Editorial: With online retailing, it’s buyer beware

Caveat emptor — b uyer beware — should be a guiding principle when using online retailers, just as it has been for all shoppers since the time of the Romans.

But a recent story involving the company Kleargear.com adds special emphasis to that warning.

It begins several years ago with an order to a company called Kleargear through its website, and a subsequent inquiry a couple of weeks later into why the merchandise had not be received. Unhappy with the explanation, Jen Palmer of Salt Lake City posted the comment “horrible customer service practices” on the website RipoffReport.com.

Three years later, to their surprise, Jen and her husband, John, got an email from Kleargear saying that unless the post was taken down in 72 hours, the Palmers would be “fined” $3,500. The email explained that the company felt justified in imposing this penalty because of the fine print in its terms of sale, which included prohibiting customers from taking any kind of negative action against Kleargear.

“If the content remains, in whole or in part,” the email read, “you will immediately be billed $3,500.00 USD for legal fees and court costs until such complete costs are determined in litigation. Should these charges remain unpaid for 30 calendar days from the billing date, your unpaid invoice will be forwarded to our third party collection firm and will be reported to consumer credit reporting agencies until paid.”

As one might expect, John Palmer tried to reason with Kleargear. He even contacted RipoffReport about the post, but learned it would cost him $2,000 to have it taken down.

Since they didn’t pay the fine. Kleargear got in touch with creditors, damaging their credit.

Understandably, Kleargear, like any business, isn’t too happy to receive online criticism. But levying fines and contacting consumer credit reporting agencies? Who made Kleargear prosecutor, judge and jury? This is not a legal agreement that an employer and employee come to over a firing or similar-type dispute. It’s an over-reaching attempt to control the company’s image by silencing criticism, whether warranted or not.

“Companies like Kleargear.com that engage in abusive consumer practices need to be deterred,” said Scott Michelman, an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, which is filing the lawsuit on behalf of the Palmers.

While a company can certainly charge for overdue payments, penalizing a customer in this way goes beyond the boundaries and infringes on the Palmer’s First Amendment rights.

It’s also stupid. Kleargear is going to suffer far more from this negative publicity than from any one comment left by a customer on a website.

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