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Please begin with an informative title:

To hear its name--Consumer Affairs--conjures up the image of Consumer Reports, a respectable nonprofit whose mission is "to work for a fair, just, and safe marketplace for all consumers and to empower consumers to protect themselves."  

But other than having a name which appears to have been deliberately chosen to create an association with the straight-laced, trustworthy Consumer Reports, Consumer Affairs couldn't be more different.

The company is headed up by CEO Zac Carman, whose personal tweets often attempt to publicly shame businesses that have not lived up to his standards:




Consumer Affairs (a regular advertiser on the Rush Limbaugh Show) makes its money in the seedy business of "reputation management."

Reputation management began as a public relations term, but the explosion of internet commerce has transformed it into the practice of managing one's online image (search results and reviews).

Consumer Affairs promises its clients the opportunity to increase sales by cultivating a positive reputation on the internet:

Businesses who would like to pay Consumer Affairs for this service have a couple of options:

Standard Package: $1,000 per month

respond publicly to consumers
verify review authenticity
access reviewer’s “private” contact information
feature one testimonial at the top of your business listing

Premium Package: $5,000 per month

includes features in standard package
ability to dispute complaints
remove competitor advertising from business listing
access to premium analytics
display company awards and accolades
multiple user accounts
manage multiple pages
import customer satisfaction data

Here's how the Premium Package reportedly works:

When you purchase the Premium Package, Consumer Affairs promises to actively work to change your brand’s perception by offering your customers an incentive to review your business. Consumer Affairs will call 100 customers (hand-picked by the business) and will transcribe their opinions into 'online reviews.'

In other words, Consumer Affairs will pay people to write positive reviews about your business.

So what happens to businesses who elect NOT to go along with Consumer Affairs?

Consider the strange case of Beneful dog food (owned by Purina, who is doing quite well--so don't feel too bad.)

At the beginning of this year, Consumer Affairs posted an article which alleged that there had been a major spike in reports of Beneful causing illness and death (with bloody diarrhea in between).  The article also carefully noted a corresponding jump in people searching the Consumer Affairs site for reviews on the topic:

The latest pet food to enrage pet owners is Purina's Beneful. A spurt of complaints over the last few months has been accompanied by a large increase in the number of people reading the Beneful reviews posted by ConsumerAffairs readers.

"I switched to Beneful about two months ago. Two weeks ago my maltipoo Buster stopped eating and started throwing up, followed by bloody diarrhea. He died within a week," said one angry reader. "Then my maltese Layla had the same symptoms everytime she ate Beneful dog food. I started feeding her home-cooked food like boiled chicken and she is 100 percent better. Buster is dead because of Beneful."

Purina did not respond to a request for its response to the consumers' reports.

The article included a very sad picture of a Siberian Husky with tubes in its nose:

Three days later (on January 11, 2013), examiner.com posted an article which echoed the alarm, pointing out that more than 200 negative reviews had occurred on Consumer Affairs and including a link to the Consumer Affairs piece.

However, an inquiry to the FDA a week after the Consumer Affairs article posted found that there had been only a handful of complaints about Beneful:

"FDA has averaged about 2-4 complaints about Beneful over the past year.  We’ve received four additional complaints in the last 48 hours, but two of those were merely links to the Examiner article."

Is it really possible that hundreds of people experienced pets who were sickened or killed by one brand of dog food but just five of them reported it to the only agency who could actually do something about it?

In March, the FDA found that a 2 1/2 year-old English mastiff named Mazey had died of an autoimmune disorder called Addison's disease, not of an adverse reaction to Beneful, as her owners had alleged.

It's impossible to say what would have prompted Consumer Affairs to put a hit out on Beneful.  But it does seem clear that something's not right about the Consumer Affairs reviews.  

Beneful reviews on the "reputation management" site now number 664, 89% of them one star.  By contrast, Amazon shows 512 reviews with an average of 3.5 stars.

Could it be that a business whose Platinum Package promises positive reviews to those willing to cough up the dough also has a secret "Black Package" for those who somehow invoke its ire?

Here's an artist's rendition of the Black Package:

*

Many thanks to Joe Hill for research and ideas.

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