Customers complain about e-mail


A Warren woman was so offended, she’s taking her business elsewhere.

NILES — A racially insensitive joke apparently intended for circulation within a local insurance company’s office made its way to the e-mail inboxes of several customers when a computer virus attached itself to the e-mail.

The joke ended up in the deleted e-mail of Diana Richards, a former partner at Guerra Richards Mulvey, LLC, and when tech workers shut down the company’s firewall, a virus attached itself to the e-mail and sent it to both customers and personal contacts, Richards said.

The company, which recently merged with First Place Insurance, fixed the problem within a day, but the damage was done, and customer complaints began to flow, said Michael R. Guerra, a former partner in the company.

The joke originally came to Richards from her husband, Dick Richards, who also works in the office. It suggests that white people should have broken into the homes of black people to retrieve stolen items while black people attended the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

That was enough to prompt Debra Colvin to take her business elsewhere.

“I was just very insulted. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve been dealing with this insurance company for over 10 years,” said Colvin, 50, of Warren. “I even sent people to them.”

Colvin said her home and two cars are both insured by the company and that she has a life insurance policy, too. All told, Colvin said she pays the company more than $1,000 a year.

Guerra said the company tried to contact customers who received the e-mail, but Colvin said she has not heard from anyone at GRM Insurance.

“It’s been two weeks and I never even got a letter from them,” Colvin said. “I don’t even believe that story is true ... I think they’re trying to protect themselves.”

As a best practice, most companies have a discriminatory practices policy that helps protect them from liability in some cases, said Laura Myers, the interim director of Ohio University’s Office of Institutional Equity. Myers spent six years in the university’s College of Business teaching business law and communications.

Ultimately, though, Myers said the public perception of the company stands to lose the most.

“The biggest issue is that it creates a bad image of the company,” she said.

Guerra said the company has a policy against distributing these kinds of jokes at work.

“It came in from cyberspace someplace into our office. We have policies against this,” Guerra said. “It was a horrible, horrible joke or whatever that was supposed to be. It was just totally insensitive.”

But Richards said the partners are too busy to police employee computers.

“You can have a policy, but we’re busy working,” Richards said.