ONLINE DIVORCE CODE OF ETHICS – HELPFUL DEFINITIONS
There are two definitions we’d like you to keep in mind as you consider our online divorce code of ethics below.
FRAUD consists of some deceitful practice or willful device, resorted to with intent to deprive another of his right, or in some manner to do him an injury. As distinguished from negligence, it is always positive, intentional. Fraud, as applied to contracts, is the cause of an error bearing on a material part of the contract, created or continued by artifice, with design to obtain some unjust advantage to the one party, or to cause an inconvenience or loss to the other. Fraud … properly includes all acts, omissions, and concealments which involve a breach of legal or equitable duty, trust, or confidence justly reposed, and are injurious to another, or by which an undue and unconscientious advantage is taken of another.
In cases of fraud, the defendant is being accused of tricking a person … into believing that something has a certain value when that defendant knows or should know that the item’s value is actually much less. – Black’s Law Dictionary
WILD WEST MENTALITY is a mentality that favor or creates: A place or situation in which disorderly behavior prevails, especially due to a lack of regulatory oversight or an inadequate legal system. – Wiktionary
Don’t allow yourself, your firm or company or any of your company’s staff to commit fraud, as defined above, against your clients or potential clients before or during the term of your contract for services with them.
Don’t make any false or misleading communication, whether written or spoken, about your services. A communication is false or misleading if it contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading.
Don’t use any proxy entries in the registration of your website’s domain name so that some other entity appears to be the owner of your website when it is not. That’s a deceptive business practice.
In the online divorce profession, we all use the protection of the corporate veil, which provides sufficient privacy and personal safety. What valid honest purpose is there to preventing your clients from knowing what company owns and/or controls your website?
Use your corporate or personal name in your member website domain registrations.
It is so much of a common and expected business practice to display a phone number on any website offering a service within the United States that some reasonably acting consumers may not notice that you do not display a phone number. It is so unusual not to have a phone number displayed on any business website that consumers may reasonably assume that a phone number is displayed when it is not. That is a deceptive business practice, given common convention.
What valid business or professional purpose is accomplished by not having a phone number on your website that offers personal services that routinely require communications between the professional and the consumer? The existence of email and live chat communications does not render telephone communications unnecessary in a professional environment.
State all possible pricing on your website, either on any landing page or within one click or tap of any landing page. Pricing includes any possible installment payments, additional fees for “premium” levels of service, additional fees for add-on services, or any possible additional fees for any purpose.
There is nothing unethical about making available or even actively up-selling additional non-basic services or levels of service providing that all such possible additional pricing is disclosed to the potential client, or is made readily available for the potential client to see within a non-deceptive website structure. Pricing pages or additional service pages should be labeled clearly as such in your website’s menu structure.
For example, don’t announce an “expedition fee” to a client after the hiring event if the timing of your delivery is not as promised unless that “expedition fee” was clearly disclosed and described as such to your client before the hiring event.
If you have a financial relationship with other professionals under which relationship those professionals offer their additional professional services to your clients after your hiring event, that paid relationship must be disclosed clearly to your potential clients before your hiring event. Your potential client has a reasonable right to know if you have any conflicted economic interests in his or her case moving in a certain direction or not moving in a certain direction.
An example would be when you have a separate business relationship with professional mediators and/or lawyers who have subscribed to a paid service offered to them by you and under which subscription you are paid, directly or indirectly, if something happens, or does not happen, in your client’s case to cause such additional professional services to become necessary. All you have to do to create a well-informed client, which is so often the standard within this code, is to place a clearly visible statement adjacent to the website location where such up-sold services are disclosed to your potential client before the hiring event, such as, “Please be aware that we have a paid interest in your hiring of mediators/lawyers to provide you additional services.”
Generally, price anchoring is a sales technique in which the salesperson introduces into the mind of the consumer a very high price for a product or service the salesperson knows, or ought to know, is not needed by the consumer and/or is not applicable to the consumer’s situation. At that point in the technique, the salesperson will contrast his inflated price for a different product or service that is more appropriate to the consumer’s needs. The intended result is that the consumer will be more inclined to purchase what is offered at an inflated price, compared to other prices that are available in the market for the same or better product or service just because the inflated price is so much lower than the very high price that was never a possibility for that consumer.
The reason price anchoring is fraudulent is that the very high price introduced first does not apply to the consumer’s needs or wants as known to the salesperson. The comparison is not only between “apples and oranges,” but the salesperson knows, or ought to know, that the consumer is seeking an apple, not an orange – or vice versa.
