Be careful what you write

Have you ever had a bad customer service experience and wanted to write a scathing review online? Well, before you fire up that computer, stretch your fingers, login to the trendy review site, and begin typing as fast as you can; you might want to think twice. An internet search for “negative reviews resulting in people getting sued” shows the cautionary tale of what has happened when people have written such reviews online.

As review websites are gaining in popularity so are the ways businesses are trying to defend themselves against the negative review. Some have taken to add in clauses to their sales agreements that a client will never post a negative review, and if they do they will be subject to hefty fines. From their point of view they are trying to protect their reputations and not have fraudulent reviews posted; so they are trying to muzzle all negative reviews while allowing only positive reviews. The glaring flaw in this is that it only applies to customers who entered into the agreement, and there is no guarantee that a court will uphold any of these clauses.

The lessons to be learned from such stories include:

  • Read the fine print before making the purchase or signing the document. Ask questions if you don’t understand. If they try to pressure you into not reading the fine print, leave.
  • Keep all documentation including dates of service and the contract as it stood at that date, the one that you agreed too. Just because one party changes the terms in an agreement at a later date does not make it binding if the other party does not know about and agree to the change.
  • Keep in mind that we are all legally responsible for what we write. There are laws that govern what people write including:
    • Laws against: libel, hate speech, bullying, copyright infringement, trademark infringement.
    • Laws regarding: right of publicity, FTC Endorsement Guidelines, and even the FDA regulates what can and cannot be said about nutritional supplements, herbs, vitamins, etc., including the requirement of a specifically worded disclaimer.
    • The Fair Use Clause of U.S. Copyright law does hold for use of some (short quotes, snippets, brief quotations, etc.) materials for nonprofit educational informative purposes, such as criticism, comment, news reporting, etc.
  • You have the choice to take your business somewhere else.
  • Be careful where you post a review online:
    • The website name can taint the review
    • Some websites don’t allow posts to be removed
  • If you want to write a scathing review of a company that treated you wrong, then by all means write it in your personal diary or journal where no one else will read it.
  • If you believe fraud actually happened, gather the facts and evidence and report it to your state DOJ, the B.B.B, and the Consumer Protection Bureau. If credit card fraud happened, report it to your credit card company. If the amount of money in question is below $10,000 there is always the ability to take them to Small Claims Court.

Above all keep in mind that a lot of businesses will price match a competitor even if they are an online store. If they have the same item and you can show proof, or they can look it up online themselves, that you found the item advertised for less they will match the price. Also, businesses might be willing to find a like item from a supplier and order it for you. Talk to the person who is in charge of ordering and see if they can help.

Keep in mind I am not a lawyer, and any advice I offer is just that; advice. If you need legal advice talk to a lawyer.

Links in post:

Right of Publicity (http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/Publicity)

FTC Endorsement Guidelines (http://www.business.ftc.gov/documents/bus71-ftcs-revised-endorsement-guideswhat-people-are-asking)

FDA Wording Guidelines (http://www.fda.gov/food/dietarysupplements/qadietarysupplements/default.htm#wording)

Copyright Fair Use (http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl102.html)

Copyright Basics (http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ01.pdf)

Updated on 12/6/13 4:33 pm PST:

Changed bullet points from numbers to dots.

Clarified this statement “If you want to write a scathing review of a company that treated you wrong, then by all means write it in your diary or journal.” To read: “If you want to write a scathing review of a company that treated you wrong, then by all means write it in your personal diary or journal where no one else will read it.”

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