Publicity Monster customers get more than they bargain for

For a change, this post isn’t about rent-to-buy property.

New: If you would like some legal information about running a similar case, send me an email (see the “about” page for my email address) or leave a comment (I won’t publish your comment) and I will send you a document by email.

This is about one person’s dispute with online marketing/SEO business  Publicity Monster (PMAU), in the hope that it might help others in a similar situation. For more about complaints regarding PMAU see hundreds of comments on the Whirlpool Forum here.

Publicity Monster, PMAU Pty Ltd, Premium Local, Search Results

Publicity Monster is part of Search Results Group, as is Premium Locals and The Online Media Agency.  Publicity Monster is a registered business name of PMAU Pty Ltd.
Web addresses for Publicity Monster, PMAU and Premium Locals, all redirect to searchresultsdotcomdotau.

The Invigor Group is in the process of purchasing the Search Results Group at the time of writing. [update May 2015 this purchase did not proceed]

A list of tribunal applications on the Whirlpool forum suggests there have been about 80 disputes brought against PMAU (Consumer, Trader & Tenancy Tribunal (CTTT) in NSW and Victorian Civil & Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) in Victoria).

What does PMAU do?

PMAU “specialises in growing small businesses online using Online Marketing, Search Marketing, Google Places Optimisation and organic SEO” (according to the search results website which PMAU’s web address diverts to).  PMAU sells it services to small businesses through cold calling. Customer complaints are generally that they don’t get what they are promised, that they are automatically charged another fee at the end of 12 months, and that the business is not responsive to complaints. Given the way the business markets its service, and the number of complaints and disputes that have been made, it could be open to surmise that the business relies on locking customers into a contract, and frustrating customers’ efforts to complain, rather than providing a good service and hoping for ‘word of mouth’ referrals.

Media

PMAU has been mentioned in a number of media stories:

SMH December 2013 Complaints about publicity monsters search engine business settled privately

Google Crashes Monster Man’s Party, SMH October 12

SEO Services subject of many of complaints warns fair trading office SMH, February 2014

“Gaming Google: Monster’s party boy Tim under fire”

“Invigor defends taking on Sabre in Publicity Monster Deal”

Whirlpool Forum

A forum discussion about problems with PMAU started in May 2012 and is now 250 pages long.

L’s case

Background

My friend L is window cleaner.  He received a call from PMAU, offering to make his business higher in Google searches. He had recently had a website developed (not by PMAU) and assumed the services being offered related to giving his website a higher ranking. PMAU said something about making his business higher in “google places”. He recalled mentioning that he wanted his business to show up when people used the term “window cleaning Mornington Peninsula”. Without any written contract, it is difficult to understand exactly what services were being offered – and I’m still not entirely sure.

PMAU sent L emails from time to time, showing that his business’ name was in the “top 7” when people searched for “window cleaning McCrae” or “gutter cleaning McCrae”. These “top 7” rankings were for his business’ entry in Google Places – not for his business’ website. While L recalls answering ‘yes’ when PMAU asked him whether he cleaned gutters, this is not his main business, and while he was based in McCrae, only about 5% of his business came from there . While L felt he’d been misled, and that the services were of little – or no – value, he initially felt he had ‘done his dough’ and didn’t take any action. However, when PMAU tried to charge his credit card again 12 months later, arguing that he’d agreed to that by phone, L decided to lodge a dispute with the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). L had changed banks (and therefore credit cards) so PMAU were unable to debit his account. Instead, they had debt collectors pursue him for payment for the second 12 months.  The exact amount being claimed is unclear because different debt collection letters added different amounts for collection fees.

Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT)

There were a few false starts, which were appeared to be mainly the fault of VCAT. VCAT made an error in an address, and a hearing was set down for a date when L had advised VCAT he would be away.  Prior to the final hearing VCAT had made orders, including that PMAU provide any documents to support their case, and the audio recording to VCAT and to L a week before the hearing.

The Hearing

The person representing PMAU by phone identified himself as Adam Chidiac.

I believe this is Adam Chidiac who represented PMAU at the VCAT hearing.

I believe this is Adam Chidiac

Despite having significant notice of the hearing this time, PMAU appeared unprepared. The VCAT member had to call them three times before they answered the phone number they had provided, and they had not provided the audio recording to L and VCAT as they were ordered to do. PMAU had, however, provided about 50 pages of logs and emails, without any page numbers – which presented some challenges when they referred to a particular email over the telephone, and L and the VCAT member had to trawl through the documents to find what they were referring to.

