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Consequences of Complaining Online

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Internet is free, fast, and far-reaching, all are reasons many consumers are using it to air their grievances about a variety of businesses. But by posing a message, you may open yourself up to a lawsuit.

More and more disgruntled consumers are logging on to expose what they see as bad businesses. On RipoffReport.com customers can post complaints and companies can file rebuttals.

"It's another tool to evaluate whether you want to do business with a company or not," said Don Kobes of Ewing, New Jersey.

Don Kobes decided against working with a career management company he'd been talking to after reading negative opinions about it online. He also posted his own complaint about the business on RipoffReport.com.

"It's a wonderful sounding board but it's not without its pitfalls."

RipoffReport.com gets about a thousand submissions a day. The challenge used to be deciphering legitimate complaints from bogus ones. Now a new issue is cropping up and that's companies littering the information highway with lawsuits.

"Yes, I was sued," said Kobes.

In that lawsuit, Career Moves accused Don of defamation and libel. The company is also suing many others who posted complaints on RipoffReport.com.

The website's operator and a former Career Moves employee are also named in the lawsuit.

Elida Howell, of Princeton, New Jersey, started her own company after she quit Career Moves, which is now also known as Executive Career Moves or Impraxxa.

"There is absolutely nothing in this lawsuit that has any merit," Howell said.

Career Moves disagrees and said Elida and the other defendants made false statements. But Elida said she didn't even write the comment she's being sued for; she said someone else used her name, although that doesn't change her opinion about the lawsuit.

"The consumers freedom of speech should stand. I think that everybody has the right to voice their opinion," Howell said.

Salil Mehra, a law professor from Temple, agrees and said while companies might try to use lawsuits to silence consumers, it is unlikely they'd actually win.

"That company would have to show that that consumer was saying something false, knew they were saying something false, and doing it with a hurtful, malicious intent," said Mehra.

Mehra said the truth is a consumer's best defense.

"You know if you've genuinely had a problem, make true statements about that, particularly statements you can back up."

That means you should not exaggerate, speculate about a company's motives or relay someone else's experience.

A number of companies have taken legal action against RipoffReport.com. But the website's operator said he has never lost a case or removed a report as a result. Plus, lawsuits have the potential to backfire on companies, as this story shows, in some cases lawsuits only attract more attention, more publicity to the exact issue the company might be trying to cover up.


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