That $3,500 comment fine? A monster created by the credit bureaus

Angry about that $3,500 “fine” levied against a woman who wrote a negative review against a company? You should really be angry at America’s credit bureaus.  Here’s why.

You probably saw the story last week about a couple that was hit with a $3,500 “fine” for writing a negative review about a business online. This is part of the long, sad decline of online reviews. Comments once held out the promise of leveling the playing field between consumers and corporations. They have their databases about us, why can’t we have one about them?

But instead of growing into a fertile ground of free speech and crowdsourced advice, online reviews and comments are full of scams, invented reviews, and bullying.  Websites and corporations that don’t like what you say about them are now threatening lawsuits and implementation of non-disparagement clauses.  Sure, many of these would not withstand a civil trial. But as I like to say, everything is legal until you are sued.

In the story that lit up the Internet last week, KUTV reported that a consumer who had purchased something from a website, but never received it, wrote a scathing review on (BTW, it’s a great idea to Google a company name and RipOffReport before buying anything online).  The firm in question allegedly pointed to a phrase in its terms of service calling for a $3,500 non-disparagement fine, and stuck the consumer with a bill.

When she predictably didn’t pay it, the firm reported her to the nation’s credit bureaus.  KUTV says her credit score was dinged, and now the family can’t get a loan.

While the “fine” for negative comment is absurd, here’s what everyone is missing about the story.

The real problem is nearly anyone can ruin your credit!  

Without credit bureaus, the “fine” would simple be an uncollectible bill, or a civil dispute. Let them fight it out in small claims court. But instead, the website (which I am not mentioning on purpose) has an incredible, outsized hammer over the consumer.

Firms that supply credit information to Trans Union, Equifax, and Experian are called “credit furnishers.”  For free, they give the bureaus payment data on consumers in exchange for being able to participate in the credit report system.  While there are criteria that must be met to be a furnisher, the criteria are obviously not strict enough.

One way to at least mitigate this problem: Make it easy for consumers to dispute silly accusations of unpaid bills. Unfortunately, the credit bureaus tip the scales in favor of furnishers when it comes to disputes.  When a dispute is filed, the furnisher simply has to affirm that the bill exists, and consumers lose in round one. At that point, consumers can file additional disputes — and can dispute the bill directly with the furnisher – – but the uphill battle has begun.

Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission issued a report indicating that one in 20 U.S. consumers has an error on their credit report that is big enough to cost them money in a credit decisions. Fortunately, the report also found that four out of five consumers who filed a dispute managed to earn some modification on their reports. That means it’s certainly possible to fight a corporation which has intentionally maligned a consumer in a report. But it’s still not easy.

Until that changes, corporations will be able to make, and carry out, threats against consumers like this $3,500 fine.   That should alarm every U.S. consumer.

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About Bob Sullivan 1638 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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