained” much of the public is to distrust email links, online forms, etc.
    It’s funny, because I just posted a blog about this same referral program (how it got spam bucketed by gmail – http://www.monkeyserver.com/index.php/2007/06/15/now-gmail-just-relax-thats-not-spam/ ) , and incidentally I just referred some one a few days ago, d’oh!

  15. Monkeyserver.com June 25, 2007 at 11:01 am #

    Now Gmail, just relax, thats not spam

    I was just poking through my gmail spam folder and noticed that a few of my newsletters had dropped through. Thats not altogether surprising, but I did notice that Vonage was getting in there more often than it made it to my inbox.
    A quick look …

  16. Joe June 27, 2007 at 10:18 am #

    I dont know why you keep using the word ‘harvest”.
    you clearly dont understand what it means to “harvest” an email address..
    They didnt “harvest” the eamils, you gave them to them…..

  17. Andy Sernovitz June 27, 2007 at 10:34 am #

    I’m really fascinated by the hostility of these comments. There is clearly a deep, wide-spread worry that companies steal emails from tell-a-friend forms.
    It just doesn’t happen, at least not by honest companies.
    Challenge: Name any other case of companies stealing addresses from tell-a-friend forms.
    Vonage is the nasty exception, which is why this is so horrifying … they broke the trust with consumers and all companies will pay the price.

  18. nekkidtruth June 27, 2007 at 10:36 am #

    It’s quite evident Andy has no clue what harvesting means. You willingly provided your friends e-mail addresses. They were not harvested. You had the opportunity to say “No Thank You”, but instead chose to offer up your friends on a silver platter.
    Vonage has done nothing wrong in this instance. Other than the obvious poor timing, they did what any company who asks for your friends e-mail addresses would do. You can’t pick and choose which “refer a friend” program is acceptable and which is not simply because YOU screwed up.
    I have never been a Vonage customer and don’t ever plan on being one.
    Andy, I hope you’ve learned your lesson. In the future learn to take responsibility for your own actions.

  19. Andy Sernovitz June 27, 2007 at 10:47 am #

    Geeez … maybe I we disagree with over the use of the term “harvest”. No need for the nastiness.
    I’ll start deleting nasty comments – this is a friendly blog. Read this: http://www.damniwish.com/2007/05/comment_policy.html
    Best practices for email usage on any kind of referral form is to never save the friends emails at all. To collect them and market to them is unethical (without proper notice).
    It’s not about the definition of the term “harvesting”, which does have more that one meaning – so chill out.
    Vonage harvested names and spammed their customers friends. There is nothing wrong with using a tell-a-friend form.
    Would NPR, New York Times, Amazon, eBay, Google do this? Would any legit business do this? Of course not … but every major web site DOES have tell-a-friend forms. They are safe to use if you trust the company.

  20. shazbot mcgoo June 27, 2007 at 11:02 am #

    harvest is what spam bots do around the internet. they find email addresses, harvest them for their owner’s own personal financial gain, then they spam those email addresses.
    *YOU* acted as the spam bot in this case. you harvested your friends email addresses and gave them to a company to send unsolicited email to.
    this is mostly about personal responsibility. you should really own up to your part in this horrible, horrible tragedy.
    p.s. deleting posts that are unfavorable to you and hiding behind a “comment policy” by calling them nasty is pretty lame.

  21. Andy Sernovitz June 27, 2007 at 11:15 am #

    I’m not getting into a fight with you guys. If you don’t like my blog or blog policies, go somewhere else or start your own.
    You don’t get to be nasty, and then hide behind a fake name, Shazbot. If you want to attack you need to identify yourself and take it in return.
    Unpleasant posts will be deleted.
    And …
    Yes, spambots do harvest emails. That is not the only definition of harvest. And it’s not the point. The point is that Vonage spammed their customers’ friends without permission.
    You’re also making a wrong assumption about how this happened. I didn’t mass upload a mailing list to give to Vonage. If my friends were interested in Vonage, I used the form to send them info. AFTER talking to them.

  22. Joe June 27, 2007 at 12:49 pm #

    Thats the part I disagree with..they didn’t “spam” anyone..they sent out emails…that were initiated by you when you entered the addresses…
    Thats the whole point of the “refer a friend”……
    YOU referred them, then Vonage tries to sign them up…

  23. Andy Sernovitz June 27, 2007 at 2:16 pm #

    Here’s the distinction:
    I sent an email to my friends. It’s OK to email my friends — from gmail, outlook, or a handy form.
    That’s just fine.
    Vonage emailed my friends. They didn’t have permission. They used my name. They didn’t have permission.
    That’s spam.

  24. Theresa Quintanilla July 10, 2007 at 1:29 pm #

    Thanks for taking the heat, Andy. As an email professional, I take hours to produce carefully designed emails which maintain their aesthetics if my subscribers will use the forward-to-a-friend button. I tell my closest customers to please do it and I assure them I don’t keep the names. It’s a pity that some people can’t trust me because they’ve been burned by less-principled marketers and publishers.
    And please keep deleting ugly messages which don’t contain any new information. I enjoy reading this blog!

