Doctors’ names hijacked in ads for shady website
Without their knowledge, Florida's largest insurer and scores of doctors, dentists and lawyers in the state were listed as advertisers on a controversial website promoted by an alleged scam artist who is now behind bars. The use of their names not only brought the promoter revenue but also made him look legitimate.
The incident offers a cautionary tale about how today's Internet advertising practices can place professionals and corporations at risk of appearing to promote companies or causes that are controversial or even criminal.
The website in question, which was taken down in the past two weeks after its promoter was arrested, was www.STDcarriers.com. It featured names and sometimes photos of men and women accused of carrying and transmitting genital warts, herpes, hepatitis C and even HIV. Apparently anyone could post an accusation, with no proof required.
While the site was still up, Health News Florida called several companies who were listed as advertisers. All said they knew nothing about it.
“We had no idea,” said Mark Wright, a spokesman for Florida Blue, which had a big box ad on the left side of the website. The insurer had the ad yanked immediately.
Wright said the company's public relations agency bought clusters of ads to be displayed on health-oriented sites. STDcarriers.com's logo and mission statement implied it was engaged in health promotion and disease prevention, as a public service. However, the copy and photos on the site – including nudes – could not have been mistaken for the work of a health department, even to a casual observer.
“Those kinds of sites are supposed to be red-flagged,” said Wright. “It was an oversight by the agency.”
The one-line ads -- lists of attorneys, dentists, physicians and medical clinics -- were apparently found in online databases and used without permission. Visitors to the site would see ads from professionals in their own region.
The professionals' listings were provided by the online advertising network Chitika Inc., which places ads on more than 250,000 sites and targets them to users based on previous searches. It pulls listings from SuperPages.com, said Chitika's public relations manager Jennie Freedman.
“It made sense that you would see doctors appearing on a health-related site,” she said.
According to Freedman, businesses can change which websites post their ads. But they have to know their ads are there; none of those contacted by a reporter were aware of the listings.
After Health News Florida inquired about the ads, Chitika severed its relationship to STDcarriers.com.
“We did some looking into the site, and we don’t really feel this is one that matches up to our standards,” Freedman said. “We want to make sure that anyone that’s advertising would be happy with the site they’re placed on.”
The site's operator, 29-year-old Cyrus Sullivan of Portland, OR, was arrested last month and charged with coercion, identity theft and felony computer crime. Records from the Multnomah County jail indicate he is still in custody.
Sullivan had said in postings and media interviews that he created the site after being infected with genital herpes by a woman who did not tell him she was a carrier. He said he wanted to provide an opportunity for people in his position to warn others.
However, several websites carried accusations from the public that Sullivan was charging people money to get their names taken down, which the payers viewed as extortion. Anderson Cooper, who hosted Sullivan on his CNN talk show in March, became enraged at the man to the point that he later apologized to viewers for losing his temper.
A St. Petersburg psychologist who was named on the STDcarriers.com site as having genital herpes is suing the woman who he says posted the accusation. He says the accusation is false and defamatory. (Health News Florida is not naming the psychologist because of the nature of the case).
Tampa attorney Geoffrey Parmer, who represents the psychologist, said it can be difficult to sue the operators of websites that spread misinformation because of the Communications Decency Act. That act provides immunity for internet service providers, such as Google, for statements transmitted through their platform.
"Unless you're providing content, you have immunity," Parmer said. "But the law is still evolving."
--Health News Florida is an independent online publication dedicated to journalism in the public interest. Contact Editor Carol Gentry at 727-410-3266 or by e-mail.