Lessons from Prison: Satisfy Customers, Follow the Law

In “Can Lawsuits Remedy Bad Online Reviews?,” my article last month, I focused on whether lawsuits can remedy bad online reviews of businesses. In the cases that I addressed, there were not clear behaviors on either side that were truly outrageous.

This month, I’ll focus on the story of Décor My Eyes, a website that went too far to get search engine rankings and shows how much influence one person can have on online marketing.

In the past, companies attempted to manipulate their search engine results with tools that would now be considered questionable at best and destroy search rankings at worse. Vitaly Borker, owner of, discovered how to make negative marketing very profitable.

Benefitting from Negative Reviews

The story of became national news after an article about the business was published in The New York Times in November 2010. is a website that focuses on the sales of designer eyewear. Borker discovered that his company’s search ranking in Google could be raised not only through good reviews, but also through negative reviews if the reviews linked back to the site.

Borker discovered that his company’s search ranking in Google could be raised not only through good reviews, but also through negative reviews if the reviews linked back to the site.

Because of this, he would intentionally provide bad customer service to individuals that he believed deserved it with the hopes of getting negative reviews as a result. (Google now says that shortly after the original The New York Times article was published in 2010, Google changed its algorithm so that negative reviews no longer help rankings.)

The New York Times article highlighted Clarabelle Rodriquez, who found through an online search. After problems receiving her purchase, her interactions with Borker, the owner, went from unprofessional to ending up as a witness in the courtroom in a case against him.

Rodriquez received what she believed were the wrong products. She filed a credit card dispute for the amount that she was charged. After multiple threats to cease the credit card dispute, she received an email from Borker that showed a picture of the place that she lived with a violent threat. She was one of many customers that complained about his aggressive tactics both to police and online — reviews of his site and his tactics can still be found online.

Encouraged Negative Reviews

As part of his marketing, when customers complained about his actions, Borker would reply that they could complain online about his actions if they didn’t like them. Unknowingly, the same customers that despised his actions helped get his website ranked even above the designers that he sold in some cases.

However, because his actions went beyond just bad customer service and moved into the realm of illegal — some of the charges involved sending threatening emails saying that he would rape customers and sell counterfeit items — he ended up facing criminal charges.

In May of 2011, Borker plead guilty to two counts of sending threatening communications, one count of mail fraud, and one count of wire fraud. He was sentenced to 4 years in prison; fines and restitution of approximately $100,000; and 3 years of supervised release. According to a Wikipedia entry, he was released on March 12, 2015. is still active.

Lessons for Ecommerce Merchants

Although most website owners would not go as far as Borker to engage in illegal activity, his story does have some real lessons for online marketers. First, never send an email to a customer that is written in the heat of the moment. Most business owners have received an email from an irate customer. As an owner, your business is your sweat and blood. Attacks against it can be taken very personally.

When emotions are high, the words used in an email are often not a true reflection of how a business owner wants to have the company represented. Emails to disgruntled customers should always be sent after a cooling off period to make sure that things are not said that are regretted, or even worse, can sound illegal. Even an experienced business owner could say something in an email that when viewed by a third party could be seen as threatening.

Second, always look at what you are doing through the eyes of not only your customers, but also the law. Your customers will judge you on whether you seem honest and authentic. The law may judge you on higher standards. Do you have reviews that are truthful, but that someone was paid to write? This could result in customers accepting the review since it is truthful, but the Federal Trade Commission questioning it since it was paid for.

Are you angry with a customer and want to refuse a refund? If your terms of use allow you to refuse refund requests, you may be on good legal ground but the public attention could backfire.

Running an online business is a balancing act of marketing, knowing the law, and providing good customer service. While there are cases such as that show some businesses can make money by being bad, it is always better to be a business that is known for its good deeds. So when working with customers, make sure to use common sense — and follow the letter of the law.

Elizabeth Lewis
Elizabeth Lewis
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