In a brilliant two page article that illustrates why we need investigative reporting, New York Times writer David Segal details how Internet merchant Vitaly Borker (aliases Tony Russo and Stanley Bolds) discovered that complaints from his customers could be good for his business. As complaints about his DecorMyEyes eyeglass business poured in to sites such as Get Satisfaction, ComplaintsBoard.com and ConsumerAffairs.com, his Google page rank actually increased. While Googling "DecorMyEyes" by itself returned numerous complaints, Googling the name of an eyeglass designer such as "Lafont" prominently features Vitaly's own website, sans complaints. Apparently the links from the negative listings increased his Google Juice.
One could argue that the fault lay less with Google than with the complaint sites not using the "nofollow" attribute or consumers not being more thorough checking out a new merchant, but according to the article, just about every other institution that would be expected to help also shirked their responsibility. In a two page description of one consumer's experience, Segal tells how Citibank fell for a fake phone call, MasterCard and eBay cut off Borker only to have him re-register, and the New York Police were slow to act even after the consumer received threatening emails and harassing phone calls. It wasn't until the New York Times started nosing around that any of these places took definitive action.
While it's tempting to blame laziness or bureaucratic incompetence, I think there is something more insidious at work. All the institutions we count on to protect the consumer have replaced human judgement with algorithms, and the people who answer the phones at these places (when you can find a human at all) are just reading scripts and pressing the few limited buttons at their disposal. The Citibank representative actually told the consumer "Listen, this isn’t our problem. This has nothing to do with us." It is arguably true that removing humans from the process delivers better results overall, but a few sociopaths have figured out how to game the algorithms such as by keeping the volume of credit card chargebacks just under the threshold that would get them bounced from the system. In those cases, one wonders what would have happened if Segal, who also writes the Haggler series for the Times, hadn't gotten involved.
In this particular case Borker was arrested, MasterCard and eBay promised to keep him off their systems but the DecorMyEyes site is still promising "new and guaranteed authentic designer eyewear."