#40 The Flower Child
September 24, 2015
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Ripoff Report is one of the original complaint websites. It’s basically the work of one person, a man whom the internet describes as a kind of mythical villain, a Keyser Söze who wields power from behind his janky website. Reply All producer Sruthi Pinnamaneni visits his bunker.
Our theme music is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder.
Our ad music is by Build Buildings.
Marissa Hernandez' website, Vita Nova Taxidermy.
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ALEX GOLDMAN: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Alex Goldman. This week’s story comes from our producer Sruthi Pinnamaneni, and it’s a story about one person. Someone who’s earned a reputation online that’s sinister, monolithic and malevolent. Someone who wields an extraordinary amount of power. All from one antiquated website. Here’s Sruthi.
SRUTHI PINNAMANENI: So a couple weeks ago, I drove to a small town in upstate NY to meet this woman.
SRUTHI: Hi! Marissa?
MARISSA HERNANDEZ: Yes.
SRUTHI: Marissa Hernandez. She’s a twenty-year old taxidermist. She lives in an old clapboard house with her mom, a bunch of pets. And she works out of a bedroom piled high with dead animals…
MARISSA: There’s coyotes, foxes, there’s a cougar in there.
SRUTHI: Oo, a cougar!
SRUTHI: The kind of taxidermy she makes, I’ve never seen before. These animals are soft, meaning they’re filled with teddybear stuffing and… they’re cuddly.
MARISSA: People like to hold them and touch them and they think it’s the coolest experience, you know? It’s great. Anybody can mount something and make it look like an animal but I feel like it takes actual talent to make something look like it’s breathing, you know, it’s still there, you know.
SRUTHI: Marissa's all in on Taxidermy. She dropped out of college to focus on it. She’s been selling her work online. Collectors have been buying from her. She won her first taxidermy contest this year. And then last month she hit her first big roadblock. It’s on the internet.
SRUTHI: What are you typing in?
MARISSA: My business name, which is Vita Nova taxidermy.
SRUTHI: I see, you type it in, and right on the first page…
MARISSA: Yeah, a couple of them down you can see the report.
SRUTHI: The most prominent search result—it’s even above Marissa’s own company website—is a link to something called Ripoff Report. Here’s what the website looks like: there’s a big screaming red headline that says “COMPLAINT.” Then there’s a map with a red pin showing Marissa’s home address. Below it, more big red text. It says: “Vita Nova Taxidermy Marissa Hernandez. Severe misrepresentation of product. Unfriendly customer service. Blackmails those who complain.” Then there’s a very detailed complaint, dated August 20th, 2015.
MARISSA: The quality of taxidermy mounts as shown on Vita Nova's website are not in any way the same quality of product she sends to her clients. The mounts have arrived with multiple holes in the skin, poor detail work...
SRUTHI: The accusations don’t stop there. According to this website, Marissa has committed untold sins against taxidermy. Like selling a kangaroo (that’s illegal in NY).
MARISSA: Marissa Hernandez has been anything but professional. This is a business to stay away from!
SRUTHI: You’re sort of calm about it. Is that how you feel?
MARISSA: No, I mean, it’s just how I come off. I’m very sensitive as a person, and it’s, these kinds of things definitely get to me on a different kind of level. You feel it like, in your stomach and, it’s you know. It’s a horrible kind of feeling.
SRUTHI: Almost all of Marissa’s business is online. Since the Ripoff Report appeared, she hasn’t got a single new order. Nothing. Marissa says there’s nothing in the report that’s true. We went through it point by point, and she had an answer for each one. No, she never sold a kangaroo. She feels like she’s always been polite with her customers, showed me a bunch of exchanges where she resolved issues with them. But the point is, she knows exactly who wrote this. It’s a young taxidermist that she knows from a taxidermy forum. Someone who chose to call herself Anony-mouse in the Ripoff Report.
SRUTHI: So why would somebody go after you like this?
MARISSA: They, it’s no other reason except for a personal issue with me. Because they haven’t done business with me at all. They haven’t dealt with me. I think it’s definitely a competition issue, and if somebody else does it better you don’t like that they’re taking customers away.
