Ranting online can get you sued

HOUSTON - How many times has this happened to you? You have a bad customer service experience then you go online and write about it. It turns out ranting about bad service can get you in a lot of trouble if you go too far.

"People go home, think about the experience and start typing," said Dan Parsons with the Houston Better Business Bureau. "When do we get these important complaints? Between the hours of 7 p.m. and 1 a.m."

The Houston Better Business Bureau president said that rant is just a rant until you stumble into libel territory.

"It becomes libel because it is a written record that is published to the world on the Internet that thousands of people can end up seeing," said Travis Crabtree, an attorney at Looper, Reed & McGraw.

Crabtree said sounding off crosses the line when it goes beyond personal and turns factual. Crabtree used the example of a plumber who leaves a few muddy footprints in your home.

"If you stated they came in with muddy shoes and got mud all over your carpets, that can be proven or not proven," Crabtree said.

Stretching a few muddy footprints into a room full of disaster may make for a better story, but not necessarily one you should put in writing.

Don't think posting anonymously changes the case. Crabtree said a subpoena can force websites from Facebook to sometimes even Ripoff Report to hand over your identity.

"Once they find out it's you, that's going to be exhibit A in the trial against you if you go too far online," Crabtree said.

Crabtree warned fans of online reviews to remember even if you think twice and delete your comments, it can still come back to haunt you, whether it was up for five minutes or five days. If a company can prove that post was seen, you can still be in trouble even if you delete it.

On the other side is the man behind the Ripoff Report website, Ed Magedson, who encourages consumers to speak up. Magedson said his website has been sued 50 times. According to him, he's won 50 times.

"It's our First Amendment right to free speech to speak our opinion, even if that speech is less than flattering. If you're not making it a statement of fact, you can't get sued," Magedson said.

After reading over 80 complaints a day at the Houston BBB, Parsons has this advice: Stick with opinions without exaggerating.

Parsons said to watch the adjectives you use to describe the people in your reviews.

"They may be crooks, but you better be able to prove it," Parsons said.

What Parsons means is if you call someone out for being a crook, there better be a criminal record.

"When you get into trouble is when you go in trying to hurt the business with malice. In other words, you say, 'My goal is to put you out of business,'" Parsons said.

If you don't really love whatever you are going to review, then remember to stick to opinions. Don't exaggerate the story and maybe wait to post it until you've cooled off a bit.

Copyright 2012 by Click2Houston.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.