Piracy is alive and well in the 21st century, and not just in the shipping lanes along the Somali coast. With increasing regularity, online data pirates are seizing personal information, especially that of engineers, and shopping it around to unsuspecting takers. A few weeks ago, I got a glimpse into this onerous trade, when a friend showed me an e-mail he received after watching an online video:

Now this may not seem so bad until you realize that Mike never gave Sam his name, nor did he give anyone permission to pass it along. But before we delve into that, let's take a look at the impact of e-mail in the workplace.

If Mike is like most people, it took him 25 minutes to get back on task after he opened the intrusive message. According to one research firm, Basex Inc., interruptions from e-mail and other online distractions idle American knowledge workers an average of two hours a day, equating to a $600-billion loss to the U.S. economy each year. Sam and his enablers are not just stealing from Mike, they're stealing from all of us.

That the e-mail was entirely unsolicited makes it even worse. In fact, there was nothing in the video — no real engineering information — to warrant a follow-up.

So put yourself in Mike's shoes. You're online, thinking you're anonymous, and you click on a link. Two weeks later, you receive an uninvited message from a stranger who has your first and last name, e-mail address, and who knows what else. Even if you need what he's selling, you're not likely to buy it from him because he invaded your privacy and the thought of it creeps you out.

As for Sam, the guy has more ambition than sense. For starters, he just ruined his chance to make a good first impression. He also demonstrated a shallow knowledge of how engineers work and on what basis they come to select products like his. Engineers require, above all else, accurate, detailed, and quantitative information. They've no use for exploratory product pitches and interruptions from salespeople trying to “extend their services.” In Mike's case, it didn't matter anyway; he's not an engineer.

Sam did one thing right, though, when he told Mike where he got his name. Not surprisingly, it came from a third party trying to thrust itself into a business channel where it brings little intrinsic value. What Somali pirates have discovered on the high seas — an unregulated area with easy access and many convenient escape routes — these self-serving opportunists have found in the great expanse of the World Wide Web.

In this case, they invaded an industry trade show and went from booth to booth filming marketers talking about their products. Then they sent out links to this puffery in the form of an e-newsletter, surreptitiously capturing data (like Mike's) so they could use it to exploit and manipulate guys like Sam.

Sam was quick to distance himself from the whole mess when confronted on his participation in it. Exposing the deception behind the scheme, he wrote:

Back door, indeed. Too bad Sam couldn't figure that out before he wasted his and Mike's time. Hopefully, he didn't follow the advice to flood the list with additional e-mail and catalogs, an obvious ploy to cover up the fact that two parties are knowingly engaging in something wrong.

I point all this out because what happened to Mike is probably happening to some of you, and it's bound to get worse before those responsible go back to selling t-shirts or whatever they were doing before they devised the concept of a ‘soft’ lead. In the meantime, you can accelerate the inevitable by rewarding suppliers who respect your intelligence and time and avoiding those who don't.

In doing so, you'll also be aligning yourself with supply partners that actually have a future. There's a dividing line, a crack in the ice, forming down the center of industry. On one side is an alliance of partners collectively raising the bar on intelligence, creativity, and innovation, solving tomorrow's problems while taking care of today's business needs. On the other side is an alliance living hand to mouth, looking for the next gimmick to disguise their incompetence and lack of purpose. Folks like Sam, whether they know it or not, are in the process of deciding where they'll be standing when the ice finally gives.

From: sam.salesman@xyz.com

To: Mims, Mike

Subject: XYZ video

Mike,

You have reviewed my video highlighting XYZ Corp. I would like to know if you found the video informative and if we could be of further assistance? If you have a current application or project that requires XYZ's products, please respond to this email so we can extend our services to you.

Sam Salesman

XYZ Corp.

Mike,

The e-mail I received with the list of names stated: “We share these with you as ‘soft’ leads. We suggest you add to your email marketing efforts and/or send a catalog before contacting.” It looks like these ‘leads’ were obtained through the back door, and to me it's not professional.

Sam Salesman

XYZ Corp.