Why we use real names in our stories

Transparency is critical for the credibility of Elliott Advocacy

Maybe you’ve noticed that we use real names in the stories we publish on this site. And maybe you’ve also wondered why we do that. Shouldn’t people be able to air their grievances with a company without having to disclose their full name?

The issue flared up late last year when we published the full name of a reader we had helped with a refund. He threatened to take us to court because he claimed he hadn’t authorized us to print his name.

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It’s not the first time someone has reacted that way, and it won’t be the last.

Simply put, real names give us the credibility to operate an advocacy organization. But to understand why we use real names, I need to explain what we are and which rules we have to follow. We disclose our rules multiple times. And we will defend them in court, if necessary.

What we do

Elliott Advocacy is a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. There’s no charge for our advocacy services. All you need to do is fill out this form, and our team will do its best to help.

Companies work with us for one big reason and one small reason. The big reason: Many of them genuinely care about good customer service and are grateful for the opportunity to address a consumer problem that has slipped between the cracks.

The small, but equally important, reason: The companies that don’t care so much about customer service know there’s a chance that we could publish a story about their case.

The Associated Press and sex crimes

This site has always been a journalistic enterprise. And the Bible of journalism, the Associated Press Style Guide, is clear when it comes to citing sources: Use full names on the first reference. On second reference, use only the last name.

The AP also has strict rules about granting anonymity to a source:

  1. The material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report.
  2. The information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source.
  3. The source is reliable, and in a position to have accurate information.

Consumer cases do not meet those requirements.

What does? When I was a summer intern many years ago, I covered the police beat for a few weeks. Part of my job was to review the logs to look for newsworthy stories. The alleged victims of sex crimes had their names redacted. The message was clear: Something so horrible had been done to these people that they deserved anonymity.

An exploding appliance is not a sex crime. As journalists, we follow AP style.

Transparency: Real names make the stories credible

Why doesn’t the AP grant more sources anonymity? Because having real names gives a story credibility. Someone is going on the record to say they have a problem with a company. It’s not someone hiding behind a pen name or an initial.

I’ve seen other consumer advocacy sites and review sites that allow unverified users to post their stories. The articles have less credibility, and ultimately, companies choose to ignore these anonymous complainers.

Put differently, there’s power in using real names. Without it, we would not be able to advocate as effectively.

Our advocacy disclosures

We disclose our “real names” policy in multiple places, starting with the help form.

The second sentence reads:

Note: We may write an article about your case. If we do, we publish your full name and city. Please do not engage our services if you would prefer to remain anonymous.

You’re also required to click the “I accept” button before submitting a case. It reads:

By submitting this form, I authorize representatives of this site and its affiliates to disclose information I have provided in this form to a third party. I also authorize the disclosure of any information I may have provided in the past or in the future related to my request for assistance, including but not limited to the contents of emails, social media posts or telephone calls. The information I provide, including my name and other information that specifically identifies me, such as my city and daytime occupation, is considered “on the record” and I agree to grant the irrevocable right to use this information in any media, including but not limited to a syndicated news article, a published story on this website, or a post on our social media channels. I release and hold harmless this site and its affiliates from any liability and/or claims in connection with the disclosure of the information.

After the case is added to our system, we also send a copy of the agreement by email. We highlight it so that you can’t miss it:

Elliott Advocacy disclosure notice. I you want our assistance please read it carefully.

Readers have multiple opportunities to opt-out — first when they fill out the form, second when we send a playback of the agreement, and third when we ask for supporting documentation. But there can be no doubt that if we publish a story, it will contain your full name.

That is the cost of our advocacy: You don’t get to be anonymous.

By the way, our real names policy extends to our help forums as well. If you disclose your real name on a post, we will not delete it to protect your privacy.

I don’t care about your rules — I’m suing!

Still, some readers feel as if they should be exempt. Or they believe they can renegotiate the rules after benefiting from our free services.

It doesn’t work that way.

Here are the most common arguments:

Q: You ambushed me with fine print and forced me to agree to use my name. You’re doing the very thing you accuse companies of doing!

A: Not true. We have multiple redundant and clear disclosures on the site. None of it is in fine print. You did not read them. We are nothing like the companies who ambush people with fine print.

Q: You’ve violated my right to privacy and I am going to sue you for damages.

A: You do have a right to privacy, but if you completed our form and agreed to waive those rights, you do not have a valid claim.

Q: I am a public figure and having this information online would damage my reputation.

A: Public figures such as actors and celebrities have even less of a right to privacy. If you are a VIP, you can probably afford an attorney. I would recommend hiring one to mediate your case.

Q: I don’t like the way I’m portrayed in your story. I gave you permission to use my name — but not like this!

A: Writing a useful article means pinpointing where things went wrong on both sides of the case. It’s rare that the problem is all on one side. Fair reporting means discussing all relevant parts, including your errors.

Q: You didn’t help me but wrote an article anyway. I’ll see you in court!

A: No you won’t. You gave us permission to write about you. Period. Sometimes, you learn more from your mistakes. And if by chance you’re foolish enough to file a lawsuit, you will lose.

Q: I used the company contacts on your site after filling out the form. You had NOTHING to do with fixing my problem. My case should be off-limits to you.

A: Wrong. If you used our company contacts, we had A LOT to do with your case being resolved. Also, you signed a waiver that said we could use your name with no conditions.

We’ll keep publishing until they shut us down

Bottom line: Real names give our stories credibility and allow us to continue practicing our advocacy.

We won’t remove names from our articles — even if you throw a tantrum and complain to the state attorney general or the Better Business Bureau, or if you threaten to sue us.

Our site exists because we tell the truth in every story. If you would rather not be mentioned on this site, you’re welcome to read the stories. If you’d like to step up and go on the record with your complaint, we’re always happy to help you.