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By now, organizations with any type of Web presence are aware of the threat of phishing and customer identity theft. As a result, they are becoming increasingly vigilant about putting the security measures in place to detect and mitigate damage from viruses and other, more-evident malicious acts.

What they don't always realize, however, is that online incidents can extend well beyond the most obvious instances of fraud. Few, in fact, are actually focusing on the "collateral damage" that comes with the hundreds of thousands of brand infractions that happen online every day.

Granted, only 10 percent of those infractions might be considered serious or actionable. For example, when a charitable organization that a company is supporting cuts and pastes a logo onto its site, that is hardly worth a second thought. But when a company's good name is used to perpetrate frauds or scams, it can be extremely damaging for business indeed.

Take the case of a North American retailer that was presented with thousands of fake discount coupons printed from unauthorized Web sites. Because of the company's policy of honoring coupons, the company experienced a measurable drop in revenues and profits as a direct result from accepting fraudulent discount codes.

Or consider the instance of an international entertainment company that had its well-known cartoon characters recreated and featured on a range of online pornography sites. In addition to potentially exposing young children to highly offensive material, this incident resulted in a loss of customer trust.

Even activities that seem innocuous can have unintended consequences. For instance, not all companies recognize the negative implications that can accrue when online criminals post fake job listings for well-known companies. By accessing the detailed information contained in the resumes that they collect, fraudsters are using recognizable brands to commit identity theft.

Infractions don't always originate externally. In one case, the authorized resellers of a global automotive manufacturer were featuring famous songs on their Web sites without a proper license. This lack of compliance from its own channel partners left the company responsible for significant royalty payments.

An Attitude of Constant Vigilance

As those examples show, online infractions are increasingly diverse. In fact, some online-threat experts have identified dozens of categories of Internet brand infractions (fraudulent activity) and domain-name infractions that have the capacity to damage brand reputation.

To protect customers and their own good name, organizations must continuously monitor how their brands are being used online. By understanding the types of incidents they may be subject to, companies can develop policies for prioritizing potential threats and put in place appropriate response measures to mitigate exposure and damage.

In some cases, taking steps to remove the inappropriate material may be the best course of action, particularly when customers are placed at risk. In other instances, if the incidents are contained and deemed harmless, companies may prefer to take a wait-and-see attitude. Sometimes a written warning is enough to defuse the problem. Ultimately, companies can make informed decisions only if they remain aware of how their brands are being represented—or potentially misrepresented—online.

Since misrepresentation can come in many forms, it is important for companies to first familiarize themselves with the different types of online threats, including Web-linking infractions, the misuse of logos or trademarks, claims that a company is affiliated with questionable organizations, or even potential privacy infractions (e.g., making corporate email addresses available online).

Once organizations understand the potential threats to both the business and its customers, the next step to helping protect brand equity is to begin implementing strategies for online brand protection, such as the following:

  • Determining which incidents merit response by an organization. Not every incident will be relevant, so businesses should put criteria in place to assess when and how to take action.
  • Compiling a list of the people and organizations allowed to use a company's name and/or logo online. Even authorized users can misrepresent brands, so monitoring third parties to ensure they comply with a company's brand guidelines becomes important.
  • Entering linking agreements with organizations authorized to link to an organization's site. Doing so can help determine when unauthorized users try to link in.
  • Protecting online images with digital watermarking technology. Digital watermarking can assist in tracing images if they are improperly recreated—and prevent customer confusion.
  • Taking action to remove unacceptable brand use from the Internet. Communicating with channel partners or hosts is critical to having infractions removed.
  • Monitoring new media, such as blogs and social networking sites, on a regular basis. Internet predators can use angry postings to target people they think may help them commit fraud, exposing customers to the danger of identity theft, and exposing companies to the danger of embezzlement.
  • Training staff on how to spot online incidents. Consider identifying dedicated staff to receive training on how to monitor popular social-networking sites and identify postings, comments, or videos that may negatively affect the organization.
  • Working with trusted partners to monitor the Web. No one can find all instances through a manual search. An online brand protection service can monitor activities and provide regular reports about how an organization and its brands are being portrayed across the entire Internet.

Ultimately, brand protection is all about vigilance. By regularly monitoring the use of brands online, organizations can ensure prior infractions don't recur and can rapidly identify when new incidents arise. In a world where an organization's brand can represent half, or more, of the company's equity, it's an investment of time and resources that's well made.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kevin Joy is vice-president of BD-BrandProtect (www.bdbrandprotect.com) and can be reached at kjoy@bdbrandprotect.com.