SRUTHI: I emailed Anony-mouse but she didn’t want to talk. I asked her if she could send me anything to back up the claims she made on the report, but she politely declined. Marissa also emailed her through a friend. And Anony-mouse did relent, and emailed Ripoff Report saying, “Hey, I changed my mind, can you make this go away?” But nothing happened. So then, Marissa wrote Ripoff an email. Explained her situation and asked:
MARISSA: “I would like to know how I can have this report changed or deleted and what information I can provide to you to prove this accusation wrong. I’d also like to at least have my address removed because it is my personal home address and I live with family. That is both threatening and scary and something I would not like publicly displayed. Thank you, Marissa Hernandez.”
SRUTHI: That was a month ago. No response yet. As a last ditch effort, she called them.
ANSWERING MACHINE: You have reached Advocacy Team for ripoffreport.com. Please press one now.
ED MAGEDSON: Who's calling please? I didn’t catch that.
MARISSA: Marissa Hernandez.
ED: You’re breaking up ma’am, can you say that again?
MARISSA: Marissa Hernandez.
ED: How could I help you, Marissa?
MARISSA: Hi, I’m looking to discuss ways to get a report removed from your website.
ED: Ma’am, you’re breaking up, you need to go in a better area, you’re cutting out very badly.
MARISSA: Uh, can you hear me now? He hung up on me.
SRUTHI: Marissa tried calling back again and again and again… but nobody picked up. Taxidermy was Marissa’s only source of income and now it’s gone. Her business is young, and she doesn’t have a stable of clients to rely on. And she’s young too: she just turned twenty last month.
MARISSA: You know, my whole life I haven’t been that great at anything, but then I found something I was actually good at and it’s something I wanted to keep doing because it’s all I really know how to do, as well as I can do. It shocks me a little bit because I don’t know if this is gonna be on the page forever, I may have to just give up the business, you know, cuz my name will be tarnished for the rest of my life and I couldn’t continue because I won’t get customers, or I’ll have to change my name.
SRUTHI: That’s so crazy, you’re twenty and you’re like, having to think about changing your name.
MARISSA: Yeah, it’s not a fun thing to think about.
SRUTHI: Before this, Marissa had never heard of Ripoff Report, nor had I. But it turns out it’s a huge deal. It contains almost two million reports. A lot of them are what you’d expect on a complaint website: I purchased a couch, it ripped and the furniture store refused to fix it. There’s warnings about internet scams, mean store employees. I talked to dozens of people for this story who like Marissa say that Ripoff Reports about them are false, and damaging. One guy at a lawfirm told me his company had been accused of sexual harassment but also of impotence. A doctor told me that she cried for months because of a report that was completely false. They were all still scared of Ripoff Report, even years later. And, this might sound a little dumb, but it never really occurred before this how much a person’s livelihood depends on their online reputation. It’s because of that vulnerability that there’s this whole ecosystem of services that promise to clean up the aftermath of a Ripoff Report.
VIDEO VOICEOVER: Tyler enjoyed a successful career running his own private practice. Until one day however, Tyler discovered that an unhappy patient of his published a fictitious and offensive post about his practice on ripoffreport.com.
SRUTHI: There are tons of videos like this on Youtube. All sorts of companies with names like internetreputation.com or reputationmanagement.com.
VIDEO ANNOUNCER: And within no time, the company managed to eliminate any trace of the unhappy patient’s post, leaving Tyler to focus on more important things, like his retirement.
SRUTHI: And the crazy thing about this website, Ripoff Report, that all these people are battling. It’s pretty much the work of one man: Ed Magedson. Ed’s the one who picked up when Marissa called. The people I talked to had all sorts of stories about him: they say he lives in a bunker, he’s on the run from the FBI, he’s a sociopath, a pedophile. It sounded to me like they were describing some kind of mythical villain. Like if Keyser Söze did his evil through a janky website. A month ago I met Ed. And for all the things I’d heard about Ed Magedson, the man that I met was way more surprising.
ALEX: Coming up after the break, we head to the bunker.
ALEX: And now, back to the show. Before the break, Sruthi was about to meet the man behind Ripoff Report.
SRUTHI: I reached Ed Magedson through his former PR person. Ed called me. And pretty soon, he said he’d do an interview. I could visit him in Arizona.
ED: You have to tell me when, you’re in New York right?