In online divorce, the most common and seemingly built-in fraud of the price anchoring variety quotes to the consumer first a very high and completely inappropriate “fantasy” fee of perhaps $1500-$3500 or even more that would legitimately be charged by a practicing lawyer for a divorce case that is either contested, complex in its nature or involve very high marital assets, thereby justifying higher legal fees to protect. The fraud is that if the consumer had a contested, complex or very high asset marital estate, s/he would not be speaking to an online divorce provider, or at the very least, should not be and should properly be warned by the online divorce provider, if not referred directly to a lawyer. The online divorce provider is taken to know this by virtue of his professional position and experience. Yet he purposefully continues to price anchor on a very high inapplicable fee that simply does not apply to the situation at hand. Nor is the inapplicability explained to the consumer. Then the trap is sprung by the introduction of the online divorce con-man’s inflated price for the actual service known to be applicable to the consumer.
The ethical alternative to online divorce price anchoring is to compare one’s fees to the fees of competitors who provide a similar service.
Consumers indicate that they favor and rely heavily upon online testimonials by other consumers. Accordingly, any testimonial fraud you commit is significant because of its likely greater damage done in denying the consumer the ability to make his or her own choices about the hiring event.
There is nothing unethical about displaying on your website unconfirmed or third-party uncertified client testimonials, even very old ones, providing you do not also misrepresent such testimonials. For example, don’t represent them as being newer than they are. Consumers may look at and assess the likelihood that any such un-certified testimonials are legitimate.
However, don’t display client testimonials that are obviously bogus. For example, don’t use testimonials from alleged individuals who have also provided alleged testimonials for other websites too. This may occur when you pay con-men to produce “white label” online divorce websites for you because your English is not very good because you are in India or China, and those con-men plug in the same bogus testimonials, such as from individuals named “Michael Brown” and “Anastia,” they have been using on all of their websites for years. These are not real testimonials, and you know that. Your use of them is completely fraudulent, whether other con-men inserted them or not.
Don’t use self-owned or controlled bogus testimonial websites that purport to be independent testimonial aggregators when your website(s) are the only “customers” of the bogus testimonial website and you write your own testimonials to cheat consumers into thinking that your service is better than it is by virtue of many alleged positive testimonials.
ODAA considers this fraud the basest and most despicable in terms of the damage it does to consumers.
Don’t use the third-party testimonial services offered by companies like TrustPilot and eKomi that enable you to ask your clients for testimonials or reviews just minutes after they have hired you and well before they have seen any value from your online divorce service. The only purpose in doing so, as the client does not yet know the value of your service, is to defraud future consumers into thinking that such aggregated testimonials regarding an incomplete service are in fact based on a complete service when they are not. You are representing such testimonials as being much more valuable than they are in fact. That is fraud.
Additionally, don’t ask your clients for testimonials until after you have completed the service for which they have paid. How would your clients know the value of your service until it is finished? Requesting premature testimonials raises the possibility in the mind of the reasonable consumer that because you are still handling the consumer’s online divorce case, s/he is being compelled or extorted to provide not only a testimonial, when s/he might not have done so until the end of the case, but also that s/he must provide a positive testimonial, whether based on truth or not, to avoid the possibility that you will harm their case in some way as a “punishment” for failing to provide a testimonial/review or a positive one. It is unethical for you to create even a potential or an appearance of a conflict of interest in the mind of your client.
If you display social icons anywhere on your website(s), such as those that purport to link to your FaceBook, Twitter, Google+ or LinkedIn pages, hook them up to the appropriate social media service and page. Otherwise, don’t display social icons.
Consumers look for the display of social icons to engender trust and reliability in communications with you and in your social acceptability by others. Often they will not test those social icons to see if they are hooked up properly to the service(s) depicted by the icon(s) displayed. If you don’t hook up your social icons, you are misleading consumers into thinking that you are connected to those social services, which consumers reasonably consider a benefit, when you are not. That is fraud.
While divorce is essentially a state-level process, many of the 3000+ counties in the United States have mandatory local county forms for use in divorces filed in their counties. You know that. Consumers do not. Don’t take advantage of consumers’ known and reasonable lack of specialist knowledge.
