Sunday, December 21, 2014

How to complain online - and not get sued

The web has vastly expanded the options for a consumer with a gripe. But be warned: Companies don't always respond well.

How to complain online - and not get sued

If you're frustrated with a product or service, and can't get satisfaction directly from the business that provided it, what do you do? Today, many consumers are tempted to share their thoughts on the web - perhaps with their friends (or the whole world) on Facebook, or by posting on one of the many websites such as Yelp or TripAdvisor that invite such complaints.

The latest issue of Consumer Reports Money Adviser offers a great overview of the process - and the risks, which include at least some chance of retaliation by the target of your complaint.  Truth is a defense is libel cases, but getting sued is a monumental hassle. Above all, it's worth thinking twice  before you post something that you may never be able to remove.

You can read the whole report here - it includes thumbnail descriptions of more than 20 sites where consumers can air complaints. You can also sometimes post a gripe on a company's own site, or find creative avenues to get a business' attention.  Sometimes you can find a useful email address buried on a company's website. Money Adviser says some companies, including Walmart and General Electric, have proven responsive to consumers who air complaints on their corporate Facebook pages.

Although some states, such as Pennsylvania, have laws intended to protect citizens from getting sued to silence their complaints (click here for more information on so-called SLAPP suits), Money Adviser wisely suggests not relying on them, since fighting any suit can be costly, not to mention a far bigger headache than almost any consumer complaint. Among its suggestions:

No matter what the laws are in your state, consider the potential repercussions before you post critical or embarrassing comments, says Mark Goldowitz, founder and president of the Public Participation Project and a lawyer who defends clients against SLAPP suits in California.

Remember that once you post something, it will probably remain on the Web for a very long time. Even if a site lets you modify or remove your comments, the initial post might get picked up by search engines or other websites. So people might read your initial rant without knowing you've since changed your mind.

Just because you didn't register or otherwise provide personal information when posting a review doesn't necessarily mean a company can't track you down, says Eric Goldman, an associate professor specializing in Internet law at the Santa Clara University School of Law. Similarly, don't count on a website's privacy policy to protect you when a company comes a' knocking with a subpoena.

Goldowitz recommends first preparing your comments offline and perhaps waiting a day. "The worst thing is reacting out of anger without taking the time to think about how this is going to be read by other people on the Internet," he says.

Make sure your facts are correct and can be supported. While you're legally protected when giving your opinion, libelous statements disguised as opinion—for example, "My opinion is broker John Smith stole $5,000 from his clients"—are another matter. "Certainly don't muzzle yourself. That would be horrible," Goldowitz says. "But choose your words carefully."

He notes that some homeowners insurance covers you if you're sued for defamatory statements. If your policy doesn't, you can add the coverage at little cost.

If a business responds to your criticism with an offer to help or discuss the issue, by all means reply. If it resolves your problem, update your original post with the good news. But don't accept payment to change your opinion or account of the facts. Your integrity is worth more than that. If a company asks you to write a review and you're a satisfied customer, go right ahead.

Jeff Gelles Inquirer Business Columnist
About this blog

Jeff Gelles, who writes the Inquirer's weekly Consumer 14.0 and Tech Life columns, takes a broad look at the marketplace of goods, services, and ideas.

Reach Jeff at jgelles@phillynews.com.

Jeff Gelles Inquirer Business Columnist
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