AN OPEN LETTER TO THE ONLINE DIVORCE SERVICE PROFESSION
Rarely in the history of the internet has there been such a contrast between the commercial potential of an online business vertical and the pervasive fraud to be found within it. Online divorce con-men have become the “used car salesmen” of the internet. They operate on the basis that any deception that tricks a divorce consumer into hiring them is not only acceptable but also good business practice.
The many deceptions perpetrated by online divorce con-men harm the consumer by cheating him or her of the ability to make his or her own online divorce hiring choice. Additionally, the con-men cheat every honest online divorce provider by denying us the ability to compete on a level playing field for the business of that defrauded consumer.
I have watched closely in 2015-2016, and I can see no diminution in the number of these con-men or their scams. And why would online divorce con-men reduce their fraud? It pays! How often will defrauded clients going through a divorce have the time or energy to file complaints with legal authorities against online divorce con-men? The potential risk to the con-men is so small that they are actually increasing the number of their scams and thereby “winning” even more business. Our industry is literally a race to the bottom of the ethics barrel. The con-men operate outside of any code of ethics because they don’t have to operate within a code of ethics. There is no code of ethics. There are lower costs to fraud than to honesty. It is my personal intent, through ODAA, that those costs will now invert.
If you or your corporation own a website which offers online divorce document preparation services to consumers resident anywhere in the United States, you are invited to join the Online Divorce Association of America (ODAA) and to subscribe to its Code of Ethics. Online divorce con-men will know who they are. You are not eligible for membership and no invitation is made to you.
Please understand that lawyer and law firm websites that offer online divorce service are not eligible for ODAA membership. Lawyers already have a strong professional association that enforces a well-developed code of ethics. There would be little value to be obtained by a lawyer from ODAA membership.We at ODAA are trying to emulate lawyers’ professional associations. Please note that lawyers are generally unregulated by governments because of their strong self-regulation.
My name is Peter O’Hanlon. I am the founder and CEO of NetDivorce, the premier online divorce service provider specializing in uncontested California divorce. I’ve been a barrister in my native UK since 1976. I’ve practiced criminal law in the UK and international business law for many years from my base in California. I pioneered divorce-by-mail in California through my company, California Legal Assistance Centers, starting in June 1981. I wrote the world’s first complete divorce software package (for California divorce) in 1983-4. In a joint venture, I put up the world’s first functioning online divorce service at divorceweb.com in March 1999. I own and operate the continent-wide 1-800-DIVORCE network of independent family lawyers.
In 2012, after I had completed the most recent major upgrade of my California divorce software for NetDivorce, I took a closer look at the national online divorce service industry as a whole – with a view to using that divorce software engine to expand into states other than California. I was dismayed by what I describe above. Ed West, my colleague at NetDivorce, wrote here, here and most significantly here about just a few of the frauds we discovered at that time. However, those frauds now seem trivial compared to the current crop of scams.
The current group of online divorce frauds includes, but is certainly not limited to:
- self-owned bogus testimonial websites where the con-man writes his own testimonials
- self-owned bogus review websites that recommend the con man’s divorce website
- proxy domain registrations so that the consumer can’t even know with what company s/he is dealing
- extorted or coerced client testimonials requested minutes after the hiring event (through complicit third parties such as TrustPilot and eKomi) and then used by the con-man, often through Google AdWords’ Review Extensions, to trick divorce consumers into thinking that the extorted (demanded when the client’s case is still active) reviews of an incomplete service are actually freely-given reviews of a COMPLETE service
- hidden costs for so-called “premium” levels of service that are not disclosed to the consumer until after the hiring event
- deceptive failure to disclose that mandatory local county divorce forms are not included in the “complete” document preparation service offered
- undisclosed up-selling schemes in which the online divorce provider has a paid interest in the consumer’s case not proceeding on an uncontested basis
- misleading “apples and oranges” price anchoring techniques that trick the consumer into believing the service can save her “thousands,” when in fact it is saving her only $100-200 on attorney-prepared unbundled doc services, which are arguably better value than what the con-men are selling at $300
Two additional events occurred between 2012 and 2016 that convinced me that this step towards self-regulation through ODAA had to be taken as a matter of my own personal integrity, if for no other reason. In 2014, I submitted to the FBI’s online internet crime reporting facility what was essentially a bullet-proof Bill of Indictment, complete with all necessary direct supporting evidence, of a complete system of testimonials fraud perpetrated by the biggest con-man in the online divorce industry. Absolutely nothing happened. I was never contacted by the FBI and there was no ability for me to follow up with the FBI. It was a complete waste of time that convinced me that if I, as a lawyer and online divorce professional, could not succeed in such a complaint, how could even a very dedicated consumer succeed in a legitimate complaint against this con-man. More importantly, I realized that the con-man MUST know that!!
Secondly, I discussed the potential creation of ODAA with 2 prominent colleagues in the online divorce service industry. They both had no interest whatsoever. One stated that the day after I put up this website, that very same primary con-man within our industry would simply put up his own bogus Association website that touted and featured his own websites. Alternatively, he would just steal the fancy ODAA seal and use it (he will be thinking exactly that as he reads this). Those dishonest actions were apparently seen by industry “leaders” as reasons not to do the right thing by pursuing a “white-hat” professional association for the benefit of consumers and honest companies in the industry. They didn’t want to do the right thing because a con-man might pursue a “black hat” professional association! If any con-man pursues a “black-hat” association, such would only validate and enhance OUR “white hat” effort. He could then be further and better isolated, named and shamed – for consumers to see and make appropriate hiring decisions. Doubling down on online consumer fraud is not a long-term tactic for success. Whereas, doubling down on giving people an honest transparent online divorce service will always win long-term. Yet our industry has never understood and pursued the obvious benefits of that truism.