  25. PrettyCreature July 11, 2007 at 2:05 pm #

    nekkidtruth said… Vonage has done nothing wrong in this instance. Other than the obvious poor timing, they did what any company who asks for your friends e-mail addresses would do. You can’t pick and choose which “refer a friend” program is acceptable and which is not simply because YOU screwed up.
    soapbox ready, step up and go…
    Not true…As another email marketing professional I can say that while we do provide the “forward to a friend” option on all of our newsletters, we have not ever and will not ever take the emails entered into those forms and send to them. While the CAN-SPAM act does not specifically prohibit this behavior it is seen as ethically dubious by anyone who wishes to maintain a clean reputation in the community.
    I would be interested to know who Vonage’s email service provider is. Every reputable email service provider I’ve talked to has told me that you can include the “forward to a friend”, but the emails entered on those pages is not for sending to. Additionally, the provider we are using right now makes me verify that every name I add to our lists is from someone who has specifically opted in to receive the emails I will be sending them.
    Any company who wishes to maintain a whitelisted IP address and to remain in good standing with all the different ISP’s would not think of taking the addresses of people who did not opt in first hand (and having someone else enter your address is NOT a first hand opt in) and sending them anything. This is not good practice and saying that they are only doing what other companies would do is no excuse. I’m surprised at what you are willing to let go. Too much trouble to hold up a principle?
    Additionally, what a betrayal! The market today calls for companies to act better than this. Consumers have choices and the companies they choose should reflect that, appreciate their patronage and EARN their trust by acting with the highest regard for the information entrusted to them.
    And, off the soap box and back to work…

  26. Emergence Lounge July 24, 2007 at 9:57 am #

    Spam-Defcon2

    Wie vor ein paar Wochen berichtet, war ich eine Zeit lang Opfer einer Telefonspamattacke. Ich konnte sie durch zwei Worte in die Flucht schlagen, die mir die Kritik meiner Mitarbeiter eingetragen hat deshalb gebe ich sie nur in einer veränderten

  27. Jennifer August 15, 2007 at 3:39 pm #

    There is a difference between refer a friend and foward to a friend. If you are sending a link or even an email about something to a friend, they should never keep the email address.
    But if you refer a friend as a potential customer, usually the business will try a few times to get that person to sign up or do business with them. Lots of businesses ask for referals, and then contact those people, and they usually do it more than once. My old insurance company used to do this, my accountant, car dealers, etc. I think this is what Joe is pretty much saying. Once you have passed on a friends information in this way, they are going to save their information and contact them. You have given them their name as a possible customer, and they treat them that way.
    I’m not saying that it’s right, and I do find it very annoying. I never refer any of my friends when a company asks, I just say I will ask around or let my friends know and pass along your information if they are interested. In my business we ask for referals, but give our customers a card that they can personally give that person who can then contact us if they are interested. But it is ok for them to do that.
    I don’t think that Vonage should have contacted them and used your name in that way though. They should have at least pointed out that you previously refered them, and that was why they were contacting them now. Not made it seem like you had just refered them, especially if you aren’t still with that business. I have gotten calls before and they said something like “So and so had previously given us your information as someone who might be interested in our offer, I just wanted to follow up and see if you were still interested”
    It’s not right for them to use your name like that unless you, yourself, had sent the message to them. (Now, not months ago) And when you originally used the form to send an email, they should have made it more clear that they were asking for email addresses of potential customers, not that you would just be passing on a special offer message to a friend.
    Whether it was right or wrong, it obviously ticked off plenty of people, which is just bad business.

  28. Jeff Davis April 21, 2008 at 12:38 pm #

    I get the distinction you are making, Andy.

  29. Theda Spradling June 11, 2008 at 1:17 pm #

    I tried Vonage in my town but did not work well at all. They also sent me two phones. I sent them back. Have tracking orders. They have used my bank # and drawed the last four mons. Have had charges reversed. Looked in my bank online and behold they did it again.
    Help. This company is a scam.

  30. Reece October 3, 2008 at 3:33 pm #

    At first, I thought Vonage was great! The price of service was incredible. Until I tried to cancel my service, because I no longer needed a home phone. It took me four different calls to the company before I was able to cancel. They used every excuse in the book to keep me under their service. (You have to call between certain hours, you must complete your year of contract) In the end, I canceled my service but of course there was a catch. You have to pay a fee to end your service, no matter how long you had VONAGE. The day you decide to no longer have VONAGE, they will charge you to disconnect service.

  31. Chris March 27, 2009 at 5:16 pm #

    This is the worst company I have ever dealt with. After 4 years they disconnected my account without ANY communication or notice.
    If that wasn’t bad enough, they labelled it ‘fraud’.
    All this because I forgot to update my billing address after I moved (almost 2 years ago!)
    Disgusting! They think they are the Almighty voip company but high prices and poor business ethics will have other companies putting them to shame in the upcoming years.

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