USAA is a social fool

I love stories of kneejerk (emphasis on the second syllable) lawyers mucking with a company’s image and relationships with their stupid cease-and-desist letters. Here’s a good one.

My sonorously named friend Rikki Tahta, founder of Covestor, invested in a company called Amplicate sent me an email about such a letter. (Disclosure: I invested in the former company, gave advice to the latter, and am a customer of the company I’m about to mention, USAA).

Amplicate gathers mentions about companies and organizes them according to sentiment, creating a “sucks” and “rocks” page for each brand. It has more than 16 million opinions from 5 million people on 100k topics. Now Rikki tells the tale:

Yesterday Amplicate received a bullying email from the corporate legal department of USAA – the insurance and financial services company. In short the letter was packed full of legalese that was incomprehensible but clearly implied that Amplicate were not allowed to publish a web page that said USAA sucked and they would take legal action against if they continued.

The outrageous thing is they are clearly bullying. Amplicate has a First Amendment right to say what it wants, and besides it merely re-posts all the tweets of individuals who also have a right to free speech. Regardless it is outrageous to try and stifle criticism by suggesting legal action particularly when you know its baseless. The guys running Amplicate were concerned they had broken some law, until we told them it was nonsense. But for all I know USAA may have been successful elsewhere.

But the really funny thing is: the USAA corporation is completely missing the point of social media and are trying to shoot themselves in the foot. Like all topics at Amplicate there is a USAA Sucks page and a USAA Rocks page. Most banks have considerable more negative opinions than positive. USAA is actually one of the most popular financial institutions with 93% of people expressing strong opinions being favourable. The average bank hovers around 30-40%. Search for USAA opinions and you’ll find that out pretty quickly.

Under the terms of their legal complaint they wouldn’t want us mentioning USAA at all and we’d have to remove the USAA Rocks page too! Its amazingly crude to expect people should only publish nice things about you, and its ineffective, the positive comments are all the more credible precisely because there is an equal opportunity for negative comment.

Wacky, self-destructive, jerky, eh?

The legal argument USAA’s pit bull puts forward is as hard to understand as its social-media strategy. Their threatening letter says about Amplicate’s pages:

These actions on your part are clearly designed to cause confusion, deception, and mistake. Furthermore, the use of USAA’s name and marks in connection with this website, and deceptive web search tactics, violates USAA’s rights and constitutes trademark infringement and unfair competition under the Lanham Act. In addition, your site incorporates USAA’s mark(s), uses the same channel of commerce (the Internet) used by USAA, and describes services identical to those covered by USAA’s mark(s).

So let me get this straight: If I say “USAA” on the internet thingie I’ve violated your trademark and confused all your customer? They then try to order around the startup:

We trust this letter is sufficient to convince you to immediately cease and desist from all use of the USAA name and marks, including within the content of your website, URL strings and extensions, and metatags, metadata, banner ads, texts ads, and links, now and forever hereafter. In addition, you must transfer to USAA any and all domain names you own or control that include USAA, or any other marks of USAA, within the next fifteen (15) days.

So then USAA should come after me because somewhere in the URL above, I say USAA? And here I use the letters USAA a lot. Come and get me. On its site (which I dare to link to), USAA says it “not a publicly traded company, so we don’t answer to stockholders — we answer to our members.” Well, I’m a member so answer me this, USAA: How can you be so foolish? And if you get rid of the legal department that wastes money doing this foolishness, will you lower my rates?

Oh, and by the way, USAA, since I’m talking about you, I remain enraged that you turned down my life insurance because I received a heart condition as a result of being at the World Trade Center on 9/11 — is this how you treat emergency personnel there and soldiers in war? I’d say that sucks.

  • Ranko

    This post would have been perfect 29 days ago.

  • David Neylon

    I’m a member too and I think they’re being foolish. I think it’s time to drop them a note. Thanks.

  • Chuck Johns

    I’m a long time member / policyholder of USAA (maybe not as long as you, Jeff!!!) and I find this behavior seriously out-of-line and unexpected. I, too, will be dropping them a note to express my displeasure and disappointment.

  • http://tgdavidson.com Tom Davidson

    Hey, they run a customer-service phone center, too. And I use that – ahem – same channel of commerce …

    Oh, my God! I think I accidentally said “USAA” yesterday on the telephone instead of “USA!” Did I violate trademark law? Are their lawyers coming to get me? Will they take me in front of a trademark death panel?!?

