By:  Nadeen Hayden, Attorney

When it comes to confronting online defamation, extortion, and sextortion, filing a lawsuit to obtain relief is not always right for you and your legal situation.

Maybe your specific situation requires expediency to prevent an ensuing fake online review or cyberstalking, or maybe filing a lawsuit is outside of your budget. Depending on the type of online attack you are facing and the party behind it, sending a cease and desist letter may be the most logical, economical, and efficient starting point for resolving your issue.

So, are cease and desist letters effective tools for resolving online defamation and extortion?

The short answer is yes, but sometimes. A cease and desist letter may be an appropriate tool for resolving online defamation and extortion when you know the identity of the party behind it.

Four situations where sending a cease and desist letter may be appropriate include:

  • Defamatory and fake online posts, malicious comments, or baseless accusations by a known party
  • Online extortion or sextortion perpetrated by a known party
  • Negative business reviews posted by an identifiable client or customer
  • Misappropriation or misuse of one’s personal or business identity by a known party

Although sending a cease and desist letter may be a more effective and “quicker” solution than filing a lawsuit, it is important to understand that there is still considerable effort expended and expertise required to draft an effective cease and desist letter. Working with an experienced internet defamation and privacy attorney is essential to effectively address your specific issue and maximize the effectiveness of the letter.

Below, we are going to walk you through:

  • Four situations where sending a cease and desist letter may be appropriate,
  • Pros and cons of sending a cease and desist letter, and
  • What you should do before sending a cease and desist letter

Four Situations Where Sending a Cease & Desist Letter May Be Appropriate

Cease and desist letters are cautionary correspondence sent to a person or entity demanding they stop (“cease”) potentially unlawful, unethical, or otherwise objectionable behavior, and refrain from continuing (“desist”) said behavior in the future, otherwise legal action may be taken. While cease and desist letters are not always a solution to stop defamatory attacks and other unlawful activity, they do have a place and time and can be extremely effective when drafted by an experienced professional.

It is essential to reach out to an experienced internet attorney to help you decide whether a cease and desist letter is appropriate for your situation.

Below are several situations where sending a cease and desist letter can potentially resolve your online defamation, internet extortion, or sextortion issue. Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list of all situations where sending a cease and desist letter can be effective, and that the pros and cons of sending a cease and desist letter should be heavily weighed before doing so.

You Know the Party You Are Trying to Reach

A cease and desist letter is an effective tool for resolving online defamation, extortion, sextortion, internet harassment, and online blackmail when you know the identity of the party you are trying to reach.

This is crucial.

Sending a letter to someone who you merely suspect is responsible for the unlawful behavior in question is inadvisable and can lead to you making wrongful accusations and causing backlash. Moreover, blindly sending a cease and desist letter to an unidentified party is not going to have the same effect of the real confrontation you can have when you know someone’s actual identity. When you are able to pinpoint and address the exact person behind defamatory online posts and comments, you eliminate any false sense of confidence and “immunity” that comes with anonymity.

To be the most effective, you want to be able to personalize an authoritative cease and desist letter; describing the actionable behavior in detail and the potential consequences of that behavior.

1. Sending a Cease & Desist to Stop Online Defamation

Online defamation refers to a false statement that is published to a third-party on the Internet, and subsequently causes damage to another person or entity’s reputation. At Minc Law, five of the most common online defamation cases we deal with include:

  • False posts on infidelity, dating, and shaming websites
  • False posts and attacks on social media websites
  • Fake reports and comments on gossip websites
  • Fake reviews on business review platforms
  • Scam reports on consumer advocacy websites
  • Damaging posts and comments on message boards and forums

Sending a cease and desist letter may be appropriate in all of the above situations when you know the perpetrating party’s identity.

Anonymous online users and posters embrace their anonymity and recognize that extensive investigatory hoops often need to be jumped through in order to unmask them. Anonymous internet posters and anonymous online speech both enjoy broad protections under the First Amendment, making the unmasking of an anonymous defamer, extortionist, or troll no easy task.

