Fax Broadcasting: The Fax From Hell

A true fax broadcasting horror story — and a survival guide:
Internet ScamBusters #32

SPECIAL ISSUE

We’d like to start off this issue differently – with a short (and unfortunately true) story. Here’s the background…

Automated technology with no emergency procedures. Poor communications channels and sloppy customer service. Can you imagine a better recipe for disaster?

How about combining those with a system that broadcasts its mistakes directly to the press …

… With your company’s name on it?

That’s the situation we ran into in December of 1998. We’re going to show you how we handled it, and suggest some ways to prepare yourself for similar experiences – you may well find yourself in a similar situation, especially as we approach December 31 and the Y2K problem.

Be prepared. This doesn’t have to happen to you.

We call our little story …

The Fax From Hell — A Survival Guide

Friday, December 18, 1998, was, by far, the worst day Jim and I have been through since we started our company.

Here’s what happened:

We had launched a new site earlier in December called FreeFurby.com. Jim and I had been getting a lot of publicity to promote the site. We did many radio and newspaper interviews about Furby scams. We were on 3-5 radio shows a day, most during the morning rush hour. We were contacted by the Chicago Tribune and the Cincinnati Enquirer, which wrote Furby stories where we were featured.

It was a busy period for us.

On Thursday we came up with a new concept for another press release. The time was tight, but we decided it was worth doing one more news release before Christmas.

I put together what I thought was one of the best one-page press releases I’d ever written. We decided to fax it via a broadcast fax service to over 1100 radio stations.

We used the same company we’ve used in the past. The company is located in Seattle. And, at about 11:00 a.m. on Friday, the fax broadcast began.

As they say in technical support, there was a “small glitch.”

Instead of sending out our one-page release once, the broadcast fax company’s computers went crazy. They sent out our release, along with 25 to 500 pages of gibberish – squares, lines, boxes, and other nonsense. Then, for good measure, they sent it again. And again. And again. And again.

It was, without question, the Fax From Hell.

The radio stations started calling us immediately. They were understandably upset. That Friday was the biggest news day of the year. The President was being impeached, the US was bombing Iraq – and they were the serial victims of the Fax From Hell.

For the next seven hours, Jim and I did almost nothing but answer the phone. We’d explain the situation, call in for messages, and try to call these folks back. We got yelled at, pleaded with, chastised, sympathized with, and yelled at some more.

Of course, we called the broadcast fax company immediately and tried to get them to stop the fax. No such luck. For the first hour, there was no one there who could shut it off (since it was before their offices opened). They had no emergency procedures whatsoever. None. I begged, pleaded and threatened, trying to get them to unplug the phone lines. Nothing worked.

When the staff came in at 9:00 a.m. (noon EST), Steph and I both worked hard trying to get them to stop. It took over three more hours for them to even believe there was a problem. They kept insisting that the fax had been stopped and that it was not going out anymore. However, there was no decrease in the number of calls we were getting from the radio stations.

One of our greatest frustrations was that the fax company refused to take the problem seriously. I demanded (for the third time) to speak with the President, and was flatly refused. I did eventually get to speak to the broadcast fax manager, who had finally come out of her meetings. She said that they were working on the problem and that she’d get back to me on Monday morning with a solution.

Monday?? There were nearly 900 stations left to go!

It was surreal.

We called them every five minutes.

Finally, at about 3:00 p.m., Jim had a brilliant idea. We changed our phone message to explain the problem. We mentioned that the broadcast fax company didn’t believe there was a problem. We also suggested that they call the broadcast fax company’s 800 number to offer some “gentle assurance” that a problem did indeed exist.

After the company got about 60 calls, they finally decided there was a real problem.

And then, some of their other customers started to experience the same thing. The broadcast fax company finally began to take the problem seriously and started to try to fix the problem in earnest. And they stopped all of the outgoing faxes – finally.

But then, like some vengeful digital Phoenix, the monster was reborn. One of their technical people had actually gone in and restarted the fax!

This happened four or five times. We’d get a short breather, and it would start all over again.

Around 5:00 p.m., the manager finally acknowledged that it was all their fault. She still didn’t let me speak to the President. I told her it was outrageous that he hadn’t called me and apologized, personally and profusely. (It took him six weeks to call, but he finally did and gave me his private number.) They did try to make it up to us by paying our expenses and giving us a bunch of free faxing. 🙂

Anyway, when we finally got through the day, we kept trying to figure out how we could turn these very sour lemons into lemonade.