    Gosh, these interwebs are scary. I think I’ll find myself a warm cup of coffee, a puppy, and a phalanx of lawyers to keep me safe.

  • http://twitter.com/saralivingston sara

    I actually find this a bit surprising as USAA is frequently called out for being progressive in their social strategy (esp for a financial services brand). I believe there was even a lengthy forester case study about this.

  • L Metnard

    I agree that USAA is probably overreaching. I really want to know where the line must be drawn Case in point : ‘Jeff Jarvis is a pedophile’. At what point does that ‘comment’ ,’opinion’ become malicious , slanderous and libelous? Can I go on Yelp and assert an establishment violates food safety codes? Does the addition of ‘in my opinion’ make it all better? ‘ In my opinion Jeff Jarvis is the chief trafficker of cocaine into the US’ – I think collating opinions on the web is dangerous

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      They are not claiming libel but misuse of trademark in talking about their company, which is a clear violation of free speech and just plain stupid.

  • Brian

    Thanks Jeff. I am a member of USAA just sent them a letter expressing my disappointment with their position on this issue.

  • http://postadvertising.com Kirk Cheyfitz

    This is almost as amusing as the threatening legal letters we got from Crain Communications, owners of Advertising Age magazine, when we started our agency (Story Worldwide) and began using the phrase “post-advertising age” to describe the changing state of marketing. While the dispute centered on the URL “postadvertisingage.com”, (which we still own but agreed not to use) their lawyers argued long and hard that we could not use the phrase “post-advertising age” in any way without confusing people into believing we were Advertising Age. We ultimately convinced them they could not own parts of the English language.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      That’s simply incredible

  • http://usaa.com Tom Vaughn

    I’m director of social media for USAA. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I wasn’t aware of the Cease & Desist letter but I’m certainly going to look into it. I’ll hopefully have an update for you on Monday.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Thank you. I look forward to it.

      Now if you’ll only sell me life insurance….

      • http://usaa.com Tom Vaughn

        I’ll look into that as well. Sounds like a fun Monday – lawyers and life insurance underwriters.

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  • Rick

    USAA also sent its members a letter asking us to object to the pending financial regulations, since it would limit its opportunities to invest in its own products and other risky behavior. Even offered boilerplate I could sign that would automatically go to my senators.
    I researched the issue and decided not to comply with their request. This was apparently a very rare request from USAA so I almost went with it, trusting their good rep. I hope USAA realizes its brand is the most valuable asset in its portfolio – their reputation cannot be purchased with advertising, legal threats, or reliance on blind loyalty.

  • Stan Hogan

    When sweeping legal precedences are established they often come from nominally related cases. USAA, if its lawyers do more than write threatening letters, could be on its way to helping tame the free-for-all of the Internet.
    It isn’t just libel that has been the guidepost for free speech. The ability to protect your reputation, livelihood or more has been lost in the morass of often-anonymous incivility.
    It has yet to sort itself all out but when it does it will be at the U.S. Supreme Court level and it will be cases like these that will be the drivers. Silly as it may seem.

  • http://www.usaa.com Tom Vaughn

    Jeff, thanks for bringing this issue to our attention. Your post has shed some much needed light on a well-intentioned process that missed the mark. In fact, we’ve already begun the work to ensure we handle these kinds of site reviews better (and with less legalese!) going forward.

    The letter Amplicate received was part of an automated process to ensure websites aren’t using our logo to misrepresent that they are associated with USAA. We regularly see sites claiming to offer USAA services that have no relationship with us – thus deceiving our members and potential members.

    We know Amplicate isn’t doing that and is just hosting a robust dialogue about USAA and other well-known brands. In fact, I’ll be reaching out to Amplicate as well to clear up the confusion that our letter has created.

    We’re big fans of open dialogue about USAA products and services – positive and negative. We know it helps customers make more informed decisions and helps us get better, which is why we’ve posted more than 26,000 authentic member reviews and comments on usaa.com.

    Thanks again. As for the life insurance question – expect a personal call on that topic.

    Tom Vaughn
    Director of Social Media – USAA

    • “you will have to sue USAA”

      Tom Vaughn wrote “We’re big fans of open dialogue about USAA products and services – positive and negative. We know it helps customers make more informed decisions and helps us get better, which is why we’ve posted more than 26,000 authentic member reviews and comments on usaa.com.”

