Startup takes heat over online tool that checks Ashley Madison data

Trustify was accused of spamming email addresses that showed up in the leak

A small Washington, D.C.-based startup accused of crude marketing centered around the Ashley Madison data breach said Monday it is changing its tactics amid criticism.

Trustify, a 10-person company that launched in March, runs a web-based service for connecting people with private investigators for $67 an hour.

Last week, it created an online tool that lets people check if their email address was in the large dump of stolen user information from the extramarital hookup site.

The tool was one of many that were created after hackers released information on more than 30 million registered users of the website, one of the largest and most sensitive data breaches on record.

Trustify’s approach rubbed some people the wrong way. The tool allowed people to enter an email address, and the site returned an answer on whether the address was part of the breach.

It was intended to only be used by people with their own email address, said Danny Boice, founder and CEO of Trustify, in a phone interview Monday. But people quickly started checking email addresses for other people.

Trustify did not send a verification email to the address that was being checked before it returned information. Perhaps even worse, Trustify sent marketing emails to those addresses that were entered, which some critics labeled as spam.

An example of an alert email from Trustify posted on Twitter read that “we confirmed that your details were exposed." It went on: “Talk with our experienced investigative consultants to learn how you can find out what incriminating information is available and could ruin your life.”

The approach posed multiple problems. It has been theorized that some people registered with Ashley Madison actually used others' contact details.

That means some people whose information was improperly used might have received a notification from Trustify when they hadn’t actually registered with Ashley Madison. It’s a conversation someone probably wouldn’t want to have with their significant other.

Boice is straightforward about the tool, which has now been taken offline pending improvements, including email verification.

“We are a company that’s doing marketing,” he said. “We are very clear about our intentions. We are a for-profit business using this for lead generation.

But Boice acknowledged the concerns, which is why the tool was taken offline for a while. It is now back up. The company has also posted a Q and A on its website addressing some of the criticism.

"As the usage patterns changed beyond what we intended it to be used for, we started to realize all of these different scenarios," he said.

Trustify didn’t anticipate the tool to be used so much, Boice said. It was engineered to handle just a few hundred queries, but at one point was getting as many as 500 queries a second, he said.

Trustify's business has surged since Ashley Madison's data was released, he said. The company has more than 3,000 private investigators who have signed up to the service to match them with clients, Boice said.

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