SRUTHI: Yeah... What’s that?
ED: That was my bird in the background. She screams.
SRUTHI: Your bird??
ED: Once in awhile. I have a big blue and gold macaw. One of those gigantic birds, the big, big, big, big birds.
SRUTHI: Um, OK. Yeah, I wouldn’t show up at your door or anything...
SRUTHI: I met Ed in the suburbs of Phoenix. He’s 60-something with long curly hair and glasses; dresses like someone who spends a lot of time hunched over a computer: t-shirt, track pants. He has eight cell phones, at least that’s how many I counted. And, he’s with a dog: a dark mutt called Buddy. Buddy is always by his side.
ED: You don’t mind sitting in the back? Dog gets front.
SRUTHI: He’s talking to me, not Buddy. The dog sat shotgun. Ed drove to his house, a ranch-style spot tucked away in the hills.
SRUTHI: It is beautiful here with all the cacti and like, views of the mountains.
ED: We’re not ready to get out yet, hold on.
SRUTHI: There were lots of trees, a small pool, small waterfall. Not exactly the bunker that people told me he lived in. But it did have a lot of security.
SRUTHI: Wow, that’s a lot of cameras. That’s four times… Sixteen cameras?
ED: And actually, I have one that actually gets license plates and so on.
SRUTHI: Have you ever had an actual issue, like somebody trying to...
ED: I’ve had issues.
SRUTHI: Like somebody trying to break in, or?
ED: Not break in, but. I’d much rather not say at this time. I was going to put a moat.
SRUTHI: A moat?
ED: I’m kidding with you.
SRUTHI: Ed told me that his long path to Ripoff Report started back in 1970. When he was just a stoner teenager, helping out a florist near his school. A supplier had just brought a fresh batch of flowers and left them on the sidewalk. Ed was trying to put them away but people kept stopping him, asking to buy the flowers.
ED: I said to myself, “Gee whiz, you know, maybe I can put flowers out on a corner in just a few spots and sell those flowers.”
SRUTHI: So you mean instead of having like a store, to just have a person selling it, like out of a bucket or something?
SRUTHI: Ed hired a bunch of his hippie friends. Handed each one some flowers and a bucket. And, the business took off. Ed says he earned his first million before was 19.
ED: I just kept going and opening up more stores. There wasn’t very much to the store.
SRUTHI: What was the name of the business?
ED: The Flower Children.
SRUTHI: I read a bunch of old articles about the Flower Children. In the photos, you see Ed with a long curly ponytail. There’s young women in ripped up denim. They’re sitting cross legged on the pavement under his signature red and yellow umbrellas, next to pails of carnations and daisies. So how did he go from this to Ripoff Report? Turns out flowers are a dirty, dirty business. Ed says people were constantly trying to shut him down—florists, zoning inspectors.
ED: The flower business and all my experience there helped me because I suffered the injustices of the system. And even though I always won, always, I always persuaded the city council members, you know and they brought it for a hearing or whatever, we always won and we were always able to end up selling our flowers.
SRUTHI: Ed started a string of businesses after that, and each time he’d end up in a different fight, a different legal battle. He says he always ran into some big vested interest trying stamp out the little guy. And Ed always fights back. Not for the money he says, but because he cares about justice. Like, for instance, when he was in his 40’s, Ed was semi retired, living in Tempe, Arizona. He was spending his free time camped out in a lawyer’s office. He would answer the phone. And if it was someone whose case was too small for the lawyer, then he, Ed, would help that person. Here’s one call he took:
ED: Old guy, probably in his eighties. They bought a pickup truck, got ripped off for his deposit. And the guy wasn’t going to budge. So I set up a picket with him and his wife and other people. And handed flyers out to people. And at the time I actually used the word ripoff.
SRUTHI: You used the word ripoff in the flyer?
ED: In the flyer, and on a big piece of oak tag. And it said, “Honk if they ripped you off too.” So people were just honking, and they knew this is what the sign said, so every time the people honked, they cringed inside because it was people saying, “Yeah I got ripped off too.”
SRUTHI: And how did you feel when they were honking?
