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People are getting sued for doing this one thing online

People are getting sued for doing this one thing online

It's a strange time for people who like to post reviews on the Internet. In the past, you'd review a hotel, restaurant, service or product online and move on.

Now, you can't load a news page without a story of a company going after someone for a negative review. There's the hotel that fined a patron $500 for a negative review. After a round of Internet outrage, it dropped the fine and apologized.

Another gentleman - with near-terminal cancer just to make things worse - posted some negative reviews of his Internet provider and it decided to sue him. Again, the suit was dropped within a day after the story spread online.

Still, not everyone is so lucky. Some companies are a bit more tenacious with fines and lawsuits. It makes knowing what will and won't get you in trouble online tough.

Disclaimer: I should point out I'm not a lawyer and I don't even play one on the radio. If you are worried about a company suing you or if you get a cease-and-desist letter, consult with an actual legal professional.

Here's another recent story that happened to a Florida man. He bought a router from a company on Amazon, didn't like it and left a negative review.

He got a letter from the company's law firm threatening to sue for an "illegal campaign to damage, discredit, defame, and libel."

Granted, the man went a bit overboard with the review - including claiming that the positive online reviews for the router were probably fake, and that the router was re-branded from another company. He also got a lot of angry Internet commenters to attack the company online, which he really shouldn't have.

Still, the company could have avoided the entire situation if it had handled it a different way from the beginning. Learn better ways for businesses to manage their online reputations.

The reviewer did get some backup from Amazon when it shut down the vendor's account. Last I heard, the company had backed off its suit, but really everyone lost in this situation.

As I said, this isn't the only time this kind of thing has happened. In fact, there's even a name for this type of lawsuit: strategic lawsuit against public participation.

Typically, a company or person files a SLAPP to scare the defendant out of doing something, such as posting a negative review. Just to drive the point home, I'll give you some more examples before we get into how to avoid this happening to you.

A woman living near me in Glendale got into legal trouble after she posted a negative review of a car repair shop on Yelp. The shop sued her, although it dropped the charges when she agreed to take down the review.

A Utah couple recently had a company demand $3,500 in compensation for a bad review they wrote in 2008. The company based the demand on a non-disparagement clause in the site's terms of service. When the couple didn't pay, the company called the $3,500 a "debt" and reported the couple to a collection agency. This seriously damaged their credit and now they're suing the company.

In 2012, a dentist threatened a patient with a lawsuit over a poor Yelp review and even tried to charge the patient $100 a day while the review was up.

In summer 2010, T&J Towing sued college student Justin Kurtz for $750,000 in damages over a Facebook page. Kurtz created the page bashing the company after T&J towed his car - unfairly, in his view. Kurtz countersued, but eventually both dropped their suits when it was clear neither would go to trial.

These aren't isolated examples. You can go online and find dozens of other cases.

So, the moral of the story is to not leave negative online reviews, right? Yes and no. You can leave negative online reviews as long as you remember a few things.

The biggest rule for leaving a review - positive or negative - is to stay factual.

For example, writing, "The hotel is !@#$, the manager (insert name here) is an unhelpful %&*# and I hope they're both destroyed by meteors!" is a bad idea. Not only is it an unhelpful review, it's unnecessarily emotional, combative and both the hotel and manager could sue you for defamation.

I'm sure none of you would write that, but it's easy to misinterpret text online. So, choose your words carefully to avoid misunderstandings.

The best way is to stick with factual statements. Say what the product did right and what it did wrong. Make sure you're clear that this was your experience with the item and avoid generalizations.

Before you post any review, contact the company and give it a chance to correct the situation. It could be you just got a bad unit and the company can send you one that works. If you still want to post a review, be sure to note that the company was cooperative.

Bonus tip: If you're writing reviews of hotels, never post a negative review while you're still checked in. In 2010, a couple was kicked out of a hotel after allegedly posting a negative review on TripAdvisor.

So, you've done everything you can to be as professional and fair as possible and a company is still threatening legal action. What do you do?

The most important rule is to not panic. Most sane companies try to work with reviewers before suing them.

The company might have a specific part of your review it feels is inaccurate. If you see the company's point, then tweaking the review a bit could make the whole thing go away.

If it does come down to a real legal threat, however, your best option is to remove the review entirely. Yes, you would likely win if the lawsuit went to trial as long as you wrote a factual review, but it's a huge hassle and the only real winners are the lawyers.

If you really want to fight it, though, check your state's laws. More than half the states have some form of anti-SLAPP laws. Illinois, for example, has the Citizen Participation Act.

Anti-SLAPP laws can speed up the litigation process and make it much harder for the suing entity to win. In some cases, it forces the suing party to cover your court and attorney costs.

If your state doesn't have an anti-SLAPP law, you don't necessarily have to give up. Just know that the entire process could take months or years to resolve. Consider if it's really worth your time and effort.

I should mention that you'll be tempted to go online with your story, as the reviewers did in some of the stories I mentioned earlier. Think carefully about it before you do.

First, it might cause hassle for your lawyer if you're spreading details of the case around online. So, be sure to talk with them first.

Second, in several of the cases above reviewers went out of their way to get the Internet riled up. Thousands of people protested the companies or wrote their own wildly negative reviews on the company's Facebook and product pages.

This caused serious damage to the businesses in question - T&J Towing, for example, had to file for bankruptcy.

Did the businesses deserve it? You could make the argument that they did.

However, once you get other people - especially people on the Internet - angry at a company, it tends to spiral out of control. At that point, there's no graceful way for either you or the company to back down.

Finally, don't forget that you aren't just hurting "a business." There are real employees working there who could be out of a job if the business goes under.

So, to sum up: When writing online reviews, stay factual and be nice. Life is too short to carry a grudge - it just weighs you down.

Learn more about how to complain and get results using social media the right way.

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