2. Online Extortion & Sextortion

Online extortion and sextortion refer to the acts and practices whereby a party seeks to procure money, property, or services (sometimes sexual) from an individual by way of coercion. A common situation we at Minc Law handle, involves a client who meets someone online, sends them intimate photographs, or other personal and private material, and then that person threatens to expose them. The extortionist threatens to publish or release the intimate photographs to friends, family, or even an employer unless they receive more money, sexual services, etc.

Much like the case of online defamation, it is important to know who you are dealing with.  If someone is trying to extort you for money, property, or services, there is potential that they have provided some type of identifying information in the course of their communications with you. Identifying information intentionally or unintentionally provided by an extortionist may include:

  • Email addresses,
  • Bank account numbers,
  • Telephone numbers,
  • Skype and other messenger IDs,
  • Online wallet IDs.

Sometimes, this personal information can be “reverse-engineered” by you or an experienced internet attorney to uncover the identity of the perpetrating party. But we do not recommend tackling this alone, as this could ultimately worsen the situation and cause malicious threats and attacks to escalate. Experienced internet defamation attorneys possess an arsenal of investigatory tools to effectively reverse-engineer an attacker’s online data to unmask them.

3. Unauthorized Release of Private Information or Misappropriation of Likeness

The unauthorized release of private information and misappropriation of your identity can occur simultaneously with both extortion and sextortion. Misappropriation of likeness refers to a third-party’s unauthorized use of someone’s identity (or attributes of it) for a commercial or non-commercial benefit, resulting in injury. For example, a perpetrator may gain access to you or your business’s online profile and information and then subsequently use it for an exploitative purpose, such as:

  • Extortion and sextortion
  • Intellectual property theft
  • Identity theft
  • Commercial use of one’s likeness or identity

Sometimes a perpetrator may gain access to your personal information or photographs through non-invasive means.

Sending a cease and desist letter may be an appropriate solution to resolve situations where a party has gained access, by an invasive or non-invasive means, to your private information, or misappropriated your likeness (for commercial or non-commercial benefit).

4. Negative Business Reviews By an Identifiable Client or Customer

An influx of negative and fake online reviews (ex. fake Google reviews) about your business can have devastating effects on your business’s ability to operate and its overall bottom line. Now that an estimated 86% of all consumers read online reviews for local businesses before deciding whether to engage with them, it is critical that you take action to remediate negative reviews as soon as possible.

If an online reviewer posts a negative or fake review under a profile with their actual name, email address, or other identifying information, you can use that personal information to identify them for your cease and desist letter. But oftentimes an online reviewer may post a negative review under a fictitious name or special moniker. So, how can you then identify them?

You can consult your business records to see if a verifiable transaction matches the review’s description. Be mindful that this can backfire if you are mistaken and incidentally accuse the wrong party of having written the review. Again, you should always consult with an experienced internet attorney to explore your options on how to best remove fake online business reviews.

Pros & Cons of Cease & Desist Letters

Pros Cons
Sending a cease and desist letter can potentially save money. Sending a cease and desist letter may lead to the ‘Streisand Effect’
Sending a cease and desist letter can potentially bypass the lengthy, costly, and stressful litigation process Cease and desist letters may be ignored
Sending a cease and desist letter can be effective even when you do not have a strong legal claim (or any legal claim at all) Sending a cease and desist letter could expose any weak claims you are alleging.
Sending a cease and desist letter can save time and achieve results in a timelier manner. Sending a cease and desist letter could expose any frivolous claims you are alleging.

Cease & Desist Letter Pros

Cease and desist letters can serve as a very serious warning to a perpetrating party that you may take legal action against them if they do not stop their unlawful activity.

Cease and desist letters can be an effective first line of offense to resolve your legal issue when you are hoping to avoid litigation. An experienced attorney can send effectively composed letters on your behalf much quicker than they could file a lawsuit and for far less money.

