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Consumer Cellular moves lawsuit to district court

Company claims website was removing 5-star reviews unless it was paid

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - -  John Marick, co-founder of Consumer Cellular, says that a review website is withholding positive reviews unless the company pays thousands of dollars for accreditation. One of the state’s largest tech companies is suing an online consumer ratings website, saying that it has been purposefully deleting positive reviews about the company unless it agrees to pay thousands of dollars.

Consumer Cellular, a Tigard wireless carrier that specializes in no-contract phone plans for senior citizens, filed a $5.2 million lawsuit against the review website ConsumerAffairs.com, charging the company with wire fraud, extortion and racketeering.

ConsumerAffairs.com, which is based in Nevada, calls itself a hub for consumer news, information and advocacy, covering product recalls, consumer information and hosting online reviews from consumers.

Consumer Cellular filed the suit in Multnomah County Circuit Court in August, but moved the proceedings to the U.S. District Court in Portland this month.

Consumer Cellular has been endorsed by AARP, Consumer Reports magazine and others, but ConsumerAffairs.com currently gives Consumer Cellular a 1.2 star rating, out of five.

The reviews that are posted aren’t kind.

“My grandmother does not use her phone often. My grandfather has been in ICU for over a week now. She has no service,” reads a review posted on the site last Friday. “They said her phone had been phased out. And when we call... nothing.”

Cold calls

Consumer Cellular said that eight five-star reviews of the company were posted on the website between Oct. 2013 and April 2014, but were later removed. Consumer Cellular said that only companies that agree to pay a monthly fee to become “accredited” by the website receive high remarks.

Consumer Cellular first learned about ConsumerAffairs.com in 2014 when the website began a series of “cold calls” to the company, alerting them to their poor rating. They were told that the business was rated poorly on the site because of its lack of accreditation.

“If you are interested in turning the page positive and transofrming it into a positive branding message, a way to retain customers and generate new leads, I’d be happy to schedule a short 30 minute demo call,” the website’s sales account executive Andrew Polacek wrote to the company in August 2014, the lawsuit claims.

That program would cost the Consumer Cellular $15,000 to set up, and another $5,000 every month, the lawsuit claims.

After Consumer Cellular arranged meetings with ConsumerAffairs.com, it says that two more 5-star reviews for the company appeared online. When the company later opted not to pay the accreditation fees, the 5-star reviews disappeared and the company has seen a “drought of positive reviews” ever since.

That’s the opposite case with Jitterbug, a competitor of Consumer Cellular’s, which took ConsumerAffairs.com up on its offer to turn things around, the company claims.

According to the lawsuit, Jitterbug saw its rating changed after it became accredited in 2014.

“(Jitterbug) was transformed to an overall rating of nearly 5 full stars,” the company alleges. During that same time period, eight of 10 negative reviews of Jitterbug had their stars ratings removed.

Jitterbug currently holds a 4.6 rating and features nothing but glowing reviews.

Meritless, website claims

Concerned that ConsumerAffairs.com was removing high-rated reviews, Consumer Cellular asked a customer that had recently reached out to the company and offered “a pat on the back” to write a review on the ConsumerAffairs.com website. He did, but the review never appeared, the lawsuit claims.

“Based on customer feedback during the period in question, Consumer Cellular has good reason to believe other legitimate positive reviews have been submitted but have been exluded,” it wrote.

Carman said that reviews with Consumer Cellular were removed for a variety of reasons. One review was removed at the consumer’s request, two others — including the one written at the company’s request — was determined to be spam.

ConsumerAffairs.com has moved to strike the lawsuit from the court under Oregon’s anti-SLAPP statute, which removes meritless claims.

In response to the lawsuit, David Carman, president of ConsumerAffairs, filed a declaration with the court on Oct. 14, saying that the poor ratings of Consumer Cellular were the result of poor customer service.

“... Satisfied customers are much less likely to provide feedback about companies whose products and service they purchase than are unhappy customers,” he wrote. “On the other hand, angry customers are motivated to give feedback because they face a problem that needs to be solved and — fairly or unfairly — they will tolerate friction to make their voice heard.”

The lawsuit comes the same month as the Consumer Cellular’s 20th anniversary, where the company announced it had reached 2 million customers across the nation.