Early in the hearing, the member stepped out to allow the parties the opportunity to settle. L took this opportunity to ask PMAU to play the audio, which contained only part of one of the two phone conversations that formed the contract. As well as recording PMAU saying that the contract would be automatically renewed,  PMAU was also recorded agreeing to the search term that L said was important “window cleaning Mornington Peninsula”. The member returned and asked if any offer had been discussed – the parties requested a bit more time. PMAU made an offer to settle – they offered to provide further services to L for the money they were claiming he owed them, saying that PMAU had changed over the years.  Not surprisingly, L rejected this offer, and the member returned and the hearing continued.

At the end of the hearing, the decision was that PMAU repay L all the money he had paid ($1,317.80), and a declaration was made that no money is owing by L to PMAU ($3,030 or any other sum).

Given that the decision itself is brief, I do not want to attempt to assume how the Member  came to the decision.   However, I have outlined a number of the issues that were raised and/or considered during the hearing, as well as some that were not.   While I have had help from a lawyer in writing this up and hope it may help others, it is not legal advice.

What were the issues?

The following is my understanding of the issues arising from the PMAU contract and conduct. There is no record of the full contract and no written reasons for the VCAT decision.
•  The terms of the contract were solely the content of the telephone conversation. This did not appear to be disputed by PMAU, although they (unsuccessfully) argued that the 90 day guarantee terms should apply. It is difficult to see how written terms and conditions could apply when those terms and conditions weren’t provided to, or brought to the attention of the customer.
• There were two telephone conversations, but PM only had a recording of part of the second call.
• The member initially appeared to focus on establishing the terms of the contract, what PMAU promised to provide, and whether PMAU could prove that their services had achieved what PMAU had claimed.
• While L didn’t need to make this point, the use of the term “google places” in a verbal agreement was understood by him to simply mean that his business’ website would be high in results from a google search. This would be a reasonable assumption by many customers who were unaware of  what “Google Places” means (a ‘service’ which businesses can sign up to at no cost, and has nothing, or little, to do with the business’ own website).  This shows the problem of having a verbal contract when dealing with complex products, but L believed that what he thought he had agreed to on the phone was very different from what PMAU were providing.
• The recording showed that PMAU said the business would be kept in the top 7 for 12 months (or something similar). While PMAU pointed out the “congratulations you’re in top 7” emails, these only showed that the business was in top 7 on that day.
• The recording also showed that L had stressed that the search term that was most important to his business was “window cleaning Mornington Peninsula”.
• “Window cleaning Mornington Peninsula” was not one of the terms that PMAU tried to get high results for. The search terms used by PMAU (including to show the business was in the ‘top 7’) were very narrow terms such as “gutter cleaning McCrae”. While L had told PMAU the on the phone that he did clean gutters if requested, this was not his main business, and the small suburb of McCrae is the source of less than 5% of his business (it’s not surprising that L’s business would rank highly with this narrow search term which is probably rarely used by potential customers).
• Even if L hadn’t asked for that search phrase, emails from PMAU say that “key phrase research has begun to make sure we have optimised for the best key phrases possible”. It is pretty clear from the search phrases they used for L’s business (most of them not even mentioning his main service -window cleaning) that the phrases weren’t optimised to be “best” for L’s business.
• When it was suggested that PMAU could not show that their services had provided the promised results, PMAU argued that L wasn’t entitled to any money back due to the terms of their 90 day money back guarantee. I understand that the VCAT member said that if PMAU didn’t achieve what it said it would, then the purchaser had rights under the Australian Consumer Law regardless of any limitations in the wording of a guarantee.
• According to the Australian Consumer Law services must be fit for the purpose or give the results that you and the business had agreed to. This applies to all purchases for less than $40,000 regardless of whether the purchaser is a business or consumer.
• PMAU said that L had agreed on the phone to automatically renew the contract. They said they didn’t have any legal obligation to remind L of the impending renewal, but said they did send an email as a courtesy. The email said “Renewal for [business name] is due in 14 days. To make sure that your listing is not suspended and is removed from the front page, make sure your account details are all up to date or log in to make sure”.
• While PMAU tried to argue they had no obligation to send a reminder about renewal, I understand that the VCAT Member found the renewal notice was misleading. I believe this was because the email didn’t say anything to warn the customer about a cost being incurred if the customer didn’t take any action, and by mentioning other consequences of taking no action, it may have misled the customer about the full consequences.

More than two months after the hearing, Publicity Monster has not paid L. any of the $1317.80. He wrote to the CEO of Invigor, Gary Cohen, to ask him to follow up this unpaid judgment. However, he has since been made aware that Invigor does not currently have any interest in, or control over, Publicity Monster. (updated 10 Sep 14)

About 6 months after the VCAT order was made, Luke recently received full payment, in addition an amount to cover the legal costs outlayed to enforce the order.  (updated 8 Feb 15)

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22 Responses to Publicity Monster customers get more than they bargain for

  1. jansen says:

    did he get his money yet?

