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Federal Judge Now Taking A Closer Look At Bogus Libel Lawsuits Filed By Unscrupulous Reputation Management Companies
Paul Alan Levy of Public Citizen is finally getting some judges to pay closer attention to bogus libel lawsuits being filed in hopes of delisting negative reviews.
The process — one that’s been uncovered by Levy, as well as complaint site Pissed Consumer — is this:
A bogus libel lawsuit is filed, containing little more than conclusory statements and vague allegations about reputational damage. Miraculously, the alleged online defamer is located within days of the filing and convinced to sign an affidavit admitting guilt. These are presented to the judge, who then issues an order for delisting of content by search engines.
These orders are lobbed into the overstuffed inboxes of Google, etc. and the reputation management firms behind these bogus lawsuits presumably sit back and issue invoices. At no point is any attempt made to contact the site where the supposedly libelous review is posted because that would just cause too many problems. Sites like Pissed Consumer and Ripoff Report fight back hard against attempts to remove reviews. The easiest route — at least so far — has been to bypass the alleged defamer and the original sites altogether and let Google, Bing, et al do the dirty work.
One of these bogus lawsuits was filed in Rhode Island, attracting the attention of the site owner whose site was indirectly targeted by the fake lawsuit. Someone calling themselves “Bradley Smith” sued a commenter using the name “Deborah Garcia.” That the suit was filed in Rhode Island has little to do with “Deborah Garcia” (whose IP address indicates she resides in California), nor the site where the comments were posted, which is located in North Carolina. Likewise, the supposed plaintiff is also not a resident of Rhode Island, but rather another Californian. But Rhode Island has something the other two states don’t: a longer statute of limitations on libel lawsuits.
Paul Alan Levy intervened on behalf of Steve “Get Out of Debt Guy” Rhode, whose site was targeted by the fake lawsuit. That move has paid off for Rhode, and will hopefully get the ball rolling on closer inspection of libel lawsuits seeking suspiciously speedy resolutions.
Judge William E. Smith issued an order earlier stipulating delisting of the URL by various search engines. Levy has asked the judge to roll it back, given the lawsuit’s extremely dubious origins.
Levy is now asking Smith to vacate that order, alleging that the suit is a fake — and that Garcia doesn’t even exist. Her 1588 Main St. address in Warwick cannot be found, said Levy, who also checked for Garcia at that address in West Warwick. The IP addresses on the negative posts, too, indicate the person commenting was based in California.
“Simply put, as we see it, this is a fraudulent lawsuit” filed by an unscrupulous and sophisticated person, Levy told Judge Smith during a hearing Wednesday.
It appears Profile Defenders — a reputation management firm linked to other bogus lawsuits filed elsewhere — is also connected to this case. Levy produced a contract between Profile Defenders and Rescue One showing that the reputation management firm had successfully removed content from the “Get Out of Debt Guy” website. He also presented an affidavit from the real Bradley Smith, saying he hadn’t filed the lawsuit nor participated in its filing in any way.
Judge Smith has now granted Levy’s request to seek who’s behind this lawsuit, starting with the check used to pay the filing fees. Judge Smith is now taking a second look at this lawsuit and is clearly disturbed by what he’s seeing.
In granting that request, Judge Smith took it a step further, saying he believed something even more foul is in play. “It does appear to me, at first blush, that multiple crimes have been committed,” Judge Smith said, referencing possible fraud and forgery. “I’m pretty outraged about it.”
Smith ordered that a transcript of the proceedings be sent to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Hopefully, this discovery — and perhaps an investigation by federal prosecutors — will result in the unmasking of those abusing the court system to cash rep management checks. Hopefully, there will also be meaningful sanctions waiting for lawyers who willingly participated in this scheme. Now that these lawsuits are facing additional scrutiny, it’s highly unlikely this reputation management “strategy” has much life left in it, even without the threat of federal scrutiny.
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