Let me now address an 800-lb gorilla. What if I’m pursuing this effort only to tout my own website in some unfair or deceptive manner and not for the noble and honest purpose claimed? In other words, what if ODAA is my contribution to online divorce fraud? If you think that, you should really try to think better. How could it be any kind of fraud on my part to advocate less fraud in the industry? I’m in the industry. How could ODAA be any kind of fraud if I’m openly inviting all honest online divorce service providers into it so that they will receive all of the same professional benefits that I will receive?
Further on a personal level, in addition to my divorce business interests disclosed above, I have other successful interests having nothing to do with divorce or the law. Furthermore, I am 62 and my wife has just advised that we will be spending more time at our 2-acre waterfront villa in the Caribbean. Try to imagine how much I need the organizational and administrative crap associated with ODAA.
Here is what I want to happen with ODAA. I want 20, 30, 40 members to join and commit to our Code of Ethics. I want a group of you to form a Board of Directors, improve on my effort at a Code of Ethics, resolve the issues of policing and enforcement, take over this website and push me out. Doubt that? Call my bluff. I assure you that you will receive no resistance from me to the takeover of this domain and ODAA itself by any group with an intelligent plan for more honesty and transparency and less fraud within the online divorce service profession.
There are no costs to join ODAA at this time, though I’m confident that those who take it over will impose dues at some point. There is one condition of ODAA membership and that is a continuing commitment to adhere to its Code of Ethics, as amended from time to time by a future Board of Directors. There are 3 benefits of ODAA membership. (1) You can display our fancy membership seal on your member website(s) to advise divorce consumers that you have made that commitment to our Code of Ethics. (2) You will become part of the solution to the problem of pervasive fraud in our industry. (3) As a result of the first 2 benefits of membership, there should be a third: your honest websites(s) should attract more business as consumers begin to reward your membership. As another bonus, we, as an industry, may be able to avoid or postpone harsh, expensive, and certainly well-deserved, government regulation of the online divorce service industry.
What will happen to our industry without ODAA? Think about this carefully. This is how government expands to regulate and destroy entire industries. It happened to California non-lawyer divorce in 1998 when we had only a weak professional association that was interested mostly in BBQ’s and other back-slapping social events. It could not protect us from regulation.
The predictable progression without ODAA is thus. More con-men will move into the profession because they can. They are now coming in from India. 2 years ago, NetDivorce turned down an offer to provide “white label” backend services to a company from China. Online divorce con-men seek to take money from the rest of us by and through their trickery and lack of accountability. Their fraud is then rewarded based on how good it is. Consumers will complain about some of the fraud at a higher rate but at low levels of enforcement (Better Business Bureau, Yelp, etc.). The reputation of the online divorce service profession will continue to decline. Honest companies will take fewer cases in the face of the increased fraud. They will not be able to compete unless they begin to utilize the fraud they see on other websites. Honest companies attract less revenue while the con-men prosper. More divorce consumers will discover our lower professional reputation and will move back towards unbundled local lawyer doc preparation as more lawyers wake up to online divorce and our poor reputation.
Consumer complaints will begin to move higher up the food-chain to District Attorneys, state Attorney Generals’ Consumer Fraud Divisions and the US Attorney’s Offices. The devolving situation will become more publicized. So far, there has not been the political will to protect divorce consumers, which is what changed in California in 1998 when consumers began to complain to their elected representatives. Eventually, a bright politician will recognize that there may be votes in governmental action against our profession. Suddenly legislation and regulation will be in place.
Regulation is likely to be Federal, and therefore less piecemeal and more harsh, as we are in the interstate commerce arena. Though individual states could also act against us. Regulation in our industry would likely include licensing and bonding, a code of practice that many of you would find quite difficult to meet, existent legal education that most of you do not have and an expensive set of continuing legal education requirements. The existent and continuing legal education requirements will likely be per employee. Regulation will be expensive and fatal to many businesses in the online divorce service profession.
What will happen to our industry with ODAA? I don’t know, and neither do you. However, what I do know is that with an ODAA Code of Ethics and some transparent policing and enforcement apparatus in place and publicized, fraud will become more expensive. Divorce consumers will inevitably move towards honesty and away from exposed and publicized fraudulent websites. If we can thereby increase the costs of fraud, naturally less of it will occur, thereby reducing complaints and postponing any potential regulation. Con-men will be better identified and isolated. More significant legal actions against them MAY target only the bad guys and not the rest of us. More business will move towards ODAA members as we are favored more in the hiring choices of savvy divorce consumers.
If you disagree with my assessment, your path is clear, as is mine. However, if you’re NOT one of the con-men and you recognize the profit potential within a cleaned up online divorce service profession operating on a level playing field, you should join ODAA. You know that’s the right thing to do. ODAA is sorely needed. You know that membership will improve your business and our professional environment. You know that ODAA may avoid or at least postpone serious and expensive government regulation of your industry. If the frauds who steal from you and I right now continue their ways, and they must do so in greater numbers and to a greater extent, regulation is a foregone conclusion without ODAA.
If you agree with the concept of ODAA but think that my implementation of the concept is flawed, well, that’s just because you’re much smarter than I. Can you not see how much ODAA would benefit from your obvious genius? So what are you waiting for? This is the invitation!
Peter J. O’Hanlon
The Online Divorce Association of America