Wires say personal contact key to prevent release fraud

NEW YORK: Press release distribution companies said personal interaction with customers is vital to preventing fraudulent releases, such as that published by PRWeb on Monday about a fake Google acquisition.

NEW YORK: Press release distribution companies said personal interaction with customers is vital to preventing fraudulent releases, such as that published by PRWeb on Monday about a fake Google acquisition.

PRWeb published a fake release Monday morning that claimed Google had purchased Rhode Island-based wireless hotspot provider ICOA for $400 million. Several media outlets, including the Associated Press and TechCrunch, picked up the news, and shares of ICOA jumped after the release's circulation.

Soon after the release was posted on the Vocus-owned site, ICOA CEO George Strouthopoulos denied the acquisition and called it a “hoax.” He told news organizations the company was investigating the source of the fake release, which seemed to originate from Aruba using a Gmail address.

ICOA is “still working on identifying the ‘crooked promoters/originators of the [press release],'” Strouthopoulos said in an email to PRWeek. “We are still waiting on the outcome of the investigation that PRWeb is supposedly doing.”

Google did not respond to request for comment.

Peter Shankman, small business evangelist at Vocus, said the company reported the fraud to federal authorities as soon as staffers became aware of it. The company is investigating the incident and reviewing its security procedures, he added.

“We're looking at this kind of like when a bank gets robbed. If someone wants to rob a bank, it doesn't matter how much protection you have – they'll find a way. It's horrible, but it gives the bank an opportunity to evaluate what worked and what didn't,” Shankman said. “Thousands of thousands of press releases get sent every day. We missed one this time. Somehow the safeguards we do have in place failed at some point and the press release got out.”

Shankman said he could not recall another fraudulent release published by PRWeb. 

“What we do is very similar to plumbing. You never notice plumbing unless there's a problem,” he said.

Business Wire said it has an extensive review process for releases, which is handled by staffers in more than 20 local “newsrooms” around the world. To distribute a release on the site, people must first apply to become members and set up an account. Representatives review the memberships through a process that includes calling companies directly. 

“In general, we have relationships with companies so we know who these people are. Having a human element is critical,” said Tom Becktold, SVP of marketing at the company.

All releases are submitted to Business Wire through a secure online system called Business Wire Connect, and the company does not accept submissions through email. Afterwards, editors in each of the newsrooms review the releases for factors such as factual and translation errors, quote attribution, and formatting.

“We catch unintentional errors all the time, so having a critical to eye read these is important,” Becktold said. 

Similarly, Marketwire validates user accounts, requires submissions through an online secure system, and closely reviews releases before they are published, said president and CEO Michael Nowlan. Marketwire editors call customers directly and ask them to read back a security code that they receive upon submission.

“The content of releases is the clients' content, but we do read them and ensure for things that look out of line,” Nowlan said.

Business Wire has caught some fake press releases before they were published, Becktold said.

“We're not saying anyone is foolproof, but there are a lot of steps we can take and investments we've made. Sometimes they are very expensive investments – having a lot of staff in different locations isn't a cheap proposition. But we think it's important, because when it goes wrong it goes horribly wrong,” Becktold said. “We recognize there are people out there trying to manipulate the systems.”

PR Newswire has “direct interaction” with customers about its security measures, said Rachel Meranus, VP of marketing and communications. She declined to elaborate further on PR Newswire's security procedures “in order to preserve the safeguards,” but said the organization has “stringent safeguards in place to protect the integrity of our wire.”

Nowlan and others said fake press releases are “rare” in the industry.

“Nobody has not had such an incident. That's just a fact of life. But for businesses that do hundreds of thousands of releases a year, these are very rare occurrences,” Nowlan said. “Nobody in our industry likes to see this occurring.”

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