What to Do When an Unhappy Customer Threatens to Ruin Your Rep

Some customers go too far when they feel they haven’t been treated well, demanding unreasonable make-goods and even resorting to extortion. An attorney offers some advice.

An unhappy customer gestures to his plate while a waitress shrugs.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Over the many years of writing this column, I’ve listened to thousands of complaints about customer service from readers 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, what “Rudy” did, in e-mails 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,” Rudy began his effort to enlist me as a co-conspirator to commit extortion — a felony in all 50 states — with an e-mail describing a tale of bitter disappointment over the way his steak was cooked at an upscale restaurant in Newport News, Va. It is illegal for a lawyer to give advice about how to break the criminal law without risking being charged as a co-conspirator. Lawyers can advise how to accomplish a client’s goal within the law.

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“I ordered a filet mignon medium, but it was served rare, and I know they gave me a sirloin instead, ripping me off, and that was the beginning of my nightmare experience with the restaurant’s management.”

It was also the beginning of Rudy’s harassment campaign against the restaurant.

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 effectively 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 (opens in new tab).

His practice concentrates on Internet defamation, content removal, online reputation management, content 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.

Engaging in Extortion: ‘Pay Me What I Want or Else’

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. Also, their website shows the two cuts of meat, each 7 ounces, are virtually identical in appearance.

“This was false advertising, products liability and consumer fraud,” Rudy 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 even a civil lawsuit.

No matter how clearly I explained that unless he could prove this was intentionally occurring on a broad scale, affecting many customers, there was 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 to him.

Expired Gift Card Still Accepted, But Rudy Sends 700 E-Mails!

Most readers tell me the entire story, but Rudy conveniently left out the part about his restaurant gift card having expired! (I learned from corporate PR that the restaurant still honored it, gave free desserts to his table and comped not only his dinner, but his parents’ dinners, too!)

Also, Rudy somehow forgot to tell me that he had sent the restaurant’s corporate parent 700 (you read that correctly — 700!) e-mails, 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.”

However, Rudy has a problem with the truth. As a goodwill gesture, management offered him $150, which I find more than reasonable in light of his behavior.

What to Do When You Know Who Is Complaining and When You Don’t

I asked Sternberg for a brief outline of what a business owner should do when the identity of the complaining party is known and 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,” he says. “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 certainty of legal action. Your response should also be posted online.”

Sternberg recommends that you immediately seek legal counsel when defamatory posts appear and you have no idea who posted them. “With a restaurant, people do not wait a month to post a gripe. But for 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 e-mails! 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 its options, one of which is to seek a criminal complaint against him.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield, Calif., and welcomes comments and questions from readers, which may be faxed to (661) 323-7993, or e-mailed to Lagombeaver1@gmail.com. And be sure to visit dennisbeaver.com (opens in new tab). 

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC (opens in new tab) or with FINRA (opens in new tab).

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law (opens in new tab)." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."