July 17, 2020

False and Negative Online Reviews Continue to Plague All Industries

By Charles Sells

The strategy of posting negative information about a business online and then requiring payment from that business in exchange for removing the negative review is nearly as old as the internet itself. This is evidenced, in part, by the nearly two-decade existence of one of the most notorious websites online, which we will not dignify by calling out by name here, which posts malicious (and often fabricated) “reports” on the official website, then contacts business owners and offers to “help” them remove those reports in exchange for thousands of dollars in fees.

It’s a scam, pure and simple. Too bad most people have no idea just how long this extortion strategy has been around or that not everything you read online is true. Too bad, also, for many real estate investors and other business owners who have suffered from the pure fiction posted by the owner of this website as they seek what amounts to blackmail payoff.

Pretty strong words, right? Well, I’m pretty strongly upset by this “business model,” which has been around forever and is, unfortunately, entirely legal as long as the reviews adhere to certain standards regarding libel and there is a set arbitration procedure, however, expensive, for having the posts removed. Although most of these types of websites fail to cross their T’s and dot their I’s and are eventually taken down, the longest-lived among them continue to thrive because the site owner is really good at what he spends his time (nefariously) doing.

So, what does this have to do with real estate investing?

Anyone who has been involved in real estate for even a single transaction or ever owned even one investment property for any length of time knows there are a lot of potential liability issues associated with real estate investments. That’s fine, of course, and it is part of being in business. You cover your bases by being professional, getting the right type of insurance coverage, and only working with insured and reputable professionals in the field.

However, often these preemptive measures are not enough. Real estate professionals, it seems, are second only to doctors in the volume of frivolous lawsuits leveled against them, in large part because public perception of someone who owns more than one piece of physical property is that they must be so rich as to be a prime target for a financial windfall. When people lose those lawsuits (as they usually do if the investor has behaved ethically and responsibly and opts to fight the charges instead of settle), they are angry. When people get angry, today’s go-to course of action is to take to the internet with an “open letter to [the person who upset me today]” or, even more likely, a nasty, one-star review.

Websites that use this type of material to essentially blackmail real estate investors and other small-business owners pander to the affronted and defeated plaintiff population. Post something nasty on Facebook about a real estate company and the odds are quite good you will soon be invited to write up a summary of your grievances for one of these websites so that “justice” may be served in the court of public, online opinion. Even more frequently, you will never hear from the website at all but, if you know to look, you will find someone else has conveniently had a very similar experience to yours that has magically appeared online.

Readers should note, this replication of the negative experience by another poster is devious in and of itself, since it prevents people who have experienced truly unfair treatment from getting their fair say. Website owners replicate reviews rather than working with real people because, after all, the website owner cannot control a real person with a real problem. A wronged individual who actually exists and is involved with the review might opt to take a settlement or even (gasp) work with the small business owner directly to remediate the issue and then take their negative post down. While these websites purport to permit this, it very seldom, if ever, happens.

Unfortunately, if you want the material taken down, you are probably going to have to pony up the “arbitration fees” to get the job done. Having done this, remember there is no guarantee that you will not soon find yourself the victim of another complaint! After all, now they know you are willing to pay.

Sadly, many small business owners and real estate investors take the bait, pay the fees, and consider it money well spent because they have removed a nasty report – even a false one – from the internet. They consider their reputations now a bit clearer because this fake information has been eliminated and their clients and potential clients will now hopefully only see positive information about the company online. It was faster and probably less expensive than going to court, they tell themselves with resignation. They’re probably right, but feeding this beast ends well for no one because it keeps these dishonest extortionists in business so they can target you and others in the industry again and again.

How to Spot a Scammer Writing Rip-Off Reviews About You

If you have been targeted by one of these fake review sites, then there are several signs that you are dealing with a malicious and fraudulent entity:

  • The person reporting you is not a client or customer of yours and cannot be reached and/or identified.
  • You are contacted by the website with an offer to remove the review in exchange for a fee.Note: Real review sites are not allowed to do this! Think about Yelp, which has faced all sorts of controversy and many lawsuits over allegations that it may have manipulated both positive and negative reviews and commentary. Real review sites go out of their way to avoid the perception that they are “pay-to-play.”
  • The website owner offers extensive services that will “clean up” your online reputation if you retain their services.
  • The website focuses only on reporting alleged scams and rip-offs, not on holistic reviews of companies or service providers.

“OK, so I understand I’m being targeted. However, I need practical solutions to this problem!” you may be thinking. Well, yes, we all do. The best practical solution to this problem is to establish a strong base of client referrals and testimonials that support your business without the help of third-party websites. Now, will some people eventually track down these “reports” online if you do not pay to have them removed? Yes, but the good news is that most people also know that these sites are not entirely reliable. You need a solid defense that includes active, documented clients and colleagues who can be identified as real people talking about how great it is to work with you. You also need to try to refrain from bad-mouthing the negative website too much, since most people assume if you get defensive, you probably did something wrong.

My suggestion:

Instead of venting to everyone who brings up your negative online report, take a breath and say calmly, “Yes, we’re aware of that report. We have every reason to believe it is false since they offered to remove it if we paid thousands of dollars and the person who allegedly posted that review is not and has never been a client of ours (believe me, we tried to find them because if the review were true, we would be working very hard to remedy that awful situation for them). I completely understand why this worries you, though, so would you like to speak to some of our real clients and customers who have been with us for years?”

This demonstrates that the review matters to you but that the platform where it is posted is inherently flawed and, as a bonus, lets you bring out some of your best testimonials from real, live customers and clients in a positive way. Positivity is very important, since the person asking will otherwise soon notice your tone and the tone of that nasty website are very similar in nature (they designed their platform that way on purpose, by the way).

No matter how great you are in your business, you will encounter people who love you and people who loathe you. Spend your resources remedying actual mistakes rather than pouring money down the drain on fake reviews about bad services that never happened. Everyone, including your potential and current clients, will benefit from your integrity and honorable behavior.

Update: Complaint Websites Continue to be De-Listed

Since I wrote this article, a trend that started in late 2018 when Google (allegedly) started adjusting search algorithms to combat this type of false “advertising” and extortion, has been demonstrably continued. At present, Google has not publicly acknowledged any adjustments to its algorithms that would keep these complaint websites low in search results, but they continue to rank so far down as to be nonexistent to the majority of internet users.

Great work, everyone who resisted their demands and publicized their fraudulent behavior! Our industry is a better and more honest place, thanks to you.

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