Publicity Monster search engine 'scam' victims settle privately

Almost 100 people who claim they were scammed into paying to get their business websites to the top of Google's search results have settled their cases privately, leaving others at risk of abuse, lawyers warn.

Publicity Monster, run by convicted hacker Timothy Sabre, cold-calls small businesses, pledging to make them appear in Google Local's top seven search results for a chosen key word.

Consumer Action Law Centre chief executive Gerard Brody said 90 people had complained about the company in small claims tribunals in NSW and Victoria in recent years, with many saying it had not delivered on its promise.

But most appeared to have privately settled their disputes with the business, with only one resulting in a reported decision.

Mr Brody said many consumers came to the centre with similar claims of misconduct, including high-pressure door-to-door sales tactics. But they often settled their disputes, agreeing to keep the matter confidential and leaving future claims to be treated in isolation.

"We try and negotiate individual outcomes for all those consumers, which takes time and effort and it's not the most efficient way to resolve the issue."

Mr Brody said consumers mainly relied on laws against unconscionable conduct to take action against businesses, which was difficult to prove: "There shouldn't be such a high bar, particularly where numerous people are suffering significant consequences that are similar. That should be enough to show there has been unfair trading and a regulator could go and take action."

A Consumer Affairs Victoria spokesman said the watchdog had received 32 complaints about Publicity Monster since July 2011 and continued to monitor it regarding alleged consumer law breaches.

"As with any investigation, Consumer Affairs Victoria relies on assistance from the consumers involved."

He said the body could investigate and enforce laws against complaints that "suggest systemic issues".

Mr Sabre, also known as Timothy Said, was convicted of destroying, erasing, altering or inserting data into a Commonwealth computer in 2001 and sentenced to 450 hours' community service. He was stripped of his Google accreditation last August after Fairfax Media reports about Publicity Monster.

Luke Dunsford, who runs a window-cleaning business, gave his credit card details to the company over the phone.

He was told Publicity Monster could bring more people to his website. Mr Dunsford does not know whether web traffic grew, but said the number of customer phone calls and emails he received since then had not.

He was told he had to contact the company to cancel his account but assumed it would expire when he did not renew the contract at the end of the year. The company then contacted him saying he owed it more than $3000 – double what he had initially paid.

He began action against it in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal in July.

"I'm quite happy to take this as far as I can and not do a deal with Publicity Monster so they can't do that sort of thing [to other people]," he said.

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