ED: It was a blast. It was, it was a blast. The area where we were picketing wasn’t far from where something else I was doing. There were some people that needed to paint around my parents’ home. So I went and picked up some day laborers. And then they were telling me about how they get ripped off. People work them and then drop em off. Leave em, and they threaten em with deportation and all kinds of other things.
SRUTHI: So these are like illegal immigrant workers, like day laborers?
ED: Immigrant workers, that are the people who do our lawns and pick our fruit, cuz I am a firm believer that they should come here legally, but we've allowed it and our American system has allowed them to survive for this long and look the other way, now all of a sudden let's deport them all? Totally crazy.
SRUTHI: But they were telling you a story of how…
ED: Let me get back on track, remember, ADD? Okay.
SRUTHI: Ed is the first to admit that he often gets sidetracked
ED: So I made up a flyer.
SRUTHI: You’re the king of flyers.
ED: So I made up a flyer. To tell them what they should do, and don’t spit in the street.
SRUTHI: Don’t whistle at women, don’t urinate in public… Some rules to follow, so the police would leave them alone. At the bottom, there’s a phone number. If a landlord or anyone else is messing with you, call me. And I’ll help you for free. So, Ed’s working with these day laborers, with the people calling the lawyer’s office. And he’s falling in love with being the vigilante. And someone suggested, why don’t you start a website?
ED: Now, when I heard about computers, trust me. I said I’m never gonna get into computers. That’s not happening.
ED: You know, I dropped out of tenth grade, so I wasn’t a speller, I wasn’t, couldn’t really put too many sentences together. It was a chore to teach me cuz I was really a dumb shit.
SRUTHI: But Ed jumped in, hired someone to build him him a website.
ED: I first registered as bad business bureau dot com, but spelled the word bureau incorrectly. It was that way for six months. Until somebody, somewhere said, “Do you realize you’re spelling the word bureau wrong?” I totally freaked.
SRUTHI: It was 1998 and the site was an immediate hit.
NEWSCASTER: Thousands come hear to sound off on a scam and send it bouncing down the corridors of the information superhighway…
NEWSCASTER: Talking about scams that are Scrooging thousands of dollars from the unsuspecting buyer. It’s called ripoffreport.com.
SRUTHI: The internet didn’t yet have horns that could honk at local businesses. Ripoff Report filled that role nicely. Anyone could come here, write a post for free. And they’d be heard. Partly because Ripoff Report is a perfect fit for the google algorithm. First, the site is great at using all the right words in all the right places—words like “review” and “complaint,” words that would typically be searched alongside a business name. And second, a lot of these small businesses don’t have much of a web presence anyway, so a Ripoff Report would jump to the top of results. All of which means if you write a Ripoff Report about someone, a lot of people will probably see it. But here’s what really makes Ripoff Report unique: under no circumstances is a report removed. That’s Ed’s policy and he sticks to it.
SRUTHI: Do you ever have a situation where you feel oh, you need to remove the original report?
ED: Ripoff Report can't play judge and jury. We can't get involved. You know it's, you never know. You know that scale of justice, you know, with the blind lady and stuff like that? Justice is blind and everyone's entitled to their opinion.
SRUTHI: Ed says he refuses to give anyone special treatment. In his mind that’s what separates him from those other websites, like mugshots.com, where if you pay, they’ll take content down. For Ed, the permanence is what makes Ripoff Report fair. It’s been like that since the beginning.
ED: There was a a big brake company, I won't mention any names. Offered me fifty thousand dollars to remove reports, and I said no. You know. At the time, you know, I was just paying for this outta my own pocket and I felt that I was doing something good. And I could have just kept kind of doing that and, you know, making money on the money that I had.
SRUTHI: You had no revenue, like no ads, nothing back then?
ED: Nothing. Nothing. Yeah, I didn't want to take advertising on the website. But I had to because I was forced into it because of these, you know, knuckleheads that I have to deal with, so I gotta charge more for our service.
SRUTHI: By knuckleheads, he means the people who keep suing him for stuff on his website. According to him, they’re the ones who forced him start making money off of Ripoff Report. He’s had to pay over five million dollars in legal fees, he’s been sued him more than a 100 times. Ed always wins, because there’s a law that came out in the 90s, which says a website owner isn’t responsible for what other people write on it. It’s the law that protects Facebook, Google, Twitter. And, it also protects Ed. But still, it’s expensive. And so, Ed says, to cover costs, he’s added stuff to his website: ads. An arbitration program. And my favorite, a “Corporate Advocacy Program.”
