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Online comments becoming a valuable tool for many firms

"----- is one of the most deceptive companies I have ever dealt with and I feel compelled to publicly inform others about such poor business practices."

Consumer complaints, like the recently posted one above, at websites like RipOffReport.com and My3Cents.com are growing as tens of thousands of frustrated customers take to their keyboards to vent.

But is anyone reading the posts? And do they have any impact?

The answer is starting to be "yes" as companies, lawmakers, even grand juries use these very public displays of disaffection for various reasons.

"I look at these websites myself," said John Riggins, president of the Better Business Bureau at Fort Worth. "They're another way of calibrating the industry."

Companies can get a handle on what's being said by using "crowd sourcing" software that find mentions of them on the Web, Riggins said.

"Crowd sourcing gives feedback about your products every day," he said. "It's real-time market research."

Such information can help companies respond quickly to consumers, said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America.

"Smart companies would track when their name appears and try to learn from the experience," she said. "Some actually do try to contact the consumer and try to respond to their complaint."

Jim Hood, president of ConsumerAffairs.com, one of the most popular consumer complaint websites, with 3.7 million page views a month, said online venting "has had a major impact on business." He said it's hard "for companies to routinely ignore complaints like they used to do. It puts a lot of heat on companies."

The sites are generally protected by federal law that puts the liability on the poster. Hood said he and similar sites likewise typically shield their posters' identities, though when subpoenaed he routinely turns over the information.

Consumers are responding in huge numbers.

My3cents.com, recently featured favorably in a report by the consumer federation, gets 100 to 200 reports a day from individuals sharing their buying experiences -- both good and bad, said Max Spankie, chief executive officer and founder of the website. The site gets more than 800,000 visitors monthly, Spankie said.

"I started it 10 years ago after a bad customer service experience at a car rental office left me stranded," he said.

Now companies turn to him for help with their customer service, he said.

"Over the past few years, big name brands have gotten on board and now utilize our site as an extension of their customer service department," he said. Among his clients are Whirlpool, Sears, The Home Depot, Expedia and Orbitz, he said.

"In the future I see our site bringing more companies on board to help resolve consumer issues within hours of being posted, instead of days," Spankie said.

Hood's site is also adding companies as clients. For a fee, they get new complaints directly from ConsumerAffairs.com. Among those clients are Mattress Warehouse and La-Z-Boy.

The consumer federation study says that while most complaint sites do little, if anything, to resolve consumer problems, they can be a source for consumers to educate themselves about products and practices.

"Despite this irritation or anger, most complainants seem remarkably objective in describing their grievances, typically telling a story with facts and figures," the report said. "What shoppers probably find most useful in the websites is the content of the complaints, especially when many consumers are complaining about the same problem."

A few sites do try to help. The Fort Worth BBB will accept complaints at its website (www.fortworth.bbb.org), and one of its 18 employees will help the consumer resolve the complaint with the company. It also posts company complaint records and assigns a grade of A+ to F.

Eventually, Riggins said, the bureau will add individual complaints to its website, but only after they have been thoroughly checked out.

My3cents.com offers "consumer tools," a drop-down menu that guides the user to a local Better Business Bureau, state attorney general or federal agency. The tools also include company contact information and a four-star company rating list.

The consumer federation suggests using the search box to more easily find information on a company or product. And it warns to be sure not to file a complaint with a site that asks for any kind of personal information besides a Web address.

Teresa M cUsic's column appears Fridays.

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