from the managing-reputations-right-into-the-ground dept
More evidence has surfaced that the online reputation management business is shady as all hell. Previously, we've covered the use of fake websites used to generate bogus DMCA takedowns by copy-pasting negative reviews in full and claiming these were the original works of bogus contributors by backdating the posts. We've also covered the even shadier and more legally-dubious tactic of filing bogus lawsuits -- using both fake plaintiffs and fake defendants -- to obtain court orders to delist negative reviews, bypassing the site where they're actually hosted in attempts to force Google, Yahoo, Bing, et al. to make them vanish from search results.
Paul Alan Levy of Public Citizen -- thanks to the investigative skills of FIRE employee/Popehat contributor Adam Steinbaugh -- has uncovered another bogus libel lawsuit targeting negative reviews and comments. The standard M.O. is in effect. "Plaintiff" magically locates person behind anonymous review and gets them to sign a retraction. This legal paperwork never makes its way to the site where the review is actually hosted, however. The court order obtained through bogus means is instead served to search engines, resulting in the desired effect: the vanishing of negative content.
This follows closely on the heels of a bogus lawsuit in which the person whose name appears as a plaintiff claimed to have no input in the legal proceedings. While the jury (not the courtroom one) is still out on those claims, in this case it's been confirmed that the supposed plaintiff had nothing to do with the lawsuit containing his apparently forged signature.
After I wrote about the Patel case, I heard privately from Adam Steinbaugh, who sent me copies of some papers he had located on the ECF site of the US District Court for the District of Rhode Island – a complaint along with a “consent motion” and a proposed “consent order,” also signed by a pro se plaintiff and defendant, that contained some awkward phrasings that are suspiciously similar to the language in the Patel v. Chan papers. This time, though, instead of directing that the order be sent to the site hosting the comments – this time, the "Get Out of Debt Guy" web site, a blog about the debt relief industry which has a policy of not removing comments, preferring that the poster make a public retraction — the “consent order” provided that it was to be provided to Google and other search engines so that the entire article (which was not alleged to have anything tortious) could be removed from search engine databases.
Levy happens to know the owner of the site indirectly targeted by the bogus lawsuit. Steve "Get Out of Debt Guy" Rhode reached out to the supposed plaintiff in the lawsuit, Bradley Smith. Smith claims the signature on the lawsuit is not his own.
In addition, the defendant -- located mysteriously swiftly by the apparently fake "Bradley Smith" -- is also a fraud. There's no indication the person named in the lawsuit -- "Deborah Garcia" -- had anything to do with the negative comments targeted. Somehow, "Bradley Smith," acting on his own without the benefit of compelled discovery, managed to locate the person behind the comments and obtain her signature on a proposed consent order. Even more magically, the supposed commenter resides in a state with a very long statute of limitations.
Among other things, anonymous comments said nothing about Bradley Smith, although the blog article to which they were posted criticized Smith's company. Another oddity – neither of the URL’s that the “consent order” called on Google to delist was the article to which the comments were posted, although one of them featured comments supposedly received from “Bradley Smith” (whose authenticity Rhode had contested in these comments) And then there was the name of the defendant – the articles were posted using generic pseudonyms, yet plaintiff had apparently managed to identify the commenter by some mysterious means, and by some coincidence both comments had the same author, and she happened to be located in Rhode Island, where the statute of limitations for defamation is three years!
Unfortunately for whoever's behind this bogus lawsuit, Steve Rhode was able to determine the information claimed in the filing was bogus.
Garcia’s supposed residence also justified claiming diversity jurisdiction, yet the blog host could tell that the IP addresses for both comments were in California; and the address listed on the documents for Garcia does not exist.
Even more unfortunately for the entity behind the bogus, apparently forged filing, Public Citizen has chosen to pick up the case. It's attempting to intervene on behalf of Steve Rhode -- not just because the filing is clearly bogus, but also because the plaintiff (whoever that actually is) may have taken advantage of an extra-long statute of limitations, but overlooked a more critical factor.
As it turns out, assuming that the choice of Rhode Island as the venue may well have motivated by its unusually long limitations period for defamation claims, choosing to sue there was a colossal blunder in a different respect: like California, where Bradley Smith lives and whose anti-SLAPP statute is well-known, Rhode Island has a tough anti-SLAPP statute. Today we have entered the Rhode Island case to help the Get Out of Debt Guy retain its access to search engine listings as a way of telling consumers about useful information on its web site. Thus, in addition to moving for leave to intervene and to vacate the judgment, we have moved to dismiss the complaint citing the anti-SLAPP provisions, which include an award of attorney fees. It seems to me that the facts here are sufficiently egregious that sanctions may be warranted on an inherent power or bad faith litigation theory.
The upshot -- so far -- is that Google is taking a bit more skeptical look at court orders telling it to delist content even though it's not named as a defendant in the lawsuit. The other upshot is that Levy and others are getting closer to identifying the entities behind this extremely shady misuse of the court system to clean up online reputations.