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The Detroit News.
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of Service (updated April 17, 2000).
Thursday, April 6, 2000
Copyright 2000, The
Consumers turn Web into weapon
They use power of Internet to fight firms ranging from the auto giants
to the airlines
By Mark Truby and Dina ElBoghdady / The Detroit News
Robin Buckson / The Detroit News
Barbara Wright, a Milan, Mich., resident says her 1995
Windstar blew a gasket in October. It's been driven 112,000
miles, so she doesn't qualify for the warranty extension, but
she hasn't given up.
DEARBORN -- When his 1995 Ford Windstar blew a head gasket last
April, Chuck Cantanese became the proverbial squeaky wheel.
He did his homework on the checkered history of his
minivan's 3.8-liter, V-6 engine and hounded Ford Motor Co. to pay his
$1,000 repair bill, to no avail.
Then Cantanese, 38, of Independence, Ky., got an
unexpected call from Ford. He had been selected for a customer
satisfaction program, Ford told Cantanese. And he was eligible to
receive money for recent repairs.
Afterward, Cantanese felt Ford wanted to quietly
appease him without admitting the engine problem. He wondered if there
were other Ford owners stuck with defective engines. So he took to the
Internet, launching a Web site in November filled with information
about the bad engines.
Soon his site was swarming with thousands of Ford
owners whose vehicles also had blown head gaskets. Soon afterward, two
class-action lawsuits were filed against Ford.
Facing a customer backlash, Ford announced a
warranty extension program that could cost more than $200 million and
covers 718,000 vehicles with potentially defective head gaskets.
The episode illustrates how the Internet is
empowering consumers as never before. In cyberspace, the Davids have a
new slingshot to aim at corporate Goliaths, ranging from automakers to
"It's really a great leveler," said
Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center
for Auto Safety in Washington "It's absolutely clear the
Internet is causing an upsurge in complaints. Now you can surf the Net
and find out how to be a more effective consumer advocate."
Before the Internet, consumers who felt jilted may
have paraded in front of corporate headquarters or dealerships with
placards, called a consumer group or headed to small claims court.
These days, they can log on and find the nearest
chat room or Web site and speak to the world without leaving their
And more and more, the information superhighway is
becoming their road to restitution.
The head gasket episode is a case in point. Ford
owners are receiving letters extending the warranty to seven years and
100,000 miles for the 1995 Ford Windstar, 1994 and 1995 Ford Taurus
and Mercury Sable and 1994 Lincoln Continental.
The program -- one of the largest and costliest
voluntary service actions ever -- includes reimbursement of past
repair bills, coupons toward future vehicle purchases and even some
For its part, Ford said it extended the warranty to
60,000 on the Tauruses, Sables and Windstars and 75,000 miles on the
Continental in June 1998 and increased the warranty in February as the
company learned owners had problems beyond these points.
"Yes there was a lot of disgruntled traffic on
the Web and we listened," Ford spokesman Mike Vaughn said.
"We listened to everyone, we looked at the data and this decision
to extend the warrantly was based on what is right for the
It wasn't the first time the Internet affected a
controversy within the auto industry.
A couple in Marietta, Ga., turned to the Internet
when their 1985 Ford Ranger burst into flames in their driveway in
November 1995 because of a problem with the ignition switch.
Edward and Debra Goldgehn shared their experience
with Net surfers on their now-defunct Association of Flaming Ford
Owners Web site (www.flamingfords.com)
that featured photos of charred vehicles and a list of affected
The site became a repository of information for
consumers and reporters and generated publicity that helped prod Ford
to recall 8.7 million cars and trucks, the largest ever at the time
for a single automaker.
Truman Trekell of Texas undertook a similar endeavor
last year when he learned on an Internet Web site that the 1999 Dodge
Dakota R/T pickup he bought hauled 2,000 pounds -- not 6,400 pounds as
advertised in the company's brochures and owners' manuals.
When DaimlerChrysler AG officials would not meet
with him, Trekell posted his concerns with a newsgroup for Dakota RT
owners. Some owners filed a class-action lawsuit in California last
Within a month of the filing, the automaker offered
disgruntled Dakota owners the option of a full refund, a trade-in for
another vehicle at window sticker prices, an extended warranty or $500
in parts, Trekell said.
