Social media can bite
You no doubt have had good reason to complain about something, or someone, on social media – you’ve purchased a product which subsequently turns out to be poor quality; or a tradesman you have used has done the wrong thing; or a professional has not lived up to the standards you would expect.
But be careful – people are getting bitten!
Act in haste, repent at leisure
Instead of going through the time-consuming and often frustrating experience of complaining to a company or to a government department, nowadays many people opt to vent their feelings on social media first. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter are tempting because they provide immediate feedback in the form of sympathy from family and friends, and friends of friends.
If you’ve got a wide enough audience, you may even find that the company will respond to your complaint with a request for more information. This can feel like a great outcome but industry experts suggest that this is unlikely because only around 1% of complaints are actually dealt with on social media platforms AND the downside to complaining in this fashion can actually outweigh the positives.
The legal risk of posting
Social media and the internet in general (and indeed all forms of communication) are subject to laws in Australia which protect people and businesses against unjust damage to their reputation. The laws apply when someone either says or writes something which is seen or heard by other people. The more people who see what has been written, the more the person or business is damaged and the more likely it is that legal action could be taken against you.
This is why all social media, in particular the most popular ones such as Facebook and Twitter, are potentially dangerous places in which to complain unless you know how to do it to ensure that you comply with our laws.
A recent sobering example of the perils of using social media is the case in late 2013 in which Andrew Farley was found to have damaged the reputation of a teacher at his former school and ordered by a NSW court to pay both compensatory and aggravated damages of over $100,000. In this case he had used Twitter to spread his message among his followers, causing considerable distress to the woman.
According to defamation laws, the courts take into consideration the number of people who saw the complaint or comment in order to decide how much compensation to award to the victim. Because of the ease of sharing content on social media sites, and the often rapid or viral nature of some of the posts on the internet, it is easy to see how your knee-jerk complaint about a business or person could quickly be seen by hundreds or even thousands of people.
Posting to blogs and review sites such as tripadvisor.com or Amazon can sometimes come with even higher risks as their content may be viewed by an unlimited number of people.
Beyond your control
Generally the first action a business or person will take is to request that the offending content is removed (sometimes done with a cease and desist letter from a lawyer). Removing the damaging statement will reduce the amount of “damages” you may have to pay. However, the difficulty with social media is that your followers may have shared the material to a wider audience online. It can take on a life of its own, so removing the offensive statement entirely may be beyond your control.
Social media can actually reduce your bargaining power
Most businesses are concerned about negative statements about their products or services so they will take steps to resolve problems in order to minimise the damage. However, if you’ve already posted your complaint on social media, and it is passed on by even one of your followers, removing your complaint is not going to solve the problem for the business.
On the other hand, posting your complaint on a special purpose site such as BuyersVoice means the complaint can be removed when the business makes a satisfactory offer of compensation to you – you confirm the complaint has been resolved and we will remove the complaint. This provides you with bargaining power that you don’t have by posting it on social media.
Other advantages of BuyersVoice
BuyersVoice gives you real power by grouping similar complaints together, boosting your chances of having your issue resolved.
It also takes away the risk of you being personally liable for defamation because of the way your complaint is published. It doesn’t work that way with Facebook or Twitter!
Regards Russell Wheeler, BA, LLB CEO and Consumer Advocate
Don’t be so sure. I’ve seen some very intelligent people caught out by the scamsters – lawyers and dentists amongst them.
Yes, I know, you’re saying “intelligent but not smart”. Perhaps, but it’s better to be safe and, as they say, forewarned is forearmed. Knowing what types of scams are out there will minimise the chance of it happening to you. So read on.
The extent of the scam problem
First, the facts: in 2012, more than $93 million was lost by decent people in Australia as a result of scams.
Usually money that the victim could not afford to lose. Can you imagine how devastating that must be, especially for the elderly who are targeted so often and who are too old to make money to replace what was lost?
There were about 84,000 scams notified to the Federal government that year alone. And the total number is probably a lot higher – many people are too embarrassed to report falling victim to a scam artist.
