For businesses, the online review is essential to success. A majority of people trust online reviews to make decisions about where to spend their money so a string of good customer reviews on a site like Yelp can make business skyrocket. A few bad ones can make it wane.
As the influence of the online review has grown, some businesses have become willing to do almost anything to ensure their reputations stay squeaky clean—including things that are very possibly illegal.
In March of this year, a company named ZCS, Inc. filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court against a man named Collins Mattos alleging that Mattos had illegally smeared the company’s online reputation. Mattos allegedly left false reviews for ZCS on the website PissedConsumer.com, calling it a “scam” and accusing it of lying to his credit card company.
Typically such cases take forever to move through the court system; it takes weeks just to figure out a reviewer's identity. But miraculously, just two days after the suit was filed, Mattos signed a settlement agreeing to "take the necessary actions to remove his past false statements from the Internet." The court document was then sent to Google, Bing, Yahoo and other search engines asking them to remove the webpages with the libelous comments from search results.
If this swift delivery of justice seems a little suspect, your instincts are finely tuned. The case, according to a lawsuit filed this month by PissedConsumer.com's parent company, is part of an elaborate, widespread ploy using sham lawsuits to censor the internet. Mattos had not in fact written the angry comments, and ZCS wasn't the company that was trying to get them removed.
Using fake plaintiffs and fake defendants to craft fictional lawsuits, some reputation management companies are scamming both search engines and the court system into making negative reviews of their clients almost impossible to find.
The scheme is brilliant in its simplicity. ZCS, Inc., according to state records, is actually a long defunct company. But ZCS was mentioned in a review on the Pissed Consumer page for a corporate planning firm named Nevada Corporate Headquarters.
According to the PissedConsumer.com lawsuit, Nevada Corporate Headquarters is the real beneficiary of the ZCS lawsuit. Nevada Corporate Headquarters had racked up negative reviews on PissedConsumer.com and elsewhere, but when the company took PissedConsumer.com to court to get them taken down, it failed. So, the suit alleges, it hired a reputation management firm, which hired a lawyer to sue for defamation under the name of a defunct company mentioned on its review page. And the lawyer sued a defendant, Mattos, who was allegedly in on the whole thing; he wasn’t actually the author of the comments, but instead a co-conspirator hired to play defendant so that the suit could move through the court system quickly without raising any red flags. It was a sneaky, twisted, incredibly efficient way to get unflattering comments delisted from the web.
Once Mattos had signed the judgment, a copy of it was sent to the search engines demanding that they de-index all negative reviews associated with ZCS—not just the ones that Mattos claimed to have posted.
Google typically delists anything a court has found to be defamatory. And so just like that, Nevada Corporate Headquarters’ bad reviews were buried among all the junk on the internet, with consumers none the wiser. Reputation crisis solved.
"Either these lawyers are the most magic, efficient lawyers in the world or they’re doing something sketchy," said Marc Randazza, the First Amendment attorney who filed PissedConsumer.com's suit. "Like a lot of nasty schemes, it’s ingenious."
Randazza's case, filed in San Francisco District Court, spells out the particulars of six separate sham lawsuits. It assembles a complicated cast of characters: two attorneys, each previously suspended by the California Bar Association; at least one unknown reputation management firm; multiple companies hoping to scrub their bad reputations online; a slew of defunct and non-existent companies as fake plaintiffs; and fake defendants, agreeing to sign judgments in return for unknown benefits.
Evidence suggests that this scheme has gone viral.
Earlier this month in The Washington Post, another First Amendment attorney, Eugene Volokh, noted that he had spotted 25 different cases relying on a similar scheme. In those cases, plaintiffs claimed to be self-represented, but the suits all seemed to contain the same legalese, suggesting a common author. Of those 25 cases, 15 listed the addresses of the defendants, but a private investigator couldn’t locate a single one of them.
Volokh began noticing the pattern after a case in which a Georgia dentist attempted to get reviews left by a patient removed by suing him—using a slight misspelling of his name in the wrong state. The scheme was outed when Yelp emailed the patient notifying him of the judgment and saying the comment would be removed unless an appeal was pending. Except that the patient had never actually been sued.
Randazza told me that as soon as he filed his lawsuit, people who read about it began sending him other examples that potentially fit the pattern. PissedConsumer.com suspects other sites, such as RipOffReports.com, have been targeted by the two attorneys named in their lawsuit. (Those attorneys did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Over the past few years, businesses seeking to improve their online reputations have gone to great lengths to suppress negative commentary. In one especially creative case, a New York dentist had new patients sign a form giving her legal copyright over any negative comments they might post about her practice, allowing her to use copyright law to get them taken down.
This new pattern, though, suggests a method of skirting unflattering commentary that is not only ingenious and unethical, but endemic—a scam being carried out by multiple entities, in multiple states.
"People want material critical of them—whether true or false—taken down or hidden," Volokh told me via email. "They’re willing to pay many thousands of dollars for that. Unsurprisingly, companies have arisen to serve that market—and since there’s often no effective legitimate way of achieving the result, some companies are now offering solutions that aren’t really legitimate."
Google, which did not respond to a request for comment, seems to have restored any delisted listings related to Randazza's case. For example, a search for Bluegreen Resorts, one of the companies that allegedly took advantage of this scheme, used to yield a results page noting the takedown request and court order. But now the (many, many) bad reviews are back up.
With any review, it's difficult to tell how much stock to put in the opinion of the reviewer. Nevada Corporate Headquarters has many bad reviews on Pissed Consumer and other sites. But it also has people praising its service. What's clear is that Nevada Corporate Headquarters and other companies are spending a lot of time and money making sure opinions they don't like don't get heard. And for that, certainly, they are unlikely to get five stars on Yelp.