  2. carolynbond says:

    I will amend my post when/if he recevies the momey.

  3. Kristi says:

    I’m in the same boat, they are so dodgy. I have been trying to cancel, hopefully this time they will cancel, now that I’ve mentioned The Dept Of Fair Trading….

    • Rebecca says:

      Hi Kristi,

      You can advise them of Fair Trade but they do not care, I threatened them with Fair Trade and they had said they will wait for Fair Trade to contact them and we never heard back from them.

  4. Chrissy says:

    Well I have had their recent yearly renewal credited back to my c/card, thank goodness my bank saw sense. Now PM/PL/SR (pub mons/prem Locals/Search results)have called and sent text messages demanding me to pay or else**. Yesterday they even called my partners ex-wifes business asking for me ????? They are now crossing the line in my books

  5. Qingju Wang says:

    I have exactly the same experience. they have trying hard to blackmail me for the auto renewal thing over the last 2 years. By reading your report, I have more confidence to have a fight.

  6. Haley Richardson says:

    Oh My it seems we are all in the same boat! I have been trying to resolve things with PM (or as they are now known as Search Results) since 2012! There have been numerous emails, calls and extensive effort on my behalf to resolve things for them. I had 2 x business with SEO and Adwords with them, they both promised SEO for eau company which they did not deliver. They have sent me threatening letters, calls, of which I replied to saying “take me to court” 9months would pass and then a call from them stating I owed the money. It has been a futile effort. The ACCC were looking into them and said I had a strong case. As of today the head of accounts called me and mad me an offer to pay them $500 only (mind you they originally claimed I owed over $4K!) but the offer would only be on the table if i paid it by Cob today! again bullying tactics and they have never provided the phone recording to me, rather a generic copy of their terms and conditions. Which states that if the policy isn;t cancelled prior to automatic renewal then $100 fee applies.

    I was in dispute with them 3months prior to the automatic renewal! I have a thread of emails attempting to resolve issues with them, they never alerted me to a renewal reminder nor did they send me a courtesy email that this would happen. moreover they continued to fob me off, and then renewed my contract without my consent.

    I morally don’t owe them one cent, they are bullying me with the threat of “blacklisting” our business’ if i don’t pay – a part of me wants this finished once and for all and so I feel like they broken me down to the point that I just want to be pay it to never hear from them again! Then there is the other part of me which screams at this injustice, and the deceitful company conduct of their business.

    If we operated our business like this we would be broke- yet I’m at a loss as to how they keep going? Name changes and trust and different company guises seem the way these snakes hide. Beware of using them, do not trust them and stay away from anything associated with these people.

  7. Marie Koris says:

    How can I forget my dealings with Publicity Monster. I initially paid a large sum of money to have my business priority listed – as they put it, the process was never completed due to their incompetence. Despite numerous requests for a refund as no service was ever provided, it didn’t happen. After not providing any service, for payment received, they then tried to debit my account for a second time, even though I had cancelled the contract. The new account was then handed to a debit collecting agency who harassed me for about two years, despite being told of the unprofessional conduct of Publicity Monster or what ever name they now trade under.

  8. Haley Richardson says:

    Marie, you relay the same issues I had and are continuing to have. Although it is just under 3 years and they are started harassing me again since last week. The bill started at $4200 last week and is now at $8200 and their offer of “just pay us $500 and it will all go away” is being waved at me like a gesture of good faith! I feel we need to ban together here and stop them from operating in this manner. I spoke with both fair trading and the ACCC last year and they were closely watching them and had over a hundred cases on file with them; yet despite their efforts with tribunal hearings PM seem to have a name change to “Search results” and continue on! I am wits end with dealing with this, however with each altercation with them, I become more determined to stop them from doing this to other businesses. What to do?

    • carolynbond says:

      I agree is quite amazing that a business can operate in this way for this long. While it is not a solution to the bigger problem, it is probably best for individuals with a dispute to issue proceedings in the small claims tribunal in their state. I am planning a post very shortly that will include an example of how you might present such a case to a tribunal.

      • Haley Richardson says:

        I agree, however it seems the small claims outcomes are futile with this company? As its clear they don’t respond to the outcomes of the proceedings? as per above. The ACCC whilst interested in them seem to be a bit of a toothless tiger in instilling any long term proceedings against them? Having said that I am interested in your thoughts of proceeding 🙂

  9. Tim says:

    To think such a business can operate in Australia is a worry. The ACCC have been pathetic in allowing these people continue to steal and harass Australian Small Businesses. I have to becareful as they have previously threatened me with a defamatory case, however I would be happy to meet with anyone in person and work together to bring Search Results to justice.

