Expressing your opinion about a company’s product, service, or even staff online has never been easier, and the sad reality is that some see this as an opportunity to leave untruthful, damaging reviews. 93% of consumers report that online reviews impact their decision to purchase, and 94% of people say they have avoided a business due to a bad online review. The importance of your online reputation is undeniable. So when your business is faced with false customer complaints on social media and search sites, what recourse do you have to delete the statements and regain your reputation?
The good news is, there is legal action you can take against fake online reviews – but let’s clarify a few things first: If a customer leaves a bad review that contains no false statements, there is little you can do about it from a legal standpoint. Stating a negative opinion of a truthful interaction with your business is unfortunate, but not illegal. What is illegal is defamation, as defined below.
Defamation occurs when a person publishes a false statement that injures the plaintiff’s reputation. When defamation is written, it is considered libel.
For example: if someone writes online that they saw mice in your restaurant, and there are no mice in your restaurant, then they have made a defamatory remark. If someone writes that they hated the food they ordered… that’s just their opinion. We’re going to focus here on what constitutes libel, how to prove it, and what actions you can take in civil court (including how to sue for damages).
Fake Reviews vs. Bad Reviews
The Consumer Review Fairness Act protects people who post factual comments about your business or services. Since you only have the right to sue someone who makes statements that can be proven to be false, it’s important to know how to identify what’s fake and what’s just a negative opinion.
How Do You Know a Review is Fake?
There are a few telltale signs an online review is fake:
- It contradicts verifiable facts about the business and its services.
- It lacks detail or specific complaints, indicating the reviewer may not have engaged with the business at all.
- The reviewer has a history of using the same language in multiple reviews, has left many negative comments across many businesses, or perhaps has no review history at all (pointing to a scam account).
- Certain grammar or language details are present. Fake reviews often contain more personal pronouns (like “I” and “me”) and a high verb to noun ratio.
Can Google Detect Fake Reviews?
Google does have criteria in its spam detection algorithm that can flag a review as suspicious or fake, but it will never catch every false comment. Reviews that appear stuffed with keywords, contain spammy links, or are posted by a company’s own employees could be detected by Google, but more often, you’ll need to take action to report and remove fake reviews yourself.
How Do You Prove a Review is Libelous?
U.S. Supreme Court decision Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. established that the requirements for private claims of defamation be left to the states to decide. There are, however, four main criteria that most states will require a review to meet if it is to be acknowledged as defamatory.
- The statement is undeniably false.
- The statement is presented as fact, not opinion. There are some cases where the court will rule that something phrased as an opinion could be construed as fact by a reasonable reader. For example, the opinion “I believe I saw an employee serve food out of the garbage. Twice.” could be interpreted as a factual claim by a third party.
- The statement is published publicly. (Online reviews generally meet this requirement.)
- The statement caused damage to you or your business. In defamation suits, this is often classified as damage done to reputation or a quantifiable loss of business.
Learn more about what constitutes libel on search sites and social media.
How Do You Deal with Fake Bad Reviews?
Once you are confident you’ve identified false customer complaints, there are a few next steps you can take.
- Respond to the false customer complaint directly
- Take steps to have the comments removed by the platform
- Take legal action to sue for defamation or harassment
How Do You Respond To a Complaint If a Customer Is Wrong?
If you identify a complaint that doesn’t hold water, the quickest way to begin to set the record straight is to respond directly and publicly. But should you? And how? Ultimately that decision is up to you, but keep in mind:
- Ignoring and responding to lies online each has its consequences. You’ll have to gauge whether the issue merits a response from your business.
- You should always maintain a professional tone and leave heated emotions out of any response. Your goal is not to start an online debate.
- If responding, consider whether to leave a personalized reply, a standardized response, or even a public statement on your own website or with news organizations. This last option may be necessary if you feel the reviews have already caused significant damage to your reputation on a large scale.
How Do You Remove Fake Reviews?
While search and social media sites are protected from liability for negative comments made using their platforms by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, each offers an avenue for fake, potentially libelous, complaints to be voluntarily reported and removed.
- Google: Begin the process by flagging the review as inappropriate within your Google My Business account, under “Reviews.” If you don’t receive a response within 1-2 days, you can escalate the matter by requesting that a review be removed through the Google My Business Help Center. Additionally, you can report a review that you believe has violated the law (remember: a remark is only defamation if it’s not true and it’s damaging to your reputation) using Google’s legal help support tool.
- Facebook: Start by flagging the review similarly to how you would on Google. Click the exclamation point icon at the top of the post and select the reason you’d like to report it. Not every flagged post will get removed; the comment must be deemed to violate Facebook’s community standards if action is going to be taken by the company.
- Yelp: First, you can review whether the post violates Yelp’s content guidelines and follow instructions for reporting the fake review here.
How long will the process take?
It usually takes 1-3 days for a removal request to be reviewed by the company and for you to receive a response. Sometimes, a fake negative review can be removed in as little as 5 days, but of course, it can take longer depending on the number of removal requests in line ahead of yours. Unfortunately, you may be unsuccessful in getting the review taken down and then left wondering what legal recourse you have to protect your business’s reputation.
Can You Sue Someone For Leaving a False Customer Complaint?
The short answer is: maybe. If you cannot rectify the situation using a direct response or removing the review, legal action may be your next step. If the comment meets the criteria for libel as defined above, you could have grounds for a defamation lawsuit. But before you head down that road, you have some more work to do that may require the help of legal professionals. For example: do you even know who it is you’d like to sue?
Can Google or Social Media Reviews Be Traced?
You can identify who is leaving fake reviews on search or social media sites with the right tools. However, revealing the perpetrator of defamation and acquiring admissible evidence from social media can be more difficult than it seems. For starters, you’ll need a good understanding of FRE 902(14) and the many ways that malicious internet users cover their tracks to avoid prosecution.
At Bosco, we offer a service specifically designed to uncover the people behind fake accounts for those experiencing online libel or harassment. Our private investigators use advanced search tools and analysis to locate the critical metadata, times & dates, and other information that the court requires in order to pursue a lawsuit. Learn more about social media investigations here.
What Legal Action Can Be Taken Against Fake Reviews?
You can partner with a legal team like Bosco Legal Services to identify the person behind the reviews, gather evidence, and prepare to file a lawsuit. If you’re ready to take legal action, it’s in your best interest to work with professionals that understand how to locate fake accounts and what needs to be done to authenticate social media evidence. Keep in mind that statutes of limitation apply (in California, you must sue for defamation within one year of the publication of the review) and that retaining an attorney will usually cost between $5,000-$10,000.
If you’re dealing with false customer complaints online that threaten your business’s ability to succeed, it’s time to take action. Respond, report, and reach out to Bosco Legal Services to protect your reputation and your livelihood.
Note that Bosco Legal Services Inc. is not a law firm and this content is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.