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How small claims court became Meta's customer service hotline

How Small Claims Court Became Metas Customer Service Hotline

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Last month, Ray Palena boarded a plane from New Jersey to California to appear in court. He found himself engaged in a legal dispute against one of the largest corporations in the world, and improbably, the venue for their David-versus-Goliath showdown would be San Mateo’s small claims court.

Over the course of eight months and an estimated $700 (mostly in travel expenses), he was able to claw back what all other methods had failed to render: his personal Facebook account.

Those may be extraordinary lengths to regain a digital profile with no relation to its owner’s livelihood, Palena is one of a growing number of frustrated users of Meta’s services who, unable to get help from an actual human through normal channels of recourse, are using the court system instead. And in many cases, it’s working.

Engadget spoke with five individuals who have sued Meta in small claims court over the last two years in four different states. In three cases, the plaintiffs were able to restore access to at least one lost account. One person was also able to win financial damages and another reached a cash settlement. Two cases were dismissed. In every case, the plaintiffs were at least able to get the attention of Meta’s legal team, which appears to have something of a playbook for handling these claims.

At the heart of these cases is the fact that Meta lacks the necessary volume of human customer service workers to assist those who lose their accounts. The company’s official help pages steer users who have been hacked toward confusing automated tools that often lead users to dead-end links or emails that don’t work if your account information has been changed. (The company recently launched a $14.99-per-month program, Meta Verified, which grants access to human customer support. Its track record as a means of recovering hacked accounts after the fact has been spotty at best, according to anecdotal descriptions.)

Hundreds of thousands of people also turn to their state Attorney General’s office as some state AGs have made requests on users’ behalf — on Reddit, this is known as the “AG method.” But attorneys general across the country have been so inundated with these requests they formally asked Meta to fix their customer service, too. “We refuse to operate as the customer service representatives of your company,” a coalition of 41 state AGs wrote in a letter to the company earlier this year.

Facebook and Instagram users have long sought creative and sometimes extreme measures to get hacked accounts back due to Meta’s lack of customer support features. Some users have resorted to hiring their own hackers or buying an Oculus headset since Meta has dedicated support staff for the device (users on Reddit report this “method” no longer works). The small claims approach has become a popular topic on Reddit forums where frustrated Meta users trade advice on various “methods” for getting an account back. People Clerk, a site that helps people write demand letters and other paperwork required for small claims court, published a help article called “How to Sue facebook,” in March.

It’s difficult to estimate just how many small claims cases are being brought by Facebook and Instagram users, but they may be on the rise. Patrick Forrest, the chief legal officer for Justice Direct, the legal services startup that owns People Clerk, says the company has seen a “significant increase” in cases against Meta over the last couple years.

One of the advantages of small claims court is that it’s much more accessible to people without deep pockets and legal training. Filing fees are typically under $100 and many courthouses have resources to help people complete the necessary paperwork for a case. “There’s no discovery, there are no depositions, there’s no pre-trial,” says Bruce Zucker, a law professor at California State University, Northridge. “You get a court date and it’s going to be about a five or 10 minute hearing, and you have a judge who’s probably also tried to call customer service and gotten nowhere.”

“Facebook and Instagram and WhatsApp [have] become crucial marketplaces where people conduct their business, where people are earning a living,” Forrest said. “And if you are locked out of that account, business or personal, it can lead to severe financial damages, and it can disrupt your ability to sustain your livelihood.”

One such person whose finances were enmeshed with Meta’s products is Valerie Garza, the owner of a massage business. She successfully sued the company in a San Diego small claims court in 2022 after a hack which cost her access to personal Facebook and Instagram accounts, as well as those associated with her business. She was able to document thousands of dollars in resulting losses.

A Meta legal representative contacted Garza a few weeks before her small claims court hearing, requesting she drop the case. She declined, and when Meta didn’t show up to her hearing, she won by default. “When we went through all of the loss of revenues,” Garza told Engadget, “[the judge] kind of had to give it to me.”

But that wasn’t the end of Garza’s legal dispute with Meta. After the first hearing, the company filed a motion asking the judge to set aside the verdict, citing its own failure to appear at the hearing. Meta also tried to argue that its terms of service set a maximum of $100 liability. Another hearing was scheduled and a lawyer again contacted Garza offering to help get her account back.

“He seemed to actually kind of just want to get things turned back on, and that was still my goal, at this point,” Garza said. It was then she discovered that her business’ Instagram was being used to advertise sex work.

She began collecting screenshots of the activity on the account, which violated Instagram’s terms of service, as well as fraudulent charges for Facebook ads bought by whoever hacked her account. Once again, Meta didn’t show up to the hearing and a judge ordered the company to pay her the $7,268.65 in damages she had requested.

“I thought they were going to show up this time because they sent their exhibits, they didn’t ask for a postponement or anything,” she says. “My guess is they didn’t want to go on record and have a transcript showing how completely grossly negligent they are in their business and how very little they care about the safety or financial security of their paying advertisers.”

In July of 2023, Garza indicated in court documents that Meta had paid in full. In all, the process took more than a year, three court appearances and countless hours of work. But Garza says it was worth it. “I just can’t stand letting somebody take advantage and walking away,” she says.

Even for individuals whose work doesn’t depend on Meta’s platforms, a hacked account can result in real harm.

Palena, who flew cross-country to challenge Meta in court, had no financial stake in his Facebook account, which he claimed nearly 20 years ago when the social network was still limited to college students. But whoever hacked him had changed the associated email address and phone number, and began using his page to run scam listings on Facebook Marketplace.

“I was more concerned about the damage it could do to me and my name if something did happen, if someone actually was scammed,” he tells Engadget. In his court filing, he asked for $10,000 in damages, the maximum allowed in California small claims court. He wrote that Meta had violated its own terms of service by allowing a hacked account to stay up, damaging his reputation. “I didn’t really care that much about financial compensation,” Palena says “I really just wanted the account back because the person who hacked the account was still using it. They were using my profile with my name and my profile image.”

A couple weeks later, a legal rep from Meta reached out to him and asked him for information about his account. They exchanged a few emails over several weeks, but his account was still inaccessible. The same day he boarded a plane to San Mateo, the Meta representative emailed him again and asked if he would be willing to drop the case since “the access team is close to getting your account secure and activated again.” He replied that he intended to be in court the next day as he was still unable to get into his account.

Less than half an hour before his hearing was scheduled to start, he received the email he had spent months waiting for: a password reset link to get back into his account. Palena still attended the hearing, though Meta did not. According to court records reviewed by Engadget, Palena told the judge the case had been “tentatively resolved,” though he hasn’t officially dropped the case yet.

While filing a small claims court case is comparatively simple, it can still be a minefield, even to figure out something as seemingly straightforward as which court to file to. Forrest notes that Facebook’s terms of service stipulates that legal cases must be brought in San Mateo County, home of Meta’s headquarters. But, confusingly, the terms of service for Meta accounts states that cases other than small claims court must be filed in San Mateo. In spite of the apparent contradiction, some people (like Garza) have had success suing Meta outside of San Mateo.

Each jurisdiction also has different rules for maximum allowable compensation in small claims, what sorts of relief those courts are able to grant and even whether or not parties are allowed to have a lawyer present. The low barrier to entry means many first-time plaintiffs are navigating the legal system for the first time without help, and making