DaimlerChrysler officials said these options were
available to consumers before the lawsuit. But some Dakota owners said
they were unaware of the offer and others said they could not get the
automaker to honor it.
"We got all our evidence together on the
Internet," Trekell said.
Corporate America, always sensitive to bad press, is
now trying to keep tabs on the Internet, where negative news can
spread like a brush fire.
"I think you are crazy not to pay attention to
it," said Jon Austin, Northwest Airlines managing director for
Northwest monitors certain newsgroups and other
forums "to get a sense of what is being said about us and who is
saying it," Austin said.
Ford tries "to keep our finger on the pulse out
there and correct any misinformation," Vaughn said.
Companies complain that for every Web page dedicated
to sharing information about legitimate concerns, there is a raft of
shrill hate sites fed by angry consumers and disgruntled employees.
There are an estimated 1,500 business-bashing
addresses on the Web. While they may be distasteful or even
inaccurate, in lawsuits around the country judges have ruled the sites
are protected by the First Amendment.
One controversial site, www.blueovalnews.com,
was nearly shut down last year when Ford objected to the publication
of internal documents that showed exhaust problems with the 1999 SVT
Mustang Cobra significantly reduced the car's horsepower.
The courts ruled BlueOvalNews was protected by free
speech. Ford recalled the SVT Cobra. BlueOvalNews -- a collection of
news and opinions about Ford products -- continues to receive a
staggering 100,000 hits a day.
"I think it's a great thing for
consumers," said Robert Lane, who publishes BlueOvalNews from his
home near Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn. "If I don't do it,
who else will?"
Net is legal tool
The sites are a natural draw for lawyers to organize
class-action lawsuits against large corporations. Auto companies
complain the Internet has provided trial lawyers with a chance to
rally plaintiffs around bogus causes.
"It's gotten to the point where just about
anyone can hang a shingle on the Internet," said Jay Cooney,
spokesman for DaimlerChrysler.
"I'm sure the trial lawyers are thrilled to
have this tool at their disposal. It makes their work easy."
Lawyers and consumer advocates dismiss such
complaints as public relations rhetoric.
"The Internet not only allows people to find
each other, but helps lawyers obtain information they couldn't obtain
before," said Sandusky, Ohio, lawyer Dennis Murray Jr.
Murray filed a lawsuit in February against Ford on
behalf of owners of vehicles susceptible to head gasket failure.
"You can no longer be snowed about the scope of
the problem, " he said.
Cantanese, a telephone company troubleshooter, said
he didn't create his Web site (home.att.net/~ccantanese/ford)
to encourage lawsuits. And he doesn't consider it a Ford-bashing site.
"That would serve no purpose," he said.
"My goal was to present facts and give people the resources to
act. I believe if people are empowered, they can do anything."
The Web site includes detailed information about the
head gaskets, copies of documents and reams of owner testimonials.
Cantanese has personally exchanged e-mails with more
than 500 Ford owners who have experienced head gasket problems.
"I read every article he had on there and
printed them off, so I knew what happened to everybody else,"
said Barbara Wright, a Milan, Mich., resident whose 1995 Windstar blew
a gasket in October and has since been sitting in her driveway.
Wright's minivan has been driven 112,000 miles, so
she doesn't qualify for the warranty extension, but she hasn't given
"I learned on the Web site you can take them to
small claims court," she said.
Another Windstar owner, Ken Wright of Howell, Mich.,
paid $1,100 to replace the head gasket and is trying to persuade Ford
to include 1996 models in the warranty extension.
"I would have given up on Ford a long time ago
if it hadn't been for that Web site," Wright said.
"The Internet gives us access all over the
country. It banded people together and gave us the power to get Ford
to listen. It was all because of communication."
Ford redesigned the engine in 1996 and began
supplying improved aftermarket head gaskets for repairs in 1998, but
has pledged to continue evaluating data to determine whether further
action is needed.
While scores of Ford owners are still lobbying to be
included in the warranty extension, Cantanese said he is gratified by
"I had so many people e-mail me and say 'I
can't believe I have this vehicle and I can't afford to get it fixed,'
" Cantanese said. "A majority of those people now have their