Types of scams
The most common scam is offering something of value, perhaps a low interest rate loan or a very generous fee for doing very little work. The catch is that you are required to make a payment upfront. This ‘advance fee’ scam accounts for 32 per cent of reported scams.
Next is computer hacking scams – 13 per cent relate to hacking.
The well-publicised Microsoft scam (“your computer is infected”) continues to target Aussies, as well as a scareware scam by people pretending to be from the Australian Federal Police.
Other scams include:
- The e-greeting cards scam – you receive an email claiming to be from a friend but the link contains malicious software which is installed on your computer;
- The parcel scam – you receive a call or notice at your front door about an unsuccessful delivery. It will appear to be from a legitimate source, such as Australia Post. The thing that gives it away is that they will ask you for personal details, bank account numbers, credit card numbers, etc;
- The charity gift cards scam – an investigation conducted by Choice several years ago found it was common for the charity to only receive 10% of what you paid.
- Legitimate gift cards – they may be issued by a legitimate business but if the restrictions are unreasonable, such as short expiry dates (less than one year), or if there are unreasonable
activation fees (such as the Australia post Visa gift card), steer clear because you may end up losing your money, or at least it will cost you more than it should.
- The Nigerian scam – people are induced to send money offshore based on promises of great riches;
- The dating website scam – people are induced into a relationship online with someone they end up trusting and sending money offshore. The relationship ends when the money stops.
How to avoid scams
So how do you protect yourself against the known and not-yet-known scams? The following guidelines will help.
- Check them out – make sure the business is actually registered by looking up their ABN (http://abr.business.gov.au/); have a look at their website; see what people are saying about them in consumer forums; do a general Google search
- Don’t agree to pay for a service in full before it is carried out; pay with a credit card so that there is a record of the transaction and the amount paid.
- Be cautious of anyone who is putting pressure on you to make a decision quickly. Attempting to instil urgency and fear, and too-good-to-be-true promises, are the hallmarks of scam artists.
- Only provide personal or financial information to someone you trust.
- Request evidence of their authenticity e.g. registration as a charity
- Make sure that there are written terms and conditions, particularly a written record of any guarantees or promises which are made.
- Always read the fine print, particularly with things such as gift cards.
- Ensure gift cards don’t expire in less than a year and can be tracked e.g. have a serial number.
- If you are suspicious, get the phone number of the business from a reputable source and call them.
- Don’t donate to someone who approaches you out of the blue.
Keep up-to-date and help others
If you would like notifications about scams, rip-offs, and other consumer alerts, contact www.BuyersVoice.com.au
Also, please help to keep others up-to-date – whether it is about a scam or just a consumer complaint. You can do this at www.BuyersVoice.com.au
A summary of what’s in it for you
- We will contact the business for you about your complaint
- Depending upon the circumstances, we will arrange for our lawyers to write a complaint letter to the business
- We will give your complaint more power by combining it with others
- If it’s too late to get your complaint resolved, or if this is not your objective, we will alert the public to matters that you bring to our attention e.g. poor products or businesses which do the wrong thing
- Where appropriate, we will put extra pressure on the business to resolve the complaint by writing an editorial about the problem and/or arranging further publicity (social media, etc)
- We will keep your complaint “live” until it is resolved
- We will check any review of a product, or business, you write to minimise any risk for you
Some details of what we’ll do
You may not want to cause waves or you may think there is no point in complaining. If so, you’re not on your own – 1 in 3 people say they do not complain because it is not worth the effort. Therefore, let a consumer protection website do it for you – BuyersVoice. If you don’t want your identity revealed, that’s OK.
Free legal advice
In certain circumstances we will arrange free legal advice from our law firm. When a lawyer writes a complaint letter to a business, the business tends to take it much more seriously. Just submit a complaint to BuyersVoice in order to qualify.
Strength in numbers
We link complaints about the same business or product together and publish the results. Whereas a business may not care about one complaint, if there are multiple complaints made public, the business will lose sales and will need to do something about it by resolving the complaints.
Alerting others to poor products and dodgy businesses
In addition to resolving complaints, one of our main objectives is to help people in their decisions about what business to deal with or what product buy. Therefore, even if it is too late to get your complaint resolved, it is still a good idea to let us know about the problem so that other people are forewarned and don’t suffer the same problem. This will also put pressure on the business to improve the quality of their products or services.
