Consumer reviews are essential tools for shoppers. Information about specific products or services, or about dealing with a particular seller, can help consumers make smart buying decisions and avoid hassles. If consumers have problems with their purchases, reviews by others can help them argue that their situations are not isolated and strengthen their demands for redress. Reviews, both negative and positive, also provide valuable feedback to sellers and manufacturers.
Equally important is the information about consumer complaints that some government agencies make publicly available, such as the database of complaints about financial services and products made to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s www.saferproducts.gov portal. Some state consumer protection agencies also provide access to complaints; for example the License/Complaint Look Up offered by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The Better Business Bureau is another useful source for complaint information.
The Internet has made it easier than ever to make and find reviews and complaints, but not everyone is happy about that. Some companies have begun to include language in their contracts or terms of service forbidding consumers from making negative comments about their conduct, products or services publicly, and threatening to “fine” them if they do. These non-disparagement clauses have shown up on retailers’ websites, in contracts for booking events such as weddings, and even in doctors’ agreements to provide healthcare services. Public Citizen sued one company, KlearGear, for demanding $3,500 from a Utah couple after they posted information online about an order that they never received. When they refused to pay, the company turned the matter over to a debt collector, which reported it to a credit bureau, damaging the couple’s credit score.
The court ordered KlearGear to pay the consumers more than $306,000 in damages plus attorney’s fees. They may never collect; the company, which failed to appear at the hearing, claims that it wasn’t properly notified of the suit and that there is no jurisdiction because it isn’t physically located in the United States. No matter – the lawsuit was primarily intended to shine a spotlight on these unfair clauses and discourage other companies from using them. And it got the attention of members of Congress.
On December 14, 2016, the Consumer Review Fairness Act of 2016, a bi-partisan bill spearheaded by Representative Leonard Lance (R-NJ), was signed into law. It prohibits non-disparagement clauses and empowers the Federal Trade Commission and state authorities to bring enforcement action. This does not change existing laws concerning defamation, libel and slander, and websites are still free to remove or refuse to display content that is harassing, abusive, obscene, false or misleading, or otherwise deemed inappropriate. When making reviews or commenting about companies or the products and services they sell, it’s best to simply state the facts as objectively as possible.
CFA has always believed that consumers should be able to have their voices heard without fear of retribution. This new law validates that right – so speak up!