Local businesses are getting fed up with what they say is unfair online reputation defamation, and some of them are taking action.
In the past, customers with an ax to grind couldn’t do much. They could complain to the owners or file a complaint with an agency like the Better Business Bureau, but that was pretty much it.
Today, thanks to local search sites like Yelp, Yahoo! Local and others, a customer with a complaint can reach a gigantic audience. Local small businesses are learning the system is not always fair.
Michael Zehr, a broker at Armadillo Properties in Copperas Cove, said Realtors are particularly at risk from angry clients damaging their firm’s reputation online.
“Taking deposits for properties is a part of our business,” Zehr said. “It is not uncommon for someone to totally trash a property and then post negative comments online when we don’t give them their deposit back.”
Zehr said there is little to no oversight of most local search sites.
“Every time somebody literally trashes the place, even if we have hundreds of pics proving it, there is nothing you can do to get these sites to take the negative comments down,” Zehr said.
“The one that probably hurts the most is ripoffreport.com,” he said. “Angry people can go and say anything they want about you, and they need no proof. The owner won’t remove the comments unless you pay him money. I personally talked to him. It got to the point where we had to hire an attorney.”
Other local entrepreneurs have taken legal action to deal with what Zehr calls “online bullying.”
Eddie G. Shell, of Shell & Shell Attorneys at Law in Marble Falls, said one of the biggest problems is that businesses can’t go after sites that publish the reviews. He said usually, the only remedy is to go after the person making the defamatory comments. Shell is representing Killeen-based American Auto Sales in an effort to put a muzzle on an angry former employee.
A petition Shell filed in Bell County District Court requesting a temporary restraining order said the former employee became upset after the plaintiff repossessed a vehicle from him for lack of payment.
The court filing included samples of the former employee’s negative posts. The filing stated the former employee had made more than 50 online posts defaming American Auto since Nov. 28, 2012.
The court granted American Auto Sales’ request for a restraining order.
“Even if you win the case, and the court record is expunged, there is no real mechanism to get the defamatory statements off the Internet,” Shell said.
“People can post things online with basically no repercussions, so I think we’ll see a lot more civil lawsuits to try and correct incorrect statements,” he added. “There is no way I know of to get around things like that other than the crude tool of suing someone for defamation.”
Shell said taking legal action is far from a perfect solution.
“It’s cumbersome, it’s expensive, and it takes a long time,” he said.
Roman Gorlov, owner of Texas Computer System in Killeen, said he has experienced multiple problems with customers who unfairly attacked his company’s reputation in online reviews. Gorlov said he gets 30 percent of his clients from online searches, so the criticism is particularly harmful.
“One woman came in for a free diagnostic because she needed to report any damages to her insurance company,” he said. “The results were not what she wanted to hear, so she started posting negative comments online. I finally paid her $40 to stop and take the posts down. A few weeks later, she started doing it again.”
Worse, Gorlov said rivals have defamed him online. He confronted one. After the rival denied defaming him, Gorlov told him he had tracked the comments back to their source, and he knew he was responsible. The rival then admitted making the posts and removed them.
“I really did not have the evidence I said I did,” Gorlov said.
Gorlov and Zehr said they respond to any customer complaints. Zehr has a company intranet set up to communicate with his clients.
Gorlov said he spends a lot of time trying to track down the source of complaints so he can make things right.
“I just wish people had to leave their real names when they leave a review,” he said. “There is no way to get in touch with them. I take all complaints seriously, and I want to work with my customers to solve any problems. But you can’t do that if you don’t know who they are.”
An assistant general manager at Armadillo Properties works to protect Armadillo’s online reputation, Zehr said.
“We actually have an employee who all he does is communicate with owners and customers to solve any problems before they can trash us on the Internet.”