    • Mr Blob. says:

      Hello Tim,
      I’d be interested in hearing from you.
      I’ve just had some success in dealing with search results – and I’d like to think it may have started something but I’m not holding high hopes.
      I’m currently considering the possibility of litigation and possibly a class action.
      I’m also considering Current Affair.
      I’d like to hear your thoughts.
      I’d also like to hear from the Author as to what action might be taken against these people as they blatantly break the law but there’s nobody to keep them in check or make them answer.

  10. Kelly hogan says:

    Thank you for everybody responses we are getting quite stressed but after reading this I’m not caving and paying these people a cent it’s been nearly 3 years of harassment for us and now there contacting people from our Facebook account it’s such a breech of privacy are people stihaving problems

  11. Michael Golsby says:

    This company is a joke. I cancelled it the same day as I was not well and they sucked me in. I did not pay them luckily. They now want money for a service that never happened and are adding a late fee. These people are absolute grubs. They will not get a cent from me. They certainly are Monsters!

  12. Helen says:

    I’m glad to read that I am not the only person to be harassed by these people. My husband and I recently took over a small business which we weren’t aware had an agreement with search results that was apparently started in 2012. They are claiming the agreement was up for renewal again in May 2015 and have now started harassing me with phone calls demanding $1870 for renewal. I don’t understand that it is now July 2015 and I hadn’t been contacted prior to now regarding the payment. I did not receive the renewal notice ( they claim that it was definitely emailed to me and it’s not their problem that I did not get it) they told me that if the money was not paid by COB on the day they would be adding 25% extra on the bill ( around $450 more) and that we would then be put into a debt collection agency and we would be responsible for the costs.
    I have stupidly paid the $1870, I am now kicking myself that I have – not sure where to go from here? Can anyone offer me some advice on where to go from here? Whom do I go to to make a complaint about these people? We are in Tassie. I plan to call department of consumer affairs and fair trading here in Tassie but is there any other department I should contact?
    I have emailed search results and asked them for a copy of the agreement, don’t like my chance!
    I stupidly paid the money because I was concerned that the amount payable might eventually blow into an astronomical amount which a small business like ours would find hard to wear.
    Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    • Chrissy says:

      Helen, I would just ignore them because the agreement was between the prior owner and PM. It was the prior owner who made the voice recording and the original agreement. It would be up to PM to realise that there are new owner etc. If it was not stipulated in your purchase with prior owners to take over this debt (which it shouldn’t as PM would need to re-write the contract) and PM don’t have any bank details of yours then they are just contacting you because you have taken over the same business name. Just ignore them they will make heaps of threats etc but they will not follow anything through because they are gutless wonders. They use scare tactics and I have no idea why the powers that be haven’t shut them down….again.
      I have copied this from their T&C’s –
      ASSIGNMENT
      Neither party may assign or transfer its rights or obligations without the written consent of the other.

    • carolynbond says:

      Helen, I have sent you an email

  13. Helen says:

    Thanks for your response Chrissy. Unfortunately like I said I have stupidly paid the $1870 – I now kick myself for doing so. Should I point out the clause in their T&C’s and ask for my money back?
    I am sure in the agreement of sale terms when we purchased the business it did say that we were liable to honour any previous contracts. Is it worth making a complaint to Fair trading or am I just wasting my time? I definitely did not recieve a renewal notice for the agreement.
    I have asked for a copy of the agreement to be sent to me, and am awaiting a response from them.

  14. Chrissy says:

    Helen, Can your bank get a refund? Did you use your credit card?? Try that it is worth a chance. Don’t expect PM or who ever they want to call themselves to give you the money back they wont and you will be wasting yr time , energy and stressing your self out. Unfortunately I paid out the first amount also (actually twice I think) Stupidly didn’t realise Search results were in fact PM and paid them as they said they were from Telstra I told them how I was ripped off by PM and of course they wouldn’t do that !! It was only when they hit my c/card for the renewal I managed to stop them taking further monies but I had to put in a fraud case with my bank oh looong story – but hey I have survived I think

  15. Helen says:

    No I didn’t use my credit card, they asked me several times for the number but wasn’t prepared to give it to them. I paid using EFT – probably would’ve been better if I had used card by the sounds of it. I had an inkling of what might happen if I did give them card details and I am now glad I trusted my gut feeling.

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