November 11, 2022 • By Dennis Beaver
Over the many years writing this column, I’ve listened to thousands of reader’s complaints about customer service, believing they had not received what they had paid for.
Most were acting in good faith, honestly feeling they were poorly treated. Some were mistaken, but no one, not a soul ever said, in so many words, as “Rudy” did – in emails and over the phone -“The company has refused to pay me what I want, and so, Mr. Beaver, I want you to help me extort money from them.”
Describing himself as a “brilliantly talented DJ,” the effort to enlist me into his criminal conspiracy to commit extortion – a felony in all 50 states – began with an email describing a tale of bitter disappointment over the way his steak was cooked at an upscale restaurant in Newport News, Virginia.
“I ordered a filet mignon medium, but it was served rare, and I know they gave me a sirloin instead, ripping me off and was the beginning of my nightmare experience with the restaurant’s management.”
It was also the beginning of Rudy’s harassment campaign against them.
The Power to Harm Reputation is a Powerful Tool
“The internet – giving each of us the ability to comment on anything – has created an avenue for some people to threaten business owners, telling them, “Pay me what I want or I will post negative comments and bad reviews of your company, your people and your products,” says Houston attorney, Paul Sternberg.
His practice concentrates on internet defamation, content removal, online reputation management, and revenge site removal. He wrote The Guide to Internet Defamation and Website Removal, which is a great resource for anyone facing these types of issues.
“It could be a small, mom and pop corner store, family-run restaurant or a major corporation, but the power to harm reputation is a powerful tool in the hands of angry, unreasonable people who often do not take the time to consider the collateral damage their negative posts can cause,” he underscores.
Expired $75 gift card was Honored and Dinner for 3 No Charge
Somehow Rudy got it in his head that in addition to getting the degree of doneness wrong, the restaurant intentionally substituted a sirloin for a filet mignon, which the restaurant denied.
However, their website shows the two cuts of meat, each 7 ounces, and virtually identical in appearance.
“This was false advertising, products liability and consumer fraud,” he maintained, demanding that corporate pay him $500 or else he would embark on an online reputation slamming campaign and file complaints with various governmental agencies and a civil lawsuit.
No matter how clearly I explained that unless he could prove this is intentionally occurring on a broad scale affecting many customers, there is no basis for his belief, and that he was engaging in extortion – pay me what I want or else. The possibility that someone in the kitchen just made a mistake didn’t matter.
Expired gift card still Accepted – Rudy Sends 700 emails!
Most readers tell me the entire story. Rudy conveniently left out the part about his restaurant gift card having expired! (I learned from corporate PR that they still honored it, gave free desserts to his table, and dinner for him, and his parents was free!)
Also, Rudy somehow forgot to tell me that he had sent them 700 (you read correctly, 700!) emails, demanding $500 “or else.”
He also posted this review:
“Worst customer experience. Ruined mother’s birthday due to their horrible treatment and service. Served me a cheap steak misleading me to believe that I was being served a filet mignon. Treat customers like trash. Upper management acts in complete bad faith.”
But Rudy has a slight problem with the truth. As a goodwill gesture, management offered him $150 which I find more than reasonable in light of his behavior. He neglected to tell me that.
What to do When You Know Who Is Complaining
I asked Sternberg for a brief outline of what a business owner should do (1) When the identity of the complaining party is known, and (2) When it is not.
“It is a lot easier to take action against the complaining party when you know who they are and where they are. Typically this should start with a cease and desist letter from an attorney familiar with online defamation.
“The letter should quote the false statements they are posting online, explain the damage this is causing your business, and firmly yet politely request that the posts be removed or face the certainly of legal action. Your response should also be posted online.”
When You Don’t Know Who They Are
Sternberg recommends that you immediately seek legal counsel when defamatory posts appear and you have no idea who it might be.
“With a restaurant, people do not wait a month to post a gripe. But in other lines of work and businesses, ask, ‘Have you had a dispute with any of your clients? Or is the other side upset at losing?’ Try to see who would be a likely perpetrator of the defamation campaign.
“You have to know if you think about it. No one will wait months to complain online. And let’s not forget that economics play a large role in finding out who is behind the defamatory comments. This is where a defamation attorney should be able to help uncover the perpetrator, but is it worth the expense?”
He recommends that business owners always consider filing a police report when faced with extortion, “If an investigator were to call Rudy, it is likely that he would get the message and knock it off.”
Concluding our interview, Sternberg offers this advice to the public:
“Do not send 700 emails! This could get you sued for harassment. People do not realize the damage a bad review can do to a restaurant and its employees. This is why management should try to diffuse the siltation while it is going on.”
And Rudy? The restaurant is considering their options, one of which is to seek a criminal complaint against him.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.