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Posted: 1:46 p.m. Friday, Sept. 19, 2014

How To Complain Online Without Being Sued

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By Clark Howard

ClarkHoward.com

 

Do you use review sites to make decisions? I do all the time. This wisdom of the crowd is so powerful that some businesses want to strike back when they don't like what you post.

The Union Street Guest House in Hudson, New York, is a popular destination for weddings in the Northeast. But the facility apparently had a clause in its online policies that said, “Please know that despite the fact that wedding couples love Hudson and our inn, your friends and families may not. If you have booked the inn for a wedding or other type of event . . . and given us a deposit of any kind . . . there will be a $500 fine that will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review . . . placed on any internet site by anyone in your party."

When The New York Post  and other publications got wind of this, the story blew up. That forced the Union Street Guest House to backpedal and remove the clause. "The policy regarding wedding fines was put on our site as a tongue-in-cheek response to a wedding many years ago. It was meant to be taken down long ago and certainly was never enforced," the hotel said in a statement.

Of course, the whole episode tells you how valuable and powerful reviews can be!

Here's the right way to complain online and lessen your chances of being sued

Consumer Reports  suggests you keep the following pointers in mind:

  • Know your state's law regarding SLAPP suits. Strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) are designed to threaten you with expensive and time-intensive litigation to deter you from posting a negative review. By knowing your state's laws, you can understand the parameters of what you legally can and can't say in your review.
  • Make sure you didn't sign a confidentiality agreement. While not common, some doctors do stipulate patients sign such an agreement before treatment. RateMDs.com has a "Wall of Shame" of doctors who have adopted this practice. Avoid them at all costs.
  • Stick strictly to the facts with your complaint. Keep it short, simple and factual; nothing more and nothing less.
  • Cool off. Write your complaint out and then take 24 hours to reflect on it before you post. Make sure your vitriol isn't crowding out the facts in what you've written.
  • Realize that your veil of privacy can be pierced. You may think you're writing a fairly anonymous review, but it is possible that information about your identity, IP address, and location could be subpoenaed at the request of an offended business. The privacy policy of the website where you post your comments isn't likely to protect you either.
  • Know what to do if you are sued. In the worst case if you are sued, you may be covered by your homeowner's policy for defamatory statements. Check with your insurer to see.  
  • Remember, it all comes back to sticking strictly to the facts. Never post libelous comments that disparage anyone's character. That's the best way to stay out of trouble.
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