Man Says Company Retaliated For Online Review

Renovations company pulls Chicago man's warranty following negative review

A Chicago man says a Lincolnwood company retaliated against him after he wrote an online review on a consumer web site.

Travis Hartinger paid a company called Airoom $45,000 to remodel his kitchen and dining room.

But the company yanked the remaining nine years of his 10-year warranty over a post Hartinger wrote on Angie's List, a popular consumer review website.

"It was just out of the blue. Get a letter from the law firm that they hired. 'This false posting's caused and continued to cause irreparable harm to Airoom. If you don't take your posting down we have the right to sue you because you put false information on there,'" Hartinger recalls.

Hartinger maintains nothing he wrote on Angie's List was false. In fact, he says he started with positive feedback, including "they do a great job listening," calling them "a one stop shop for everything," and assigned them a "95 percent happy" rating with the final product.

But Hartinger says the project was significantly delayed by Airoom's actions, a fact he felt other consumers should know. The post continues: "things got lost in change over resulting in delays," and "I would never refer them to anyone."

"It's totally the experience I had," Hartinger recalls, "I even shot an email back to the lawyer saying could you please explain what false information I put in there just so I would have a better understanding. And he said I don't have to tell you what false information you had."

Hartinger says he scoured his contract for answers and found what he was looking for.

"Flipped over the back page, and it's an 11x14 piece of paper with 6 font. I finally found section 8, the very last sentence, and it pretty much says that if you speak, if you give any false information to a third party company, you could be, will be in breach of contract," Hartinger said. 

NBC 5 Investigates found that consumers who review, rate and sometimes rip companies they deal with are increasingly finding themselves in a similar spot, on the receiving end of threatened lawsuits and demands to pull down posts.

Adi Kamdar, an activist specializing in free speech issues at the Electronic Frontier Foundation says he's concerned about the effect these efforts may have on consumers' ability to freely share their experiences.

"So they're willing to go the extra mile, even if it's chilling consumer speech, in order for those to be taken down," Kamdar says.

The legal effort to muzzle a consumer is often referred to as a "SLAPP," or strategic lawsuit against public participation. Kamdar urges consumers to be wary of any contract language limiting their ability to share reviews.

"Having something in your contract that basically says you're not allowed to say anything bad about us goes against the idea of free speech, goes against the idea of consumer protection," Kamdar said.

Hartinger refused to pull down his post and says he now knows the 10-year warranty he counted on went up in smoke when he went online.

"People get scared and they'll go, because it's very easy to just go there and just delete that post. But the problem is that you're kind of bullying someone."

Airoom and its lawyer declined to comment for our report. But Angie Hicks of Angie's List told NBC 5 Investigates her company would help Hartinger fight if this goes to court. Illinois has an anti-SLAPP law, which means consumers sued over negative reviews can try to use it to trigger a dismissal.

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