      Which would be why USAA refused to list my negative comment three times because this one is really USAA bank fraud . This seems like a good site to warn all about USAA as a poor and negative banking service. The customer service reps, supervisors and mangers are care-less and down right hostile, often will hang up on you.

      I’ve been a USAA member in good standing since 2002 until July of 2010 when USAA made a grave error by committing bank fraud.

      USAA turned my 80 yr old Mothers sole savings account into a 3 way joint savings account for 3 adult children, claiming “she authorized” it.

      This grave error by USAA could not be explained to me for four days as to how did a savings account with 15K show up in my account??? USAA did not know, stating “You must have opened a savings account”. I had not and did not, but USAA now was able to carry out the illegal (penalty never assessed according to tax code) hold on $10.219 of the my Mothers savings now in MY NAME, for a civil penalty asset levy SENT TO USAA, with out warrant or subpoena, even after when EACH joint holder had to personally REMOVE them selves and were removed, USAA still sent the money to the IRS after 21 days, USAA claimed that the joint holders have not been removed. USAA to this day have never issued USAA savings account signature cards. Thus committing bank fraud.

      We asked for the recording of the transaction and the name of the agent who screwed up in order to get him fired. The supervisors & managers said that we would have to sue USAA as they suggested the only way to get that information. We did not want jumping lawyers in any state to sue USAA located in Texas.

      We filed a complaint about USAA with The OTS (Office of Thrift Supervision in Washington DC. ) While I kept my USAA American Express Card, car insurance, checking and savings account current, I now had to pay my mother the money that USAA took for the IRS, as it was her working capital. This caused me not to pay on my USAA master card with a balance of 10K

      After 5 months of useless USAA customer care reps, bogus executive support managers providing complete snow jobs for answers, and USAA Presidents that ignore you while sending stern auto letter’s…… After OTS filed thier report, USAA refunded the amount to my Mother telling her “the IRS was settled but don’t go there”.

      I had placed the full master card balance in dispute. USAA said that can not be done. Citing the case above USAA said one does not have anything to do with the other. We have investigated the case and the case is closed.

      This forced me into bankruptcy, for the 5 months I paid my mother and disputed the entire CC bill, USAA kept adding monthly late charges and a really SWEET interest rate charge of 7.5% so that by the time I was ready now to put my USAA credit card in good standing by paying $1450.00 which would bring my status with USAA to current….

      I wrote a letter to the President and to Credit Card head that because of the USAA Bank Fraud please restore my credit card and remove the late fees and interest charges. USAA said there is no way they would or could do that, even though USAA creates or prints money out of thin air.

      Bankruptcy has caused my good standing with USAA to change down to the standing of a enumerated slave / prisoner. The banking side has nothing to do with the credit card side. Except they are all on one CPU / Mainframe. They threatened to close my checking and savings account and cancel my car insurance.

      Today when I logged in I found the msg. that I’ve filed BR and certain debts can not be collected. You can still see your accounts please proceed to the mobile phone app.

      I called USAA the rep said hold on while I check. She took 10 mins to say that my status has changed and I can only access the bank via USAA mobile (which has no features) which provides no way to scan checks in. She suggested I find another bank. I asked how long I’d be stuck with mobile and she kept me on hold for 15 mins to say 7 YEARS.

      I asked to speak to her Supervisor. Bone Head the Supervisor said “how can I help I’m here to listen to any thing you may have to say”. I asked him for his employee ID number he said “I don’t have to provide that”. I asked who his boss was, to write him, he said “I don’t know” I asked to restore my USAA bank account, he said “it is bank policy and no one can restore your status till 7 years”.

      I asked who wrote the policy? he said “I don’t know” I asked what is the name of the president I could write to he said “I can decide not to provided that information”. I ask him if he could decide if he was a F***IN JACKA** and he hung up.

