In late April, Dr. Howard W. Schneider's pediatric dental practice received a call that only hinted at what would follow: three days of outraged Facebook postings and three weeks of angry calls and nasty emails, all erroneously condemning him for patient abuse.
As the owner of a 25-year-old, eight-employee practice with offices in Huntington and East Northport, Schneider dismissed that first call -- which inquired whether "he was the dentist with the horrible reviews on Facebook" -- as a marketing ploy from a reputation management company, he said.
But when he received a Facebook message alerting him to negative postings, Schneider realized he was a victim of mistaken identity. The public was confusing him with Howard S. Schneider, a Jacksonville, Florida, pediatric dentist accused of mistreating his patients. The vast majority of misdirected denunciations emanated from beyond Long Island, courtesy of media coverage, including on CNN, which omitted the Jacksonville dentist's middle initial.
According to a lawsuit filed on behalf of four families last month in the 4th Judicial Circuit Court in Duval County, Florida, the Jacksonville dentist allegedly imprisoned, battered and intentionally inflicted severe emotional pain on his patients. The plaintiffs' attorney, Gust G. Sarris of Adsum Law Firm in Jacksonville, last week said he anticipates adding 45 families to the case and turning it into a class action suit.
The Florida attorney general's office is also investigating the Jacksonville Schneider regarding alleged Medicaid fraud. That dentist, who has repeatedly denied the allegations in published reports, could not be reached for comment. Sarris said he recently surrendered his license and closed his office.
Although Schneider of Long Island pursued a multipronged approach that included responding to every accusatory email, call and Facebook posting, experts suggest additional actions, such as an explanatory letter to his patients, to maintain his professional reputation.
A Facebook posting on the Long Island dentist's page triggered the maelstrom. The mother of a 7-year-old girl, he said, recounted how the Jacksonville Schneider hadn't allowed her to accompany her daughter into his exam room. There, the girl had been restrained, suffering a broken nose and seven missing teeth, the mother said.
Using Facebook to respond
In an instant message to the mother, Schneider differentiated himself from the Jacksonville Schneider, noting, "We always allow parents in the treatment room." As a result, the mother, on her Facebook page, implored the public not to confuse the Long Island dentist with her child's alleged abuser, he said.
Schneider also wrote on Facebook that he was not the dentist under investigation, and even uploaded a photo of himself. That posting attracted 385 "likes," 69 positive comments and reached 16,976 people, he said. Before the crisis, his posts typically drew two to five "likes," no comments, and reached 17 to 30 people.
Meanwhile, Schneider directed his staff to answer out-of-town calls -- identified by caller ID -- with "Dr. Howard W. Schneider from Huntington, New York, not Jacksonville, Florida." That prompted callers to apologize or simply hang up, he said, but "the staff remains gun-shy to pick up the phone if the call isn't from a 516 or 631 area code."
Schneider also reached out to Google, which removed negative reviews that didn't pertain to him, and to News4Jax, a Jacksonville TV program, which covered his same-name predicament and helped to reduce the unfounded outrage against him by 90 percent, he said.
Reputation.com, a Redwood City, California-based firm that manages image issues, rarely sees cases like Schneider's identity mix-up, but refers to them as "the doppelnamer problem," said Karissa Sparks, vice president of marketing.
Finding positive reviews
To surmount identity confusion, Sparks recommended generating positive reviews on grading sites. She said her firm charges about $300 a month for facilitating high ratings by providing doctors with a tablet for patients to post reviews on such sites as Google Plus, Healthgrades and Rate My Doctor. The fee includes guidance on where additional reviews are needed to bolster ratings.
"That feels like cheating the system," Schneider said, "and I don't feel comfortable doing that."
Henry Feintuch, president of an eponymous Manhattan strategic communications firm, suggested he could convey his gratitude to supportive patients with a token of appreciation.
Early in the crisis, Schneider, who has about 4,000 patients, had posted on Facebook that he was "humbled by the massive support," a sentiment that reached 5,838 people and received 157 "likes" and many thoughtful comments that he has acknowledged. He said if the situation flares up again, he would consider a gesture of gratitude for his patients' support.
"It started out terrible, and it could've become worse, but in some ways I turned it into something positive," said Schneider, who says he doesn't believe he has suffered a loss of patients because of the identity mix-up.