Over the last few years, businesses everywhere have been working hard to establish a positive online presence beyond just their website. It’s become standard practice for lenders to be listed on websites like consumeraffairs.com, lendingtree.com, and bankrate.com. The reason behind these listings is to build trust online and develop a brand presence.
After all, it would be extremely difficult to find an industry that hasn’t been affected by the prevalence of consumers who conduct online research for products and services, including reviews, before making a decision. This tends to become more prevalent with services and purchases that could have long-term repercussions, including insurance, loans, credit cards, etc.
Now, you’re probably asking yourself, what does this have to do with compliance?
In this highly integrated world of online reviews and social media, it can be tempting for lenders to use cookie cutter, online review vendors to boost positive reviews while minimizing negative reviews. For example, one widely used tactic across all industries is to utilize contract provisions, including online terms and conditions, to penalize consumers for posting negative reviews or complaints. This specific tactic has been ruled as illegal under the Consumer Review Fairness Act (CRFA), which protects people’s ability to share in any forum their honest opinions about a business. Specifically, the CRFA makes it illegal for a company to use a contract provision that:
- bars or restricts the ability of a person to review a company’s products, services or conduct;
- imposes a penalty or fee against someone for leaving a review; and that
- takes ownership of a person’s review when they mention the company’s name, thereby requiring people to give up their intellectual property rights of the content in the review.
The Federal Trade Commission and the state Attorneys General have the authority to enforce the CRFA. Any violation will be treated the same as violating FTC rules around unfair or deceptive acts or practices, meaning companies everywhere could be subject to financial penalties.
So, what can lenders do to ensure compliance? Start by reviewing your applications and/or legal paperwork to remove any provision that restricts people from sharing their reviews and/or penalizes them for doing so. Beyond contract work, it’s best to take a common sense approach to consumer reviews.