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Debt Relief Companies Might Want to Scrub Public Reviews Right Away

It appears the Federal Trade Commission is preparing to target fake reviews. I’ve seen my share on many debt relief sites, so this would be an excellent time to look at what your site might say.

The Federal Trade Commission announced today it is exploring a potential rule to combat deceptive or unfair review and endorsement practices, such as using fake reviews, suppressing negative reviews, and paying for positive reviews. Deceptive and manipulated reviews and endorsements cheat consumers looking for real feedback on a product or service and undercut honest businesses. The FTC’s Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) seeks public comment on potential harms stemming from deceptive or unfair review and endorsement practices and whether a rule would help consumers and level the playing field for honest marketers.

“Companies should know by now that fake reviews are illegal, but this scourge persists,” said Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “We’re exploring whether a rule that would trigger stiff civil penalties for violators would make the market fairer for consumers and honest businesses.”

Research shows that many consumers rely on reviews when they’re shopping for a product or service and that fake reviews drive sales and tend to be associated with low-quality products. The rapid growth of online marketplaces and platforms has made it easier than ever for some companies to create and use fake reviews or endorsements to make themselves look better or their competitors look worse. It can be difficult for anyone—including consumers, competitors, platforms, and researchers—to distinguish real from fake, giving bad actors big incentives to break the law.

The ANPR seeks comment on the costs and benefits of a potential rule, as well as the pervasiveness and potential harms to consumers and competition from certain clearly deceptive or unfair practices involving reviews and endorsements, including:

  • Fake reviewsThese include reviews and endorsements by people who do not exist or have not used the product or service or who lie about their experiences.
  • Review reuse fraud: Some sellers hijack or repurpose reviews posted about another product or service.
  • Paid reviews: Marketers may pay for positive reviews about their products or negative reviews about competitors’ products.
  • Insider reviews: These include reviews written by a company’s executives or solicited from its employees that don’t mention their connections to the company.
  • Review suppression: Companies might claim that their websites display all reviews submitted by customers when they suppress negative reviews or attempt to suppress reviews on other platforms by threatening the reviewers.
  • Fake review websites: This is when a seller sets up a purportedly independent website or organization to review or endorse its own products.
  • Buying followers: This involves buying or selling followers, subscribers, views, or other indicators of social media influence.
See also  CFPB Says Companies Can't Gag Consumers That Post Reviews

The FTC has worked to crack down on purveyors of deceptive reviews and endorsements and has provided guidance to businesses on acceptable practices through the agency’s Endorsements Guides and other public materials. In August 2022, the FTC charged the rental listing platform Roomster and its owners with duping consumers seeking affordable housing by paying for fake reviews. In January 2022, the FTC required online fashion retailer Fashion Nova to pay $4.2 million for suppressing negative customer reviews from being posted to its website.

Case-by-case enforcement without civil penalty authority may not be enough to stem the growth of deceptive reviews and endorsements. The Supreme Court’s decision in the AMG Capital Management LLC v. FTC has hindered the FTC’s ability to seek monetary relief for consumers under the FTC Act. A potential rule that clearly spells out prohibited practices may strengthen deterrence by allowing the agency to impose civil penalties while simplifying FTC enforcement.

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Steve Rhode is the Get Out of Debt Guy and has been helping good people with bad debt problems since 1994. You can learn more about Steve, here.
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