Extra exposure, extra pressure
Some problems need to be given more exposure, such as by writing an editorial for the home page of our website and/or publicising the problem elsewhere e.g. social media. We will also be promoting BuyersVoice extensively so that people will check the reputation of a business or product first.
Resolution of complaint
Genuine complaints will only be removed from our website when they are resolved so the business will have to face the fact that complaints will continue to build up if they don’t do the right thing.
You have probably heard about the law suits against people complaining on social media. One fellow had to pay $100,000 because he breached defamation law. We check your reviews to protect you.
Russell Wheeler CEO, Lawyer and Consumer Advocate
Most people check out product review websites ( Trip Advisor, Amazon, etc) before they make a purchase. But how reliable are they in view of the increasing numbers of fake reviews? And how do you tell the genuine reviews from the bogus ones?
Cash for comment
The fake review industry is thriving. It works in two ways – 1) businesses pay people to write glowing testimonials about their products or services; or 2) they pay people to write negative reviews of their competitors’ products or services.
In fact, it has become such a problem that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) last year demanded that some businesses substantiate their testimonials. Of the 39 businesses issued with a “please explain” notice, 20 were not able to.
Naturally you are going to be suspicious if one review after another is a glowing report. But the fake review business is becoming more sophisticated, which makes it harder to tell the genuine reviews from the non-genuine. There is a lot at stake. For example, international studies show that restaurants which increase their rating by 10% (half a star on a 5 star rating system) have a significant increase in trade – in fact, up to 49% more bookings!
It’s no wonder the online “cash for comment” industry is booming.
$5 for a fake review
Reports indicate that, for as little as $5, you can get someone to write whatever you want about a product or business. So we did some research of our own – it took just 10 minutes to find nine people offering to write whatever you want. No questions asked. And five of the nine were offering to do it for $5 per review.
We also found advertisements placed by businesses wanting to find people to post reviews written by that business because they don’t want to be seen to be doing it themselves.
Of course, the people who write these bogus reviews have never bought the product or used the business they are reviewing.
You can imagine what a problem this is for some business owners. In a recent dispute between a café owner and her university landlord, the university cited “bad online reviews” as one of the reasons for not renewing her café’s contract. The café owner has no recourse and no right of response, and the university doesn’t even have to substantiate the claims.
Manipulation of reviews and ratings
The situation is made worse by product review websites removing negative reviews and manipulating star ratings if the business pays to advertise on their website. What is really extraordinary is that a recent ruling by an appeals court in California said that this is not in contravention of their unfair competition laws. It involved a well-known product review website in the United States. The fact that over 2,000 complaints had been made about the product review website – many of which concerned this issue – was apparently irrelevant.
How do we know that this sort of manipulation is not happening in Australia? It probably is – the product review website referred to in the last paragraph also operates here. This makes it even more difficult for consumers to trust online reviews.
Overcoming the problem
Product review websites need as many reviews as possible, which is why they don’t ask too many questions. BuyersVoice takes a different approach – quality, rather than quantity. It is better to have less reviews and more reliable ones.
How is this achieved. BuyersVoice asks for extra information from people who submit complaints or reviews which enables the fakes to be identified.
Online reviews are a powerful thing for both businesses and consumers, but they only work if the highest level of integrity and ethics are maintained. When products and services are reviewed in a fair and honest way, everybody wins. That’s what BuyersVoice is all about.
If you would like a list of ways to help you decide if reviews are genuine or not, please Contact Us
Russell Wheeler, BA, LLB CEO, Lawyer and Consumer Advocate
BuyersVoice – Sat, 10 Jan 2015 – Interview with Founder
Q: I’m itching to ask you that question. But first, how does BuyersVoice help buyers?
RW: There are over 10 million problems every year in Australia involving products or businesses, and the services they provide. Only a fraction (some say less than 5%) get resolved to the satisfaction of the consumer. BuyersVoice helps people get their complaints resolved, and alerts other people to the problem.
Getting a complaint resolved
Q: How does it work?
