Online Reputation Management, Angry Consumers, and Alleged Court System Abuse

Online Reputation Management, Angry Consumers, and Alleged Court System Abuse.

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Because consumers widely rely on online reviews for goods and services, small businesses have to be concerned about their online reputation.[1] “Online reputation management” companies employ various techniques to rehabilitate a client’s online reputation, including responding to negative comments, pushing down the websites containing the negative reviews in search results, and even de-indexing (removing the website from search-engine results).[2] But how much does online reputation cost? According to Solvera Group, Inc.—a self-proclaimed “reputation management” company—somewhere between $5,000 and $12,000.[3] Solvera claimed that it could suppress negative reviews and comments by removing them from search-engine results.[4]

Removing comments from the Internet is a difficult process because of First Amendment protections[5] and the anonymity of many consumers,[6] yet Solvera found an easier path. After potential clients contact Solvera to have negative comments about them suppressed, they are presented with several options.[7] One strategy offered is removing the website from search-engine results.[8] Once the client chooses that option, Solvera begins the quest for de-indexing. First, Solvera’s hired blogger in California allegedly would write a comment or review on the website to be de-indexed.[9] Later, lawyers hired by Solvera would bring an action against an individual who claims to have written the defamatory review.[10] Next, the defendant would come to an agreement with the plaintiff (which is not actually the client yet has a very similar name) and this agreement, signed by the judge, would allow Solvera to make Google de-index the review website.[11]

As brilliant as the scheme might seem, the Texas Attorney General says it’s illegal.[12] The Attorney General claims that Solvera violated the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act by abusing the legal system to deceive Harris County district-court judges with its defamation lawsuits.[13] In particular, the Attorney General’s suit alleges that Solvera violated DTPA §17.46(a) and (b)—engaging in false, misleading, and deceptive acts and practices in the course of trade and commerce.[14] The Attorney General seeks a permanent injunction and restoration of all the money and property taken by means of unlawful acts or practices.[15]

One website where reviews were posted has also commenced an action against Solvera.[16] Consumer Opinion LLC has filed a complaint in California, naming as defendants entities and individuals believed to have used schemes similar to Solvera’s, as well as the individuals who assisted them.[17] This lawsuit was initially filed last year in a federal court, but the court lacked jurisdiction.[18] Moreover, in a blog post published in March 2016 on the website run by Consumer Opinion LLC, the author identified a pattern in some de-indexing cases, alleging a potential abuse of the court system.[19] The ability to identify the person who wrote the “defamatory” review and receive a fully executed affidavit from that person within days after filing the lawsuit seemed quite suspicious to the author.[20]

For more on the DTPA, check out O’Connor’s Texas Causes of Action.

[1] Plaintiff’s Original Petition at 4, Texas v. Solvera Grp. Inc., No. 2017-56634 (Tex.Dist.Ct.2017) (8-24-17).

[2] Id. at 4-5.

[3] Id. at 6.

[4] Id.

[5] Eugene Volokh, Solvera Group, Accused by Texas AG of Masterminding Fake-Defendant Lawsuits, Now Being Sued By Consumer Opinion over California Lawsuits, Washington Post, Sept. 28, 2017.

[6] Dark Side of Online Reputation Management (ORM), Pissed Consumer, Mar. 17, 2016.

[7] Plaintiff’s Original Petition, at 6.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. at 7.

[10] Id. at 6-7.

[11] Id. at 8-9.

[12] AG Paxton Files Suit Against ‘Reputation Management’ Company, Attorney General of Texas, Sept. 11, 2017.

[13] Id.

[14] Plaintiff’s Original Petition, at 9-10.

[15] Id. at 10, 14.

[16] Volokh, Solvera Group Now Being Sued by Consumer Opinion over California Lawsuits.

[17] Complaint, Consumer Opinion LLC v. ZSC, Inc. et al. (Contra Costa Cty. Superior Ct.2017) (9-7-17).

[18] Eugene Volokh, Lawsuit Against Lawyers Who Allegedly Filed Improper Lawsuits Aimed at Getting Internet Criticism Deindexed by Google, Washington Post, Oct. 31, 2016.

[19] See Dark Side of Online Reputation Management (ORM).

[20] Id.

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