Is it a good deal or a scam? Are you e-mailing a legitimate company or a criminal? If you buy that "free" cell phone, will you ever get that rebate?
Your hand hovers over the mouse, and just as you are about to make that final click, a queasy feeling hits the pit of your stomach. You're just not sure. Lesson No. 1 in a being a smart consumer: Don’t ignore that queasy feeling. Listen to it, and ask some more questions. Lesson No. 2: Get the answers from someone other than the person trying to get your money.
That’s where the Internet can be a big help. There’s a collection of Web sites devoted to tilting the scales in favor of consumers. By giving a very public stage for complaints, these sites root out everything from legitimate companies with sloppy practices to outright con artists. I wouldn't do business with any new company without vetting the company first through one or all of these sites.
Why are they so useful? Because they harness the collective wisdom of everyday consumers. Each one gives you the chance to learn from other people’s mistakes, which could save you a lot of money and heartbreak.
The best of the crop is RipOffReport.com, run out of Arizona by Ed Magedson. He's been collecting consumer tirades since 1998 at the site, which he says now has millions of entries. Every day, about 500 more complaints come streaming in. With a simple search engine, RifOffReport makes it easy to research both online and offline companies. Quickly, you’ll learn if any consumers claim they've been mistreated by a company.
Magedson sees his site as leveling the playing field between consumers and businesses, forcing companies to be more accountable for their actions.
“Businesses clearly had the edge over consumers before the Internet. They used to be able to say, 'Go ahead and sue me,' " Magedson said. "But, now we have the Internet. The tides have turned. You need to take care of the consumer now."
With rare exception, Magedson doesn't remove any consumer posts, which means there’s a fair amount of pure ranting on the site. There’s also unfair complaints, and misleading comments. But it’s this unfiltered, bar-talk nature of RipOffReport that makes it so useful. Imagine standing at an electronics store, looking at a big-screen TV, and having dozens of recent buyers come up and tell you their experience -- drowning out the voice of the over-eager, under-informed sales geek.
'A great benefit'
RipOffReport isn't only useful to consumers. Government agencies use it, too. Jon Sorenson, spokesman for the New York State Consumer Protection Board, says he uses the site every time a couple of new complaints come into his agency. A search at RipOffReport immediately tells him if there's a new scam trend operating, he said. He thinks consumers should use the site the same way.
"It's fantastic to have an opportunity to see real people and have them explain their sometimes unreal experiences with certain products and companies," he said. "There's no better way to find out about a company than to discover the experiences of other consumers.”
Adding to RipOffReport’s credibility – while writers aren’t identified on the site, they must submit contact information, which at times is shared with authorities. Sorenson said his office has received lists of complainers from Magedson on numerous occasions, and each time, the complaints have been authentic.
“It would be of great benefit if more people were to avail themselves of such sites," Sorenson said.
Look before, not after, buying
Sorenson also likes ConsumerAffairs.com, run by former Associated Press journalist James R. Hood. The site takes a different tack than RipOffReport -- it's not a bulletin board "free-for-all," as Hood puts it. The site does solicit consumer complaints, maintains a database of them, and publishes a few hand-selected rants.
But its central focus involves a small staff of writers who investigate consumer complaints and publish their findings. There are about 200,000 pages of information on the site, which is 7 years old, Hood said.
"What we try to tell people is, 'Look at our site before you buy something, not after," Hood said.
Another consumer site, Complaints.com, takes a bit of a middle road, publishing most, but not all, of the comments it receives. Site founder Matt Smith only wants constructive complaining, so he filters out all the simple "ABC Inc. sucks" messages. That leaves the site full of detailed narratives which mostly contain the message: "This happened to me, don't let it happen to you."
"Consumers are happy to help others," he said. "And people feel better after they complain."
Better than blogging
But there's much more than bitching and moaning going on. Anyone can post a diatribe about a company on their personal Web site, Smith said. But the power of Complaints.com and RipOffReport.com is the quick placement in search engine results.
"It's great posting a message on a blog, but here your message gets indexed by Google, within an average of a week to 10 days," he said. "I've seen a single complaint about a company appear higher than the company's home page. That gives the consumer a lot of power over a business."
Corporations targeted by consumers haven’t taken all this criticism lying down. All three sites offer companies some way to respond to consumers. Still, often that’s not enough. Hovering over all these sites is the constant threat of lawsuits from criticized firms. Magedson said he's spent $500,000 defending himself from various legal actions. Hood's been sued once; Smith has received multiple threats, but never been dragged into court.
Criminals have taken notice, too. Magedson said he’s noticed nimble con artists watch RipOffReport carefully and quickly change their company name when complaints start appearing in his database.
They're not perfect
So the sites aren’t foolproof. They’re not immune from “gaming,” either. Competitors have been known to plant fake complaints about each other on such sites, so like everything on the Internet, everything must be taken with a grain of salt.
There's also some pretty inane whining, like this one, filed in February 2002 about a McDonald's restaurant on Complaints.com:
"The manager has started a new policy on refills: coffee refills are only for 'eat-in' customers. The McDonalds in question is located on the first floor of my office building, and I drink the coffee at my desk in my office. Does the manager of this McDonalds restaurant have the authority to implement this unreasonable 'rule?' "
Still, when a quick search finds a sizable volume of complaints against a company, that's a pretty good signal that something is really wrong. And it’s often enough to affirm that queasy feeling you have is there for a reason.
That leads to lesson No. 3 of being a smart consumer: Learn to just walk away from the deal. You can always buy it, order it, or click on it in the morning.