Not only can sending a cease and desist save a significant amount of time and money, but it can also save you the emotional stress of the lengthy litigation process.

Sending a cease and desist letter may also accomplish your desired goal when you do not have a strong legal claim or any legal claim at all. Depending on your situation, there is a chance that your claim would not survive when brought before a court. Rather than spending money on a lawsuit to find out just how strong or weak your claim is, sending a cease and desist letter can be an effective way to resolve your matter.

Cease & Desist Letter Cons

Probably one of the more serious potential consequences of a cease and desist letter is the incidental causation of the ‘Streisand Effect’. The Streisand Effect refers to a 2003 attempt by Barbra Streisand to suppress online photos of her beachfront Malibu residence by suing the photographer who took the photos and the website where they were published.

Unbeknownst to Streisand and both her attorneys, the photographs of her home had only been viewed six times (two times by her attorneys) before the filing of her lawsuit. Her lawsuit and attempted suppression of the photographs ultimately received national attention and became a viral sensation online, garnering more than 420,000 views – accomplishing the exact opposite of what she sought out to do.

Simply put, sending a cease and desist letter can have unintended consequences and turn your small (or non-existent) issue into a much larger one. There is always a risk that a bad situation could become worse.

For example, the legal harm felt by you or your business from a fake online review might be classified as a ‘4’ on the harm scale. But after sending a cease and desist to a perpetrator, this could anger them and cause the increased spread of negative information about your business. That ‘4’ has now escalated to an ‘8’, ‘9’ or ‘10’ on the harm scale. While that ‘4’ on the harm scale may not have actually posed a serious threat to your business’s reputation, a ‘9’ is more likely to carry serious consequences for your business.

When sending a cease and desist letter, it is crucial that you use emotional intelligence to determine whether sending one will accomplish your intended goal or backfire and draw increased attention to your issue. If you are unsure of whether sending a cease and desist letter is right for your issue, or want to weigh the pros and cons of sending one, we recommend reaching out to an experienced defamation attorney as soon as possible.

When you have no real legal claims, sending a cease and desist letter may increase the likelihood that the Streisand Effect will occur, or that your cease and desist will be ignored by the recipient. Sending a cease and desist letter with “no teeth” or substance to it can ultimately create more problems and draw more unwanted attention to your issue.

Because cease and desist letters are not legally binding, there is a probability that your demand goes ignored and does not accomplish its goal. Do not send a cease and desist without seriously weighing the potential risks and benefits of doing so.

Things to Do Before Sending a Cease & Desist Letter

Before you send a cease and desist letter, keep these three tips in mind:

  • Hire an experienced attorney that specializes in your particular legal issue
  • Make sure your cease and desist letter is tailored to your specific situation
  • Do not use a generic cease and desist letter template

Not all cease and desist letters are created equal. Cease and desist letters must be uniquely tailored to your legal situation and issue, otherwise they may be dismissed by the perpetrating party without much afterthought.

For example, sending a one-paragraph cease and desist letter written by you or an attorney not specializing in your particular type of legal issue that merely warns a party to “stop or else,” will rarely be effective at achieving your desired results.

On the other hand, sending a cease and desist letter written by an experienced attorney who understands all of your potential legal claims, rights, and options for relief stands to be taken far more seriously. Working with an experienced internet attorney for your online defamation, privacy, or extortion issue also shows the perpetrating party that you may be contemplating litigation, should they fail to honor your written demand.

Drafting a cease and desist letter yourself can often make your legal issue worse and cause the further spread of defamatory attacks (and reviews) or increased online threats and attacks. At Minc Law, we recommend that you hire an attorney who has dealt with your issue time in and time out.

Experienced internet defamation attorneys know how to effectively frame a cease and desist letter to maximize your chances of success, explain your rights, and provide legal guidance on your next steps should you need to proceed further.

Are you being defamed online? We will get it removed. Contact Minc Law today!

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