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Defamation Lawyers

What to do if someone is defaming your business online

What to do if a competitor is defaming your business online

It is getting progressively more challenging for legitimate businesses to protect their online reputation against illegitimate defamation posts. However, there is still plenty that every business can do to protect its online reputation from internet defamation.

Addressing defamation by competitors

Defamation by competitors, especially in the form of fake online reviews, is a concerning yet not uncommon scenario in the business world. Indeed, it's feasible to counteract such defamation, but the challenge lies in establishing that your competitor is the source of these damaging remarks. The process of proving this depends on various factors, including the nature, frequency, and location of the defamatory content. While you might have strong suspicions or even be certain about the identity of the competitor behind the defamation, substantiating this with evidence is important if you wish to bring the practice to an end.

In a legal context, it means proving on the balance of probabilities that the competitor is the author of the defamatory reviews or that they had been posted on the competitor’s behalf. So how do you go about proving that the competitor is responsible for the scores of defamatory online reviews against your business? One way of doing so is by gathering all the information you have about the defamatory reviews, suspected to be by the competitor, to follow with a Norwich Pharmacal Order application for disclosure from Google or from the other platform where the fake reviews are posted.

Whilst this could work perfectly well for the defamed business, the court might reject the request for disclosure for various reasons, including the defamed business’s inability to show a link between the defamatory online reviews and financial losses sustained by the business as a result. Another way of proving it was a competitor who either commissioned or authored the fake reviews is by using open-source intelligence investigation techniques, which utilise special tools to analyse the vast amount of data that exists on the internet, both on the open internet and the dark web, to evidentially prove that either a specific competitor is behind the defamatory posts or that the posters of the defamatory reviews do not represent real, genuine people.

Another open-source intelligence technique is to identify certain trends among the fake reviews and to follow up on other activities by the reviewers or those who sent them, to prove that the reviews are far from genuine. Both techniques for discovering defamatory online reviews by competitors could yield the defamed business a good outcome, particularly if they can find a way to communicate their findings to the suspected competitor, who will, in most cases, decide to cease and desist their defamatory activities because the risk of being discovered becomes too high.

Example of a case where a competitor defamed a legitimate business online

This case study revolves around Jeff Clark, a client of the firm (not his real name), who operated a second-hand vintage car dealership online. Jeff's passion for cars began in his youth, leading him to gain extensive experience in local garages across Manchester. His entrepreneurial spirit led him to establish a business specialising in second-hand car parts, carving out a unique niche in the market. Over the years, Jeff's business flourished, expanding its customer base globally, primarily through internet sales. Despite this success, Jeff and his family, who were integral to the business, paid little attention to creating a sophisticated online presence or actively managing their digital reputation.

The turning point came when Jeff observed an unexplained downturn in business. Through a customer, he discovered that his business was being defamed online through an online review website. Initially, unbeknownst to Jeff, he was being defamed on the internet, labelled as a thief, a crook, and a fraudster. This situation was particularly alarming since Jeff had never prioritised his online reputation management, nor engaged in internet forums or marketing. The event caused Jeff to realise the need to focus on the digital aspect of his business marketing.

This led to the discovery of numerous fake and defamatory online reviews, which Jeff was previously unaware of and which had been posted by internet users unknown to him. Once we had analysed the suspected online reviews and established them to be likely fake, using open-source intelligence investigations, we managed to prove that scores of reviews were, in fact, fake. Armed with this information, we approached Google who, in turn, took the defamatory reviews down.

This also sent a message to the defaming competitor that our client was being proactive in relation to his business’s online reputation and that it was time for them to move on and start playing fair. Since then, our client hasn’t complained of further defamatory online reviews, which are likely to have been posted by or on behalf of competitors. This case also shows that it isn't always necessary to confront the reviewers directly or to invest large sums of money in order to facilitate the removal of fake reviews by suspected competitors. When it comes to dealing with fake online reviews, strategy is king. Read more case studies about defamation by competitors here

A deeper look at strategic open-source intelligence investigation into fake online reviews

At Cohen Davis, we have teams of lawyers and open-source intelligence investigators. Both often work on the same case, with different roles allocated to each team. In the case of Jeff, our open-source intelligence investigation team embarked on a thorough investigation, which eventually led us to a review website dedicated to second-hand car parts. The authors of that website, which featured advertisements and listed only a few second-hand car dealers, were the primary source of the defamation against our client on other review websites. An intriguing revelation came to light: the top-rated company on this site was none other than Jeff's main competitor. This suspicious pattern was also evident in Google reviews, where Jeff’s business was unfairly rated low, while his competitor boasted exclusively positive reviews. Jeff's situation highlights the importance of joint effort by an open-source intelligence team and a legal team, both working together and feeding off each other.

Tackling false reviews demands a strategic approach, involving in-depth investigation and legal thinking to determine the best course of action for the business in question. Whilst most law firms only rely on lawyers to carry out legal work, and therefore have their mind set on a single strategic plan, at Cohen Davis, we keep an open mind as to which route would be best for our client to achieve their goals.

There isn't always a need for expensive legal work to be carried out as the outcome of the open-source intelligence would often provide an alternative solution or strategy which may bring the desired results quicker and in a way which is far more economical for our clients. Gathering substantial evidence to link the false reviews to their sources is essential, especially when a competitor might be involved. It's also vital to develop a response strategy, which could include directly addressing the reviews, contacting the review platform, and using reputation management techniques.

Legal strategies successfully deal with fake online reviews by competitors

As we delved deeper into the case of Jeff's business and the influx of negative online reviews, it became increasingly clear that his competitors were likely behind these actions. Our investigative efforts led us to a second-hand car review website, where evidence suggested that this site was either owned or operated by Jeff's competitors. To be more specific with our findings, we also considered utilising a legal tool known as a Norwich Pharmacal Order (NPO). This is a disclosure order that could be granted by a court. Prior to filing for the Norwich Pharmacal Order, we sent a letter to the website hosts notifying them of our intention to apply for a court order for the disclosure of the identity of the owner of the website.

We also asked them to pass on our letter to their client, the website operator. Our letter yielded results, whereby shortly after issuing the letter, all the remaining fake reviews targeting Jeff's business were removed from the website which the competitor owned. There was no need for further action in this regard as the message appeared to have been received. We then extended this approach to Google, requesting a similar disclosure through an NPO. Although the process with Google was more time-consuming, it was ultimately effective; within a few weeks, all remaining fake Google reviews against Jeff were deleted. Gradually, we managed to cleanse the internet of the defamatory content against Jeff's business. As a result, his business began to recover, eventually returning to its normal operations.

How to successfully remove fake reviews by competitors without having to take legal action

Interestingly, the strategic approach that we have applied to the fake online reviews paid off. The competitor responsible for the fake reviews ceased their actions and the matter was resolved without resorting to litigation. Jeff prioritised the health and growth of his family business over seeking compensation or legal retribution. This pragmatic approach, often advisable in such situations, reflects a business owner's priorities and is influenced by various factors including their goals, financial circumstances, and the desired outcome.

Each victim of fake online reviews faces a unique situation and must weigh their options carefully. While some may seek legal accountability and compensation, others, like Jeff, might choose a more direct and business-focused route to resolve the issue. Understanding and respecting the different perspectives and objectives of those affected by fake online reviews is crucial in providing effective legal advice and support.

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