Hank Investigates: Reputation Ransom

Have you ever tried to look up your name on the internet? One Massachusetts woman found a shocking and false online post about her. And when she tried to get it taken down, she became a victim of reputation ransom. Hank Philippi Ryan investigates.

A Massachusetts school teacher told 7 Investigates what’s happened to her is already bad enough and she doesn’t want to make it worse, so she wants to remain anonymous.

“It’s truly an injustice. I’m so upset about it,” the teacher said.

It started when she googled her name and she found a terrible complaint online about her!

“I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked,” the teacher said.

An undisclosed author had posted: “She had been harassing them and threatening family members…”

“The complaint isn’t true. I thought this is crazy. I have to get this down,” the teacher said.

When the teacher tried to get the complaint removed, she got an even bigger shock: Her only option was to pay the site’s “complaint removal fee,” nearly $250.

“I thought how wrong is this?” she said.

And our investigation found it’s all legal.

Federal law generally protects websites from being sued for what people post and the sites don’t have to verify if posts are true.

The law was designed to protect social media sites like Facebook and YouTube from content posted by third parties that was out of their control.

But that encouraged more online sites to pop up, to invite people to post, about everything from bad pizza to allegations of cheating spouses, and even revenge porn.

And some sites decided to go further: Charging to remove reputation-ruining posts.

“It’s a business model operating in a loophole in the law,” attorney Ali Arko said. She told Hank her her clients have been charged from $1000 to $8000 to get a post taken down.

“So you’re seeing this happen more and more?” Hank asked.

“Yeah, it’s absolutely crazy and heartbreaking,” Arko said.

If you don’t want to pay, you could always sue the site’s owners, but they can be challenging to find.

“It ends up being a game of whether you have enough money to pay to remove the content or not? It’s awful,” Arko said.

The site the teacher was on warns: “Do not go to an attorney,” and “don’t trust your union attorney to remove your complaints…”

But now the Boston Teachers Union is calling for change.

“Why did you do that?” Hank asked.

“Because we learned about it from you all. Something like this is just a complete distraction and really disrespectful,” said Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union.

The teacher refused to pay. She’s confident students know she’s an A+ educator, but insists this reputation ransom has to stop.

“It’s critical that lawmakers, revisit the law and do the right thing because it’s hurting good people,” the teacher said.

Some experts say there are many reasons not to pay reputation ransom—they say the best thing to do is ignore it. But if you can’t bring yourself to do that, they say, hire a lawyer so you don’t have to deal with the site directly.

Click here for more information.

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