This article is presented in its unedited entirety, as seen in the Globe and Mail on December 20th, 2005

Rogers in damage-control mode

Cellphone company reassuring customers new digital technology is more secure


It has not been a fun-filled week so far at the corporate offices of Rogers Communications. Since Saturday, senior executives have been operating on what might be described as a war footing as they deal with a public relations debacle touched off by the news that the cellphone of CEO Ted Rogers was cloned by a group linked to Hezbollah.

There have been weekend meetings, anguished discussions and phone calls from Mr. Rogers himself to the angry customer whose dispute with the company led to the unwanted revelations.

"I've had much better days," said Rogers vice-president of communications, Jan Innes, yesterday. "This isn't the kind of publicity that any company would want."

Ms. Innes is now leading the charge to restore confidence in the company's security systems -- and to restore a corporate image that has taken a wicked beating.

The cellphone giant's PR woes began on the weekend, when The Globe and Mail published an account about a fight between Rogers and law professor Susan Drummond, who was hit with a bill for $12,237.60 in September after her cellphone was stolen and used to make hundreds of calls to Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon and Russia.

At the time, Rogers told Ms. Drummond that there was nothing it could do, and that she would be held responsible for the entire bill. Ms. Drummond and her partner, technology journalist Harry Gefen, subsequently launched a legal action against the company, along with an exhaustive research effort that led to a number of surprising findings.

Mr. Gefen unearthed the most damaging material at a Toronto fraud conference, where he tape recorded a conversation with Cindy Hopper, a manager in Rogers' security department, who told her that the company has fraud-detection systems that automatically flag suspicious calling patterns like the one that occurred with Ms. Drummond's phone, and that the company had been plagued by criminals who "cloned" the phones of senior executives, including company CEO Ted Rogers.

That information has turned what would be an otherwise obscure consumer complaint into a story with international interest. Ms. Innes and other senior officials are now working flat-out to counteract the adverse publicity generated by Mr. Gefen's revelations, pointing out that the cloning of the executives' phones occurred in 1997, when the company used analogue phones, which were relatively easy to clone. Since then, the company has converted to digital phones that use the world's most highly rated encryption standard.

"We have extremely high security standards," Ms. Innes said. "People should know that."

Ms. Innes says the company has six million cellphone subscribers, and that only 150,000 of them use analogue phones -- a figure that may be the lowest in the industry.

In a press release issued yesterday, Rogers stressed the security of its network: "The cloning incident referred to occurred seven years ago on a single Rogers' executive phone. At that time, cloning was an industry-wide problem which has been removed as a result of the industry move to digital technology. In fact, the vast majority of Rogers' customers today are on GSM digital phones, the world standard upon which more than a billion phones are in operation worldwide, and cloning of these phones is virtually impossible."

Mr. Gefen and Ms. Drummond, who have been making a steady series of television and radio appearances this week thanks to their new role as the voice of the aggrieved cellphone customer, aren't convinced. Although they acknowledge that using the GSM standard increases security, they maintain that there is a great deal that customers don't get to know: "There's no encryption system that can't be cracked," Mr. Gefen said. "Anyone who tells you different is lying."

The impact of the revelations made by Mr. Gefen and Ms. Drummond on Rogers were made crystal clear by the speed and nature of the company's response. Just hours after their story appeared, Mr. Rogers called them personally to apologize and offer his assurance that their complaints would be dealt with. He has offered to erase their bill and pay all costs they have incurred -- including the $200 Mr. Gefen paid for the conference.

Mr. Gefen and Ms. Drummond said they appreciate Mr. Rogers' efforts, but have insisted that he come to their home to listen to their concerns about the company's policies and objectionable clauses in its contracts.

The couple is also concerned that their story could lead to repercussions for Ms. Hopper, the security official who confided in Mr. Gefen.

"She didn't do anything wrong," said Mr. Gefen. "We don't want her to be hurt."

Rogers representatives acknowledged that Ms. Hopper had been spoken to, but said her job was secure.

"She will not be fired," said Ms. Innes. "Beyond that, we can't comment on an individual employee."

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