VIDEO ANNOUNCER: The Corporate Advocacy Business Remediation and Customer Satisfaction Program. Yes, it’s a long name for a program, that does a lot for both consumers and businesses alike...
SRUTHI: Think of it as a VIP room of Ripoff Report. If you join, Ed will send someone to check out your company and write a long spiel about how great it is—a spiel which be placed well above any negative report about you. And, then if someone tries to file a new report about you? Ed will put that person in touch with you right away. You work it out with them…
VIDEO ANNOUNCER: As long as the customer is satisfied, the report never posts.
SRUTHI: It’s as if you’ve “inoculated” yourself against Ripoff. It’ll cost, though.
ED: Look, the average is probably between 5500 and 15 to 20 grand. But there’s a lot of work involved with, people think it’s like nothing
SRUTHI: The people I talked to, this is why they call Ed an extortionist. They see it as Ed using Ripoff Report to shake them down. Some people I talked to said, if they could just get their hands on Ed, they would kill him. Wring his neck. Ed gets so many threatening calls that he has a favorites section on the Ripoff Report Website. Like a Hall of Fame. He showed me a couple on his computer.
SRUTHI: You have a lot of folders called “Threats.”
ED: These are different crazy nutjobs.
SRUTHI: How about that one: “Threatening and nasty emails and phone calls, one thousand and sixty eight messages.”
THREAT: Do you eat shit and swallow it too? Because you guys are a bunch of fucking queers. You nasty son of a bitches…
SRUTHI: He’s chuckling there.
THREAT: I hope you fucking put your face in the dirt one day...
SRUTHI: Messages like these don't seem to hurt Ed. He actually seems to feed off of them. They're proof that he's doing the right thing.
THREAT: Suck my fatass dick.
SRUTHI: I feel bad for people, you know, because I always feel like…
ED: Can I just tell you something? What kind of person calls like that? She just sounds like somebody, she must have done something to somebody. Who the hell knows, she could have stolen something, her kid coulda done something.
SRUTHI: Who knows. But what I really wanted Ed to talk about is the people who hadn’t done anything wrong, people who had been hurt by HIS website. But to get to that, I’d have to first get him to say yes, innocent people, like Marissa the taxidermist, DO get targeted on Ripoff Report. And that is really, really hard.
ED: I just say in general, nobody just picked their name out in a phone book and said, “Gee whiz, I'm going to file a nasty Ripoff Report.” I just, so what do you want me to know, if I feel bad about things like that?
SRUTHI: I don’t know, do you?
ED: Well, I don’t know, does the company of any of the search engines feel bad about that?
SRUTHI: The way Ed sees it, the world is changing, and he’s just keeping up.
ED: Life isn't fair. And we all have to suffer with certain things that do happen. This is just a way of the twenty first century. It's no longer just buyer beware. It's also seller beware. And businesses need to be more customer service conscious. And be, have a good attitude.
SRUTHI: But what if it's a company that really didn’t…
ED: Number one, it would never happen to somebody like you. There are people that are out there that are literally assholes. And they deserve what they're getting. Nobody writes a Ripoff Report for no reason.
SRUTHI: Say some jerk says there's this nice guy down the street, I'm going to file a terrible report about him, and it costs the jerk nothing to file the report and say the nice guy, he has to pay for something like Corporate Advocacy which is, you know, it's pretty expensive, like for most businesses five grand…
ED: If you question most of the businesses, they would tell you it was the best thing that ever happened.
SRUTHI: But can you imagine a scenario where it is unfair? Like especially if the nice guy couldn't afford it?
ED: You know if it didn't happen here, it was going to happen somewhere.
SRUTHI: This went on for a while. Basically, Ed’s saying we’re ALL going to get complaints no matter how hard we try. If you tell Ed, yeah, but what if you’re not guilty, he’ll say well, you’re probably guilty. And if you say, no really, I’m innocent, he’ll say life’s not fair, and what he does is no different than what Google does. He’s just the middleman. And, Ed says think of the GOOD that Ripoff Report does. I have talked to the FBI, to attorneys general in different states. And they say, yeah, they do look at sites like Ripoff Report to find victims of companies that may be scamming people.