Don’t mislead consumers on the value of your service by stating that your service includes, as an example only, “All State Approved Forms,” as though such a statement is an actual benefit to the consumer, when you know that consumers will need local county forms as well and that your service will not provide them. While such a statement as, “All state forms included,” is literally true, it is known by you to be an incomplete statement that is thereby misleading. You are tricking consumers into believing that your service is more valuable than it is.
State on your website’s top page in clear and prominent terms whether your service will include preparation of “State Forms Only – No Local or County Forms Prepared” or “State and Local County Forms Included.”
If you charge more for local county forms, tell the consumer that clearly on your top page or on a clearly marked menu page no more than one click or tap from any landing page what that extra cost will be – if local county forms are needed.
Consumers reasonably want to know the name of the company they are paying. Why would any honest online divorce company not even want its own paying clients to know the name of the company that owns the website?
Display the name of your company prominently on any landing page of your website, e.g. in the copyright section of the footer.
If your website displays any kind of badge, seal, graphic, image or icon that is intended to engender a belief by the consumer in your business’ increased reliability, security or value as a consequence of that badge and/or the service or social proof provided you by the badge issuer, hook up each such badge as a clickable link to the intended third party website and appropriate web page so that the divorce consumer can click through to that third party website in order to confirm the increased value, reliability or security claimed by displaying the badge.
A non-exhaustive list of examples of such a badge would include those provided by third parties such as the Better Business Bureau, Business Consumer Alliance, eKomi, TrustPilot, some other legitimate testimonial aggregator, a newspaper, media outlet or TV logo, an SSL certificate issuer or some other type of security scanning service such as that provided by Norton or McAfee.
If you display such a badge on your website, you do it for a reason. The obvious reason is that you intend that your business will receive the benefit of increased consideration by consumers who see your display of that badge and rely upon what that display reasonable means to them. Don’t commit fraud by displaying such badges on your website when you don’t have authorization to do so from the badge issuer or when there is absolutely no substantive reason for you to display the badge. A developing example of the latter is the display of TV network logos that are not hooked up as a link to any web location because your business has no connection whatsoever to said TV network. If you will say that said network featured a story about online divorce in 2008, how would that provide consumers with any additional information about your website or service? There is no connection. Displaying said logo is fraudulent.
Don’t collect your potential client’s email address before the hiring event, such as allegedly as part of a “qualification” process to use your service. The consumer’s email address has no potential connection to any such qualification factor. If you’re collecting consumers’ email addresses just because they are getting a divorce and happen to be on your website, the most likely purpose is to spam the consumer for your online divorce service or for other related services. This is not only an unfair waste of consumers’ time, but also it is fraudulent. You are telling consumers that you are collecting their email addresses for qualification or some other purpose, when you are not.
As in so many other areas of this code of ethics, the standard is the “well-informed client.” Accordingly, this prohibition does not apply if
You provide something of value, e.g. a white paper, a newsletter (which must exist), etc., in exchange for the email address and about which the consumer is clearly advised.
You advise the consumer adjacent to the location where the email address is collected that s/he will receive your solicitation emails or sales emails from related companies or companies to whom you sell or trade their email addresses, and the consumer opts in.
As you are taken to know this, don’t collect any consumer’s email address, without providing some value in exchange, before the hiring event.
Consumers state that they rely heavily on independent third party reviews online. The key word is “independent.” Any fraudulent use of self-owned or controlled online divorce review websites that recommend your own online divorce website without your website having earned the recommendation in legitimate competitive comparisons made by an independent entity is one of the most despicable frauds in the online divorce profession. If this can be proved in relation to any website, that website will never be eligible for ODAA membership.
Don’t make claims such as, “100% guarantee of court approval.” That is an unclear claim. A consumer may think reasonably that you are claiming that everything she wants in her divorce case is guaranteed by you to be ordered by the court. No one can make that guarantee. It is unethical to make that claim or a claim which you know may be interpreted reasonably by a lay consumer to be that claim.
Instead, claim something like this, if appropriate: “All prepared documents are guaranteed to be acceptable for filing at your local court.”
If you lie about the age of your website, you do so to enhance the value of your service, in terms of experience and reliability, in the mind of the consumer. You are representing that your business is more experienced than it is, when you know experience is a major factor consumers consider. That’s fraud.
For example, don’t tell consumers, “Since 2005, our website has been….,” when your current domain name was first created on February 19, 2014. If you or your company had other websites before 2014, in this example, say so. Tell consumers what those websites were called so that they can check up on them.