Abusive SLAPP lawsuits (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) have made headlines in recent months. SLAPP lawsuits are those in which businesses sue individuals for posting critical comments on consumer review websites. A recent case involves a woman being sued by a local Chicago concrete company for complaining about their service online. Now more than ever, it’s critical that these suits – designed to intimidate and censor critics through costly legal action – be put to an end.

Why?  Because at a time when online fraud rages out of control, an emerging class of consumer advocates has begun to provide a critical public service.  Without them the legal system faces a Sisyphean task and both consumers and our economy suffer.

According to the Washington Post, damages from online fraud have reached $100 billion per year. And despite the best efforts of federal and state law enforcement, the distributed nature of online fraud makes it incredibly difficult to fight using traditional tactics.

Even with adequate training and resources, law enforcement agencies face both jurisdictional issues (i.e., if a fraudster is based Tajikistan there may not be processes in place to detain and prosecute him) and logistical challenges (e.g., if 100 fraudsters commit $1000 crimes across 100 countries, it isn’t cost effective to detain and prosecute each of them).

The result: since 2001, the FBI has reported a 677% increase in online fraud complaints And that’s complaints, not occurrences.

Enter the online consumer advocate.

With the emergence of social networks and review sites, honest and good online citizens now have the tools to warn other consumers about pernicious websites and take bad businesses to task.  And as a result, law enforcement agents are no longer alone in the critical struggle to keep us safe online.

This new paradigm of online consumer advocacy is not without detractors.  Some business owners have expressed concerns that their businesses will be sabotaged by unethical customers or even by competitors posting misleading information.  To be sure, this can be a legitimate problem

But SLAPP suits are not a solution.  Instead we can look to new technologies and features to address this.

Websites like YelpAngie’s List and SiteJabber have developed reputation systems that communicate an individual’s online credibility.  The systems can be both algorithmic (using software to determine a user’s legitimacy) and crowd-sourced (the community weighs in on the helpfulness of reviewers’ contributions).  Such systems give context to reviews and marginalize would-be saboteurs.

Additionally, many sites, as a free service, allow businesses to respond to critical reviews.  And businesses that do often find that they are actually able to improve customer loyalty, unmask unethical reviewers, and grow their business.

The Anti-SLAPP laws on the books in 27 states are critical to the preservation of free speech and the continuing emergence of this next generation of consumer advocates because it enables them to freely post their opinions online without fear of frivolous legal intimidation. For more information on federal SLAPP laws please read this blog post or visit anti-slapp.org.

Note: this post originally appeared on the National Cyber Security Alliance blog

An astounding 70% of US consumers consult reviews or consumer ratings before making purchases.  Whether you’re buying a new digital camera, finding a new dentist, or researching an online pharmacy, user reviews can be a powerful tool to make better choices about which products and services to buy and from whom. However, reviews also have pitfalls. Below are four tips to safely and effectively use online reviews.

  • Look beyond ratings to read individual reviews: Although a business, product or service may have hundreds of positive reviews, it unfortunately does not necessarily mean you will have the same positive experience. The criteria and standards of the other reviewers may differ significantly from your own. For this reason, it’s critical to read reviews carefully and understand the individual perspectives of the reviewers.
  • Inspect the motivations and qualifications of reviewers: When reading an individual review, it’s important to investigate the author. Have they written other reviews? Does the review sound like they are trying to “sell” you on the product, service or business? Is there other information about the reviewer (job, education, etc.)? Does the reviewer have authority on the site or otherwise online?  Have others agreed or disagreed with the reviewer? Do your best to answer as many of these questions as possible and try to weight the content of the review accordingly.
  • Check for conflicts of interest: In addition to inspecting the reviewer, it’s also important to inspect the website or service providing the reviews to ensure it does not have incentives to provide anything but objective information. For example, many sites claim to review online services (website hosting, online pharmacies etc.) but are in actuality advertising on behalf of those services (i.e., the website is being paid money by the services that are being “reviewed”). If conflicts of interest exist between the site providing the reviews and the businesses that provide the products or services being reviewed, more trustworthy sources should be sought (this information can often be found in the “about us” or “frequently asked questions” sections of a review website – if you cannot find the information it’s generally best to error on the side of caution and seek better sources).
  • Use reviews as a guide: While reviews can provide incredibly helpful information, they are best used as data points, not a single authoritative source. Your own research and good sense are, as always, your most valuable assets.

This post originally appeared on the National Cyber Security Alliance Blog.