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Rumor-mill churning hurtful, hard to combat

“History is a distillation of rumour,” wrote 19th century Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle, a thought to make contemporary Rochester small-businessman Robert Ritchie shudder.
Rumor has dogged Ritchie, owner and operator of A&A Solutions, since the day he started the business three years ago.
“They started before I even got out on the road,” he sighs.
Though its use is always officially frowned upon, rumor has long been used in rivalries ranging from school-yard battles to political campaigns and wars between nations.
Add to that business rivalries.
Indeed, rumor is a business tactic far more widely used than most would care to admit, says attorney Russell Zuckerman of Underberg & Kessler LLP. And libel laws and anti-harassment statutes notwithstanding, it is a tactic that is devilishly difficult to combat.
While those targeted by slanderous rumors may in fact suffer financial harm, damages are difficult to quantify and prove, for one thing.
“How can you prove you didn’t get a sale or contract because of some rumor?” Zuckerman says.
Tell it to Ritchie.
On his very first day of selling for A&A Solutions, Ritchie began to suspect that something was amiss when his first three prospects–“cold calls I didn’t know from Adam”–gave the term “cold call” new depth of meaning. His fourth prospect literally ordered Ritchie off his property.
Potential buyers, he later learned, had been forewarned against dealing with him for a variety of reasons, all of them untrue.
Likewise recently targeted by rumor was restaurateur Mario Daniele, owner of two successful Rochester eateries and an importing firm.
For several months, staff at Mario’s Via Abruzzi has had to contend with a steady stream of queries as to whether the establishment had filed for bankruptcy, says Daniele’s assistant, Mario Rodriguez.
Ultimately, the rumors were traced to a single source, a disgruntled former employee. But while the queries continue, Rodriguez says, he and Daniele have decided not to take action against the individual.
Non-response is often a target’s best defense, Zuckerman says.
In addition to the problem of incurring legal expenses in a difficult-to-prove case, rumor-targeted businesses risk further disseminating false charges by repeating them in court, or worse, on TV.
For Ritchie, who thinks a single individual known to him is responsible for the various calumnies perpetrated against him, it is a question of money.
“I’m a small-businessman. I can’t afford a high-priced lawyer,” he laments.
One of his distributors once helped Ritchie obtain a lawyer who in turn won a cease-and-desist order against the suspected rumormonger.
“It worked for a while, but they started up again in a few weeks,” Ritchie says.
Despite encountering far more than average sales resistance in his enterprise, he persisted and has managed to build a core of “95 percent loyal customers.” An authorized dealer for Auto Solutions and Ardex products, Ritchie runs a route of area automobile dealers and body shops, peddling supplies used in auto-body repairs.
A&A is a one-man operation. Ritchie makes sales calls and deliveries in a van and rents warehouse space in which he stores his inventory.
Contrary to rumors his customers may have heard, the van, which Ritchie owns, has not been repossessed by A&A’s suppliers. And the warehouse is heated, Ritchie gamely but rather tiredly insists.
A longtime customer of Ritchie’s calls the stories told against A&A Solutions “laughable.”
A parts manager who asked that neither his name nor that of the well-known Rochester auto dealership for which he works be used, the customer depicts Ritchie as hardworking and honest. However, he doubts that a single individual is responsible for the rumor campaign. Lies, he says, are endemic to the auto business. Competitors fear Ritchie as a worthy opponent with a good product line, and so try to thwart him by any means.
Rodriguez says that after some early agonizing, he and Daniele have been able to let the lies roll harmlessly over them.
At first, “we were absolutely upset. People start repeating them. One of our suppliers said he’d heard about it.”
Now, he says, the rumors are beginning to seem more ridiculous than threatening.
Wait, says Ritchie.
While he takes great comfort in his loyal following, and cannot of a certainty prove that he has lost business over the rumor campaign, Ritchie believes that it has hurt him financially, an opinion shared by his parts-manager customer.
And even if he is not losing money, rumor has taken a psychic toll.
Says Ritchie: “I’m tired. I just want it to stop.”

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