ED: As much as people like to try to put us out to be the bad guy, and all those like nasty little websites that people write about us, about me, they don't know me, they don't have, they take things, change em around, switch it to something else, and there's people just out there that just want to lie and, and tell stories, that like trying to give me some of my own medicine. But you know what, I'll take it. I've been dealing with it. Is it aggravating? Is it stressful? Sure, look at me, I've, I've done nothing but gain weight over the years because I'm a slave to the computer. I'm not taking care of myself in, in the name of I'm just so dedicated to making this thing right and I ain’t making a lot of fuckin money. And people think it’s all about money, that I’m making all this money. I mean, it’s mind-boggling the crap that people say. But hey, I gotta live by the... sword? What's the saying? I live and die by the sword.
SRUTHI: Maybe I’m the world’s biggest sucker but I actually do find Ed convincing when he says he’s not in it for in the money. Because there are really only three things that Ed ever wants to talk about. His dog, his bird, and The Fight. Ed’s always coming back to this: the fight, the little guy being screwed over by big, powerful forces. And in this fight, Ed always casts himself as the hero. It can’t be any other way. And it definitely looks like this fight has taken a lot out of him. He’s single, doesn’t make time for relationships. He’s incredibly secretive about random things. Like, when he was ordering pizza at one point, he asked me not to record. He didn’t want anyone to know what restaurant he orders from. He won’t leave his garbage out in case his enemies find DNA of him. And the house we’re sitting in, it’s empty. Ed recently moved out into some other undisclosed location. He says he had to because somebody doxxed him, published his address online.
SRUTHI: How did you feel when you saw that?
ED: I felt, you know, disappointed. And of course I was pissed off. I’m really concerned for my dog and my bird. So you know, that’s, I’m not concerned about the furniture and the other personal effects. I’ve moved, since I’ve had the website, I believe eight or nine times.
SRUTHI: Do you ever enjoy it in a way, like it’s an adventure. Kind of moving from one undisclosed location to another, it’s kind of like a spy movie.
ED: [MAKES BUZZER NOISE] Wrong answer. No, no way, doesn’t, not even close, no, of course not. Please, are you kidding? It’s a fucking pain in the ass to move. There’s nothing else I can say.
SRUTHI: Do you ever think that maybe you’re doing this to hide from something else? Like if you didn’t have Ripoff Report and you didn’t have the 8 cell phones, being cautious, and all this other stuff, that if it was just you, that it would be really, really hard?
ED: Um… Can we just hold off a second? Cuz I, there are certain things I can’t ignore. Just, sorry. My bird needs to gets its beak trimmed.
SRUTHI: Oh, your bird needs to get its beak trimmed. So you’re reminding yourself.
ED: So. Can I help you?
SRUTHI: This happened a lot with Ed. We spent almost two days talking and often, just when I felt like we were getting somewhere, the world would swoop in and distract him. For those two days, Ed was always gracious, seemed trusting. Like a sweet uncle. But when it was time for me to leave …
SRUTHI: You should take care.
ED: When you come describing me, I still have a good head of hair left on me.
SRUTHI: Gotta go through fact checking.
ED: Well are you gonna take… No photos.
SRUTHI: No photos.
ED: I really am glad you came. I'll see how you destroy me. And misrepresent me.
SRUTHI: He was joking…sort of. As I was walking out I had this thought: Ed’s philosophy seems to be that anyone he meets could be the next person who takes advantage of him, screws him over. That’s how Ed sees the world. And that why he’s sure that no matter how awful the site makes his life or anyone else’s ... the world will always need Ripoff Report.
ALEX: Sruthi Pinnamaneni is a producer for our show. Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Tim Howard, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, and Phia Bennin and we were edited by Peter Clowney. Production assistance from Kalila Holt. Our engineer is Rick Kwan. Special thanks to Doug Pierce. Matt Lieber is that cousin you only see during the summer, but you get along as though you hang out all the time. Our theme music is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings. You can find more episodes at itunes.com/replyall. Our website is replyall.soy.
Thanks for listening. We are taking next week off to work on some stories, so we’ll see you in a couple weeks.