      Mr. Vaughn, I like to hear a personal call on that topic LOL

      • Ed

        He wont reply.. they are non-responsive

  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    All’s well that ends well. Or perhaps that’s not the Shakespeare quote I meant. Perhaps I was thinking, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”

  • Don Bates

    Again and again, we see lawyers jumping into areas where, frankly, they don’t belong. But keep in mind that every time they do, they get paid several hundred bucks an hour. No, that’s sour grapes. They’re just doing their jobs. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be paid. What too many of them don’t want to understand, however, is that despite the importance of the law, the court of public opinion often takes precedence when it comes to larger issues like — and they really should understand this — FREEDOM OF SPEECH. Then there’s the power of public relations, which in this case would seem far more crucial than scaring people into shutting up. This said, I was impressed by the responses from company officials. They got the message and they immediately went to work fixing the problem. The Director of Social Media clearly knows what’s up. So I hope alls well that ends well to quote the old Shakeman, who I had someone in one of his plays say “kill all the lawyers.” No, don’t. Just tease them so they don’t let their egos stray too far from reality.

  • Don Bates

    Oops, sentence about Shakespeare should end, “who had someone in one of his plays say “kill all the lawyers.” “I” didn’t have someone say it. Ugh, and I teach writing!

  • http://kentonsinfotainmentscan.blogspot.com/ Kenton Larsen

    I posted the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s recent TV spot on YouTube as an example of how newspapers are trying to reach out to readers – and got a copyright infringement email from the paper, telling me to remove it and reporting me to YouTube for my “crime.”

    Interesting, considering that TV spots are usually shot and aired in order to get people to see them.

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  • Jaffo

    Well Tom answer me this;

    How does Usaa respond to the claim that it is sending jobs (like customer service, IT and investigation to other countries and giving away american jobs.

    I know a lot of returning vets who would love those jobs and could do them from their own home, saving you space and reputation.

  • Lauren

    Dear USAA (sue me, okay?)
    Corporate bullying is against the law as well. Any company that attempts to harass a person or other company by using legal threats that are without merit is punishable by law.

    So, USAA (shit, sue me again) shut up.

  • http://www.usaa.com Blake Gilley

    I am a US Navy War Vet just got out of the Navy. I found the house I want to buy near my new job, I am staying in a hotel till we close on the house. The VA said they can not close before 2weeks to protect us, that is too long for me and my family to stay in a hotel with a new baby.

    We heard high recommendations from USAA, when I called they said they could close in a week, of course I went with them. I Had all my paperwork sent to them that day. They changed my loan processor 4 different times each time they lost all my paperwork and I would have to send everything all over again, including calling the builder and title company and having them send their paperwork over again also.

    We were with them for 2months our last loan processor (Marimar) wouldn’t answer the phone or call back till 4:30p their office closes at 4:30p so she would say I’ll call you back in 30min and of course she never did. When I would call Customer Service and tell them my problems they would say let me try to track her down, I would be put on hold for about 30min they would come back and say “I’m sorry I can’t find her, can I please put you on hold again and call her manager.” 2 mins later “I cant get a hold of her either let me try the next manager.” 2more manager later and I’m screwed I get to leave a message and not get called back till 4:30p again. This was a daily occurrence.

    I switched banks on Monday, called USAA at 11a to request the VA appraisal and withdraw my application. I received a call back from Marimar at 4:30p she says she needs it in writing she cant take that over the phone. I wrote it out, scanned it in, and email it within 5 mins, called back and I can not get a hold of anyone.

    Tue I try calling USAA I still cant reach anyone, I called 3times that day still not being able to reach anyone (Marimar’s managers voice mail was full all day).

    Wed at 4p I receive an email from Marimar requesting the Lender VA ID she said she needs this before she can send us the VA appraisal. I replied back exactly 3 mins later with the ID, and I called her not being able to reach anyone.

    Now it’s Thur, this morning I resent the Lender VA ID still have not been contacted back by USAA. When I called customer service they put me on hold for an hr, then would not transfer me to Marimar since my loan was withdrawn. As the customer service lady was playing middle man between me and Marimar, the customer service representative told me Marimar was about to leave. Marimar left with me still on the phone, she sent no appraisal and I will be doing this all over again tomorrow. This has been a daily occurrence with USAA for the past 2months.

    I recommend NO ONE EVER Going through USAA because even when you finally change banks they will hold you up as much as they can even at your new bank. My new bank has everything done all they are waiting on is Marimar to send over the VA Appraisal.

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  • screwed for long time

    wanna know about usaa and what they have done to me? you wouldn’t even believe it. I have been a member for over thirty years as well.

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