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Woman sues stepdaughter over ad on Internet

She says her livelihood and reputation were damaged, and she wants more than $15,000. Her stepdaughter says the ad was not serious, a report says.

By JAMIE MALERNEE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2000


It might have been a joke, but Debra Roth isn't laughing.

Instead, the Spring Hill resident is suing her 18-year-old stepdaughter for defamation after the girl placed an online advertisement listing her stepmother as a provider of "escort services," according to a lawsuit filed late Tuesday.

"I'm easy," read the ad, placed on Internet giant Yahoo's classified section along with Debra Roth's name and her work telephone number.

Roth says the ad, which was posted without her knowledge for about a month before a man called her office harassing her about it, hurt her reputation and her business, Custom Home Cabinetry. She wants more than $15,000 in damages from her stepdaughter, Melissa Roth, who moved out of her father and stepmother's home in February to live with her mother in Winter Park. She also is seeking a court order barring her stepdaughter from printing further information about her.

According to a Hernando County sheriff's report, 38-year-old Roth said her stepdaughter said she had placed the ad as a joke shortly after moving and simply forgot to take it off the Web site. Melissa Roth could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Debra Roth also declined to comment on the lawsuit other than to say there should be more laws against Internet misinformation.

Consumer advocates say Roth is out of luck for now.

Although officials say Roth is as example of the growing number of people victimized by everything from Internet fraud to practical jokes on Web sites such as Yahoo and eBay, she has few options.

"Internet regulation just doesn't exist because it's such a new area," said Tara Finck, spokeswoman for the National Consumer League. "It's really easy for scammers to get on (these sites) and misrepresent themselves. It's a free-for-all."

To place a free ad in Yahoo's classified section, a person needs only to enter a name, home or work address and e-mail address. He or she must promise this personal information is correct, but the site states it is not responsible if it is not.

Since 1997, Finck said, Internet fraud complaints made to her organization have increased 600 percent, and about 90 percent of them now are from people calling about misleading or fraudulent advertisements. Most of these stem from online auctions, she said.

A local example of this occurred in January when a 17-year-old from Spring Hill was charged with organized fraud after authorities said he duped four people over the Internet into buying a laptop he never had.

Although an arrest was made in that case, that is not always the case, officials say.

"People from all over the world are coming to these big companies, and the National Consumer League would like to see them do a little more to review these ads and make a stronger effort to protect people," Finck said.

But online companies are careful to avoid liability for any incorrect information printed in ads or on message boards.

"Yahoo does not control the content posted via the service and, as such, does not guarantee the accuracy, integrity or content of such content," a disclaimer on the site reads.

Historically, publishers -- print or otherwise -- have not been held responsible for the truthfulness of their ads. The famous exception to this came from a court case in which Soldier of Fortune magazine was found liable in the contract murder of a man whose killers were hired through a suggestive classified advertisement in the magazine.

The courts held that publishers can be held liable "for compensatory damages for negligently publishing a commercial advertisement where the ad on its face, and without the need for investigation, makes it apparent that there is a substantial danger of harm to the public."

When publishers learn of incorrect ads, they usually reserve the right to remove them. This is exactly what Yahoo officials did when Debra Roth notified them of the ad, the lawsuit states.

But Debra Roth says the damage was already done by then, according to the complaint.

"Roth has had her character defamed and has been exposed to unwanted, frightening and harassing telephone solicitation," the lawsuit says. "(Her business) livelihood is directly dependent upon (her) reputation, and (her) telephone number had been published on the Internet in conjunction with the malicious and false advertisement."


-- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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