That weekend, we learned something very interesting…

We discovered that we are not the only ones who have had this problem. In fact, it’s much more common than anyone wants to admit. And we figured out that there are a number of specific steps which we and the fax company could have taken which would have reduced the trauma dramatically.

So, we’d like to share what we learned: what to do if you are

  • the victim (like the radio stations)
  • the company using the berserk broadcast fax company (us), or
  • the broadcast fax company itself.

Here are our tips on…

How to Handle The Fax From Hell

It’s happening to you. You’re caught unawares by the Fax From Hell. What do you do?

First rule: Don’t panic.

What to do if you’re sending the Fax From Hell:

If it’s your broadcast fax that goes berserk, there are only a few things you can do.

If you’re using an outside service, contact the company immediately and let them know about the problem. Make sure in advance that your broadcast service has a 24 hour contact who can stop the fax should this happen. Then be sure to have the number where you can lay your hands on it when you need it.

Next, change your voicemail message. Let people know that you are aware of the problem and are taking steps to stop the runaway fax. Give them the fax broadcast company’s number, and suggest they contact them to reinforce the urgency of the problem.

Keep after the fax broadcaster until they have the problem corrected.

Of course, if you’re sending the fax from your own system, unplug it immediately. The most important thing is to contain the damage to as small a group as possible.

Find the bug, fix it, and test the system before restarting. And then monitor the fax closely to make sure it doesn’t go berserk all over again.

If that doesn’t work, consider calling in an exterminator. <g>

If you receive the Fax From Hell:

First, call the company mentioned in the fax and ask if they’re sending it or if it’s being sent by a third party. If they’re sending it themselves, tell them to unplug their machine and fix it later.

If it’s being sent by a third party, get as much contact info for the broadcaster as you can.
Company name, phone number, Web site, anything you can think of. If you can do this without screaming, you’ll be much more likely to get all the info you need and get it correctly.

Then contact the broadcaster, let them know what’s happening, and ask them to cut off the transmission. Be polite, but be firm. People in technical fields will often be hard to convince if you suggest that their systems are at fault.

If you’re the service broadcasting the Fax From Hell:

You need to be prepared in advance.

The most important step you can take is to have a 24 hour a day number, answered by someone who can kill “The Beast” immediately. Make sure that all your broadcast service customers have that number. Anything less is asking for disaster.

You should also put safeguards in place to minimize the damage in case your system goes berserk. One simple approach is to limit the number of simultaneous transmissions of a given fax. Process them in batches. This will allow your customers to catch the problem early and cut down the number of potential victims.

If your customer base allows it, set a maximum number of pages per transmission. Or better yet, allow the client to set a maximum for their account. Then cut off transmissions at that point.

And always take your customers seriously. People don’t just invent stories about these sorts of problems.

The most important thing to remember for all concerned is to stay calm. No one in the chain wants this to happen. The company issuing the fax certainly doesn’t want the bad press relations. The broadcast fax company doesn’t want to lose customers and get the sort of media coverage that goes with this kind of snafu. And the recipients aren’t complaining for fun. They need their fax system to be available.

Everyone involved should be focused on one thing: Resolving the problem. If there needs to be blame assigned, worry about that after the problem is solved.

There are tens of millions of computers out there that have an impact on our lives in one way or another. Most of them connect with other computers. There are thousands of programs on dozens of operating systems all talking to each other. Sometimes, just sometimes, they mis-communicate. That’s when this sort of chaos gets started.

And then there’s the wild card. Y2K.

The important systems – banks, airlines, utilities – should be okay. They’ve gotten a lot of attention and are getting more. But there are a lot of smaller, non-critical systems that aren’t up to snuff yet and may not be when the New Year hits.

There’s a good chance we’re going to see more, rather than less, of this kind of problem. And there’s little way to predict where it will happen next. Good safeguards and a little attention to detail can go a long way to keeping the Fax From Hell and his evil cousins at bay.

The Boy Scouts say it best: Be Prepared.

And be ready to make lemonade from the unexpected lemons.

This survival guide is our way of turning our very sour lemons into lemonade. We felt it was important enough to devote this Special Issue of Internet ScamBusters to this problem. And we hope you’ll never need to use this information. 🙂