The Virginia legislature has enacted several laws which protect businesses from false or malicious online reviews. One of the most important of these laws is the Virginia business conspiracy law.
This law protects businesses from coordinated online attacks against their brand. Basically, this law applies civil and criminal penalties to any group who sets out to damage a business’ reputation.
These laws have been around for many years.
However, with the growing importance of building a brand online, they are becoming increasingly important to small businesses throughout the Commonwealth.
Importantly for our purposes, businesses have recently been exploring whether these laws can apply to fake and damaging online reviews.
In this article, we cover the basics of the business conspiracy law and its related statutes. We also provide practical advice for fighting a malicious attack against your brand.
Online Reviews: Easy and Anonymous
One of the greatest modern conveniences is the ability to instantly read reviews online about products and services that are relevant to your daily life.
These reviews can help you make informed decisions about where you spend your money.
Sadly, for this reason many businesses attempt to manipulate these reviews in their own favor.
This can play out as businesses either faking their own review or posting reviews that purposefully harm on their competitors.
There are two primary reasons for this: ease and effectiveness.
Online Reviews are Anonymous
To encourage more people to take the time to leave a review, most sites will allow customers to leave reviews anonymously.
Not using their name eases the minds of customers who don’t want a large digital footprint, or who don’t want to broadcast the fact that they bought the product.
Unfortunately, being anonymous means that the customer feels less accountable for an exaggerated or untrue review.
Further, anonymous reviews hide the true identities of their posters, which can lead to certain levels of deception.
Easy for Them, Difficult for You
If you own a business, you know that customer feedback is more likely to happen when something goes wrong than when something is done right.
It’s human nature to feel like speaking out when you experience a problem, but it’s also common to forget to say thanks when things go smoothly.
In a similar manner, it’s much easier for customers to go online and rant about their bad experiences than it is to call a business and complain.
That’s why many businesses encourage good feedback as much as they can, and do damage control for bad reviews as quickly as possible.
One especially bad review can have more influence on potential customers than 10 normal reviews.
This is especially true for reviews that are purposefully malicious or damaging towards your business.
Whether from a particularly disgruntled guest or from some other source, you need to get in front of these reviews as fast as possible.
What to Do with a Negative Review
First, don’t panic. Do some research, then start performing damage control. Take steps to find out if the review came from a real customer. If so, investigate their claims.
Are they exaggerated? Does the employee that worked with the customer remember what happened?
Find out the details, so you can take the proper steps to fix the problem.
If the review is from a real customer who had a bad experience, try your best to make it right. Reach out to them, or show in other ways how you’re working to fix the issue.
Finally, don’t make the review personal.
Remember, you’re not just writing to that one customer, you’re telling everyone who reads your response that you’re a professional who cares about customer service.
Dealing With Fake or Purposefully Damaging Reviews
A fake review is a whole different story.
If you know that the review came from someone that is not a real customer, you can fight to get the review removed.
If you suspect that the review is from someone who has set out to damage your company, you can move forward with legal action:
- Step 1: Get Proof — The more proof you have of the unfairness of the review, the better. If it’s not a real customer, be able to show that from your records. If you know that there is a reason that the reviewer has set out to damage your business, gather the information to prove that.
- Step 2: (Optional) Get a lawyer — The laws surrounding what people say online are constantly changing, and in some cases it may be to your advantage to hire a lawyer. Especially in cases where a review lost you potential clients, you might want to pursue a legal case to recoup your losses.
- Step 3: Remove the Review — Contact the platform that has the review (Google, Yelp, Amazon, etc.) to explain your case and show your evidence. In most cases, they will agree to remove the review if you can prove it is fake or intentionally misleading.
- Step 4: Pursue Damages (If Applicable) — In some cases, the review may “blow up” and cause significant damage to your business’s reputation. If you believe that your business has been adversely affected by the review, you should speak to your attorney immediately to figure out if pursuing damages is in your best interests.
The Virginia Business Conspiracy Law
It’s on this final step (“pursuing damages”) that the Virginia business conspiracy law comes into play.
This law states that if two or more people conspire together to willfully cause damage to a business, they are guilty of a crime and must pay damages.
However, the law is very specific about what constitutes an illegal act under this code section. For an act to fall under the business conspiracy law, it must have been:
- Committed by two or more people in a coordinated effort.
- Done with the specific intention of damaging or otherwise harming the business.
Additionally, the harm must have resulted in real, tangible damages to your business. In other words, you must be able to prove that your company suffered actual monetary damages.
Merely proving the conspiracy part of the law is not enough for a criminal or civil case.
Similarly, one other interesting aspect of this law is that it covers both the criminal and civil penalties for committing such a conspiracy.
We’ll outline each below.
This is the unusual part of the Virginia business conspiracy law.
Virginia Code § 18.2-500 allows for a hefty financial penalty for those who are found guilty of violating this law. This penalty is composed of three separate parts:
- Three times the dollar amount of the damages to your business (often called “treble damages”).
- The cost of the lawsuit, and any related court costs.
- An additional fee for the plaintiff’s lawyer.
This hefty fine is one of the primary deterrents for individuals who conspire against your business.
For many businesses, even losing one customer to a malicious review can result in a judgement of several thousand dollars.
If you think you have a case, you should discuss your options with your lawyer to see if filing a civil suit is worth the time and effort.
If your business gets a maliciously negative review, there are a few ways you can deal with the situation.
“Real” reviews provide an opportunity for you to improve your product or service. Meanwhile, fake or malicious reviews can be removed through legal action.
Further, if a fake or malicious review seriously damages your business, the Virginia Code offers a way for you to rectify the situation.
If you can establish that a group conspired to harm your business, you can pursue damages for up to three times the business you lost as a result of their actions.
In this way, if you receive multiple fake or malicious reviews you should contact a lawyer immediately. Working together, you can remove the reviews, and take steps towards healing your online image.
- 11 Ways an Attorney Can Help You Start a Small Business
- Tortious Interference in Virginia: How to Fight Unfair Business Practices
- Va. Code § 18.2-499 through § 501. Conspiracy to Injure Another in Trade, Business, or Profession — This is the article in the Virginia Code that largely talks about business conspiracy laws and the damages and relief available for businesses in this situation.