RW: If one person has a problem with a product, or a business, and the business does not want to do the right thing, the consumer has the problem. But, if there are a lot of complaints on the BuyersVoice website about the same thing, the business will have the problem – people will stop using that business, or buying its products. The business will need to resolve the complaints so they can re-establish their reputation.
Pre-purchase check for the reputation of a product or service
Q: So the website can be used by people who are thinking of buying a product to see whether other people have had problems with that product?RW: Exactly. The results are aggregated so someone can see at a glance how many complaints there are. And what type of complaints. The same thing applies to complaints about businesses – tradesmen, doctors, builders, lawyers and big business.
Q: Let me rephrase it then – what causes a business lawyer to become a consumer advocate?
RW: Like so many people, I want to make things better. Even though our laws are getting better when it comes to protecting consumers, it’s still very difficult for a lot of people to get a genuine complaint resolved. That’s why I set up BuyersVoice.
How BuyersVoice was conceived
Q: Did you just wake up one morning and dream up this idea?
RW: Sort of. It was a moment of inspiration. But that moment came about from a long history of trying to get people to do the right thing and looking for better ways of doing things.
Q: Please go on.
RW: I always speak up when I see injustice or unfairness, when I see someone doing the wrong thing. My wife tells me to let people be. My answer is always the same – I have an obligation to make things better. “Not when they threaten to bomb our home” she replies!
Q: Bomb your home?
RW: Before we accepted a quote to render our home, I went to the trouble of specifying in writing everything that needed to be done, including our chimney. When I pointed out that they had not done the chimney, they wanted to charge me extra. Of course I objected. Their response was that they would come back later and bomb my home. I wish BuyersVoice had been around back then.
Q: Can you give me an example of what you have done in the past to make things better?
RW: In the 90s I set up a business called “Prelegal”. It was based on the premise that there is often no need to spend a lot of money on legal fees because there are practical or commercial solutions to problems that many lawyers don’t see. It’s just coincidental that failing to see such a solution happens to be in the financial interests of the lawyer.
RW: Yes, I truly believe that. Most lawyers are good people who want to do the best for their clients. They just don’t always have the training and experience to see the practical answers.
No need for lawyers
Q: Are you leaving Prelegal to do BuyersVoice?
RW: Prelegal no longer exists in that form. A solicitor wrote to the Law Society and said “What are you going to do to put Prelegal out of business?” The Law Society apparently decided to oblige.
Q: What happened?
RW: They launched an enquiry and wrote a report the size of a telephone book. The conclusion was that I was doing nothing wrong but they were not very subtle in suggesting that I should watch out. So I changed the name and set up a law firm. But I still use the Prelegal approach.
Q: Can you give me an example of how your approach works?
RW: One of the keys is having some business experience. The other is negotiation. Unfortunately, in an adversarial legal system, many lawyers become adversarial – if they weren’t already that way. This is rarely conducive to a good negotiated outcome which is in the interests of a client.
Q: Are you saying that lawyers are not good negotiators?
RW: Some lawyers are good but the negotiation courses they do are inadequate. They often don’t even mention the word psychology which is the foundation of negotiation.
A practical way of getting results
Q: Go on.
RW: We’re getting off the subject. I brought it up because there are practical ways of getting results. I believe that BuyersVoice is a practical way of helping buyers.
Q: Are you concerned that people won’t complain because Australians don’t like to be thought of as whingers?
RW: I thought about that. But Australians believe in a fair go. In my experience they are prepared to speak up when confronted with unfairness. By doing this, they are making a difference.
Q: How does submitting a complaint to BuyersVoice make a difference?
RW: Every time someone submits a complaint about a bad product or a questionable business, they are alerting others to a problem. So they are not only increasing the likelihood of resolving their own complaint, they are helping others. Also, it will result in those businesses which are complained about improving their products and services. If they don’t, they will lose business. That is making a difference.
Free of charge
Q: You didn’t mention anything about the cost of using this service.
RW: That’s because it’s free.
An interview with Russell Wheeler, the founder of BuyersVoice by Leah Gibbs, CEO of www.workathomemums.com.au