It seems that lately, every other turn we take we’re presented with warnings about cybercrime and online bullying. My primary school aged daughter recently brought home internet safety information and anti-bullying messages having learnt about it at school on ‘Internet Safety Day’. I’m a big supporter of all these campaigns and initiatives. I just wish this level of awareness had been the case 5 years ago when I first encountered my online bully. If only I’d known then what I know now. To this day, my family and my business are still suffering the effects of someone who made it his business, to attack ours.
My husband and I started our own business providing remedial timber and damp services over 10 years ago. We are a small business, based in Kent and we pride ourselves on our reputation. We are honest and hardworking, passionate about providing a guaranteed, reliable service.
Just over 5 years ago, I was on the internet, carrying out some research when I came across a website, with published blogs which were making damning claims against a number of credible damp proofing contractors. I was quite shocked that someone would focus such effort on damaging others’ businesses. I felt aggrieved on behalf of those businesses and compelled to stand up for them. I put pen to paper, wrote an article myself and posted it on my own website blog page, supporting the criticised businesses whose reputations were being ruined unfairly. Looking back now, I realise how naïve I was, to think that my actions wouldn’t have repercussions.
The ‘bully’ very quickly acted upon my blog post, attacking my business directly. He created fake websites in our name, wrote fake reviews, stole photos from our website and social media profiles and used them against us. It made me feel sick, reading his words over the following days, weeks and months, which claimed we as a business were being investigated by Trading Standards, that we preyed on elderly homeowners and numerous other, completely untrue allegations. Much heartache and sleepless nights followed.
We weren’t alone. The damp proofing contractors which had been written about on the website I found, were all being personally and professionally targeted at varying levels.
My Mum always told me to ignore bullies, that they’d eventually leave you alone, but how could I? My business and my livelihood was at stake.
We worked with another of the bully’s victims to try and bring him to justice. We contacted the media, tv, newspapers, radio stations, trading standards and eventually, the police. Many of our complaints fell on deaf ears back then. It wasn’t that they didn’t care, more that they didn’t know how to help. Eventually, one of his victims succeeded in taking the bully to court. It took a number of years however before he won the case. He was awarded costs and a sum of money, under the UK’s first Cyber Libel case. Unfortunately, none of the bully’s victims have received any compensation to date.
We’ve never given up working to clear our name and maintain our reputation. We have focused on sharing real customer testimonials online, aligning ourselves with industry bodies and gaining accreditations to promote our way of working. As a result of this, I have recently become a director on the board of the Property Care Association, our industry’s trade body.
I am proud to say I have found positives from this situation. I have joined the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and was invited to join their Women in Enterprise taskforce. I have also met with key Government people responsible for fighting against online fraud, as well as Matthew Scott, Kent’s PCC and have had the opportunity to tell my story to help raise awareness and support others.
As a victim of a cyber bully today, I would’ve had a very different experience I believe. There are various different levels of support and ways to respond to cyber-attacks, including agencies such as Action Fraud and Cyber Essentials.
Whilst the Government recognises legislation needs to change to stop these bullies; Legislation takes a long time to change, so we must all be careful.
My advice to anyone affected as we were, would be to report the problem to the police immediately and then inform the relevant agencies. And if it’s taking place on social media, the platforms themselves offer support and means of reporting abuse. Most importantly, I would tell anyone else suffering to stand up and be counted. Our persistence will ensure legislation against online bullies does change, and the penalties will become a deterrent.
Annabelle Webster is a company director along with her husband, Dean Webster. South East Timber and Damp has over 20 years of experience in assisting with the eradication of Rising Damp, Woodworm, Condensation, Dry Rot and Wet Rot, just to name a few. They also specialise in the installation of Waterproofing / Tanking of basements and Wet Rooms and all aspects related to these remedial services.