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Sites open Web's complaint window

Got a gripe about an online retailer or service provider? Several sites--including one operated by star consumer advocate David Horowitz--will do your complaining for you.

A number of online complaint services are hoping to make money by resolving consumer disputes with Net retailers, but some observers question whether there is enough demand for such services to succeed.

David Horowitz, for example, is relaunching his Fight Back site in a few weeks with an e-commerce feature, while newcomer Complain.com, which went into public beta today, plans to officially launch June 1.

The sites will join the likes of Complain To Us, which launched in 1997, as well as free sites such as Cemptor, which rolled out in March.

"We had been doing this pro bono, but now we'll be charging a flat fee if I'm the one who personally gets involved in writing a letter and following up complaints from our Web site," said Horowitz, a nationally syndicated consumer columnist and host of the television series Fight Back! With David Horowitz.

Horowitz will charge $25 for any cases that he personally pursues, while all other complaint resolutions will be free of charge.

"Consumers will get access to me, our brand name and experience in linking up with major companies The customer is never right, Part Deux to make sure the complaint goes to the right person quickly," he said.

But Horowitz noted that the "consumer is not always right" and that he would not hesitate to determine the company had acted fairly if that were the case.

Meanwhile, Complain.com will charge $19.95 to draft a complaint letter to a company's chief executive and the head of customer service operations, said chief executive Steven Ericsson Zenith.

Consumers can fill out a form with information about the product or service they purchased, what went wrong, the actions they have taken to resolve the dispute, and the resolution they are seeking, Zenith said.

"The people who come to our site will have likely contacted us after they tried to get a hold of the company's customer care department and either failed or had an unsatisfactory experience in getting things resolved," he said.

Four weeks after Complain.com sends the letter to the company, the consumer will receive an email inquiring whether the issue has been resolved. If the problem still exists, Zenith said, a copy of the complaint letter will be faxed to the chief executive. After that, consumers will be referred to Complain.com partners, including law firms, to pursue further action.

Despite the growth in e-commerce and customer service issues, one analyst questions the viability of the model.

"It seems strange to pay someone to write a letter for you, when the Internet allows you to send email to the company," said James McQuivey, an e-commerce analyst with Forrester Research. "But if a site aggregates the information so consumers can see what experience customers are having with a particular company and their products, then that could be useful."

Complain.com and Cemptor both plan to add a database feature to their sites and hope to become places where consumers go to get information before doing business with a company.

So far these sites have not seen overwhelming demand for their services. Cemptor has received 15 complaint requests since its launch in March and has resolved about a third of them, said founder Bill Tran. Although the company does not charge for its service, it plans to make money by selling ads on its site.

The speed with which complaints about a company can travel on the Internet has corporate America worried. For example, Chase Manhattan Bank owns the domains Chasesucks.com, IhateChase.com, and ChaseStinks.com, while Walker Digital, a company founded by Priceline.com chief executive Jay Walker, registered Priceline-sucks.com and Pricelinesucks.com.

Spokesmen for both companies declined to comment on why the domain registrations were created. But Ken Herz, a spokesman for Chase, said, "We value customer feedback?and we can sometimes learn from negative feedback."

"The Internet is such a widespread communications forum that many retailers do their best to avoid complaints for fear it will take off like wildfire," said Robert Smith, executive director of Shop.org, an online retailers association.