Angry customers venting online

You've been cheated or mistreated by a business, and no one from the company seems to care.

Now what?

Thousands of jilted consumers have turned to complaint websites, where they anonymously share with the Internet world their bad experiences.

Sites such as Ripoff Report, My3Cents, ComplaintsBoard and Pissed Consumer have sprung up in the past decade or so, providing details about gripes that you can't get from traditional complaint venues that scrub what's released publicly, such as the Better Business Bureau.

The sites create a cathartic sounding board for consumers. You can dish dirt about businesses on the sites and chat with others slighted by the same company. You can make other consumers wiser about what businesses to avoid. And, of course, venting feels good.

But to get a problem resolved, you're likely better off going the old-fashioned route of contacting the offending company first and making your case.

The Consumer Federation of America recently published a report on six popular complaint sites. It concluded that the sites were more useful to shoppers researching a product or service than complainants seeking redress.

Peggy Haney Ingalls, who worked on the CFA report, was in the market for a freezer while she was doing the research. The retired American Express consumer affairs executive says she found lots of complaints about the major brands, ranging from an appliance being too small to not cold enough.

She used those complaints to make up a list of specs to check on before buying. "I was a much more informed shopper," she says.

Many consumers might have saved themselves a lot of grief if they had checked the sites about BlueHippo before buying a computer through the now-defunct Maryland company. My3Cents, for instance, had a complaint against BlueHippo from 2005.

That's two years before Maryland regulators settled with the company and more than four years before BlueHippo went bankrupt. BlueHippo ended up paying millions of dollars in restitution to settle regulators' complaints that it took consumers' money and never delivered the merchandise as promised.

Ripoff Report founder Ed Magedson takes issue with the Consumer Federation's report that concluded there's not much evidence of the sites resolving complaints. He says he has received many thank-yous from people who had problems fixed because they posted on his site. Other sites also contend that companies regularly monitor them and reach out to consumers to make things right.

Companies do look at social media and feedback sites, said Matthew D'Uva, president of the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals International. Some are still developing strategies on how best to respond to consumers grumbling online without seeming too intrusive. 

Businesses, for example, sometimes post contact information on the site so that unhappy customers can reach them, D'Uva says. Others are more likely to try to engage a customer directly in forums where it's easy to have a dialog, such as Twitter, he says.

Posting has risks for consumers, too.

Christopher Elliott, a reader advocate for National Geographic Traveler, says a travel agency he blogged about filed a SLAPP — a legal tactic called a "strategic lawsuit against public participation" — against him this year. With the help of a lawyer, the dispute was settled and the lawsuit dropped, he says.

A SLAPP aims to stifle critics by dragging them into a lengthy and expensive court proceeding until they give up and shut up. "It will scare the living daylights out of a customer," Elliott says.

About half the states — including Maryland — have anti-SLAPP statutes that offer some protection to consumers.

Complaint sites advise consumers to tell the truth and to stick to the facts and avoid threats and profanity. Ripoff Report points out that you have a right to complain anonymously but not to make false or defamatory statements.

Also be aware that once you post, some sites won't remove or edit the original complaint, although you can add an update.

That's led some consumers to gripe that they can't get paid a settlement from a company until the original complaint comes down.

Pissed Consumer, whose policy states it won't remove reviews even at the consumer's request, says erasing a company's misdeeds doesn't help other consumers.

Magedson of Ripoff Report, which also doesn't remove complaints, says the best thing a company can do is make things right with the consumer and post an update on how the problem was resolved.

"Consumers love to do business with a company that knows how to take care of complaints," he says.

If you do have a problem with a company, try fixing it by contacting the business first.

"You want to give the system a chance to work," says Elliott, who has been mediating complaints for 15 years. "There is a right way and a wrong way."

Elliott suggests making your complaint by phone if you have an immediate problem to be addressed, such as your computer exploded or your plane ticket isn't any good at the airport. Most of the time, though, you are better off filling out a complaint form online at the company's website.

"It creates a paper trail, which is something a phone call can't do," Elliott says.

Also, if the company doesn't respond to your satisfaction, you can forward the e-mail up the management chain or to the BBB and regulators, he says.

"The most effective letters or e-mails are brief and polite," Elliott adds.

State the problem at the outset and be as unemotional as possible. "You want to get right to the point," he says.

Don't threaten that you won't do business with the company anymore because then there is no incentive to help, he says. But let the company know if you're a longtime customer or in a loyalty program.

Make sure you tell the company how it can make things right for you. Be reasonable. Some travelers, for instance, won't get a promised seat assignment and then demand a free round-trip ticket to anywhere the airline flies, Elliott says. Too greedy, and you won't get anywhere.

It may take a week to get a response online. If you don't hear by two weeks, send another e-mail, Elliott says. If another week goes by without word, find the name of a manager and forward your complaint. That will likely do the trick.

"Managers don't want the CEO or VP to hear about it," Elliott says.

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