Consumer Complaints & the Power of the Internet

June 2, 2010

By Angie Moreschi:

As a consumer, you have a very powerful tool to fight back against a business you feel is treating you badly:  the internet.  More and more consumers are wielding their mighty comments on the world wide web, much to the chagrin of the companies that drive them to do it.  A consumer free speech war has broken out over this issue in the little town of Kalamazoo, Michigan.  Click here to see the story that started it all and to read more about the fall-out which includes a lawsuit from the company in question and a front page story in the New York Times.

Consumer activists everywhere are cheering on a 21-year old college student who says his car was towed unfairly and is telling the world about it on a Facebook page.   Justin Kurtz was outraged at having to pay $118 and created a Facebook page called “Kalamazoo Residents against T&J Towing.” Within two days, 800 people had joined the group, some posting comments about their own maddening experiences with the company.  Click on the video above to see the report on Channel 8 in Kalamazoo which broke the story.

So what does the company, T&J Towing, do in response to all this?  Does it try to rectify the issues that have upset so many consumers?  Does the company take a hard look in the mirror and say, “Hey, maybe we better work harder to do a better job.”  No, despite the fact that T&J has an “F” rating from the Better Business Bureau and despite the fact that hundreds of other people joined Justin in complaining about the company, T&J Towing decided to sue this young man for $750,000 alleging defamation.

Social media has given consumers new-found power to complain and it feels good to finally hold a business accountable when it won’t fix a problem, but now some companies are trying to fight back by telling consumers essentially, “You’re not allowed to call me names.”  Never mind, that pesky little thing called the First Amendment, the message from these businesses is, “We have more money than you do, and if you complain about us, we’re going to snuff you out like a bug.”  Warning be heard!

Not so fast.  According to the front page New York Times article on the controversy, some First Amendment lawyers consider the lawsuit an example of the latest incarnation of a decades-old legal maneuver known as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, or Slapp.

The label has traditionally referred to meritless defamation suits filed by businesses or government officials against citizens who speak out against them. The plaintiffs are not necessarily expecting to succeed — most do not — but rather to intimidate critics who are inclined to back down when faced with the prospect of a long, expensive court battle.

Many states already have anti-Slapp laws, but Michigan is not one of them.  Congress is considering legislation to make it harder to file these types of suits nationwide.  If you want to deter businesses from employing retaliation tactics against consumers when they legitimately complain, you might want to drop your Congressman a line letting him know you support the bill.  It’s sponsored by Representatives Steve Cohen of Tennessee and Charlie Gonzalez of Texas.

Other companies have tried to take action against comments on social media, mostly unsuccessfully. In January, for example, an Illinois state court dismissed a suit from Chicago‘s Horizon Realty Group against a tenant who complained by tweet that her apartment was moldy.

Now more than ever, it’s important for consumers not to back down.  Stand up for your rights, and let companies know you will complain if they are not treating you fairly.  Keep speaking out and maybe businesses will finally listen.  You can visit Justin’s Facebook page Kalamazoo Residents against T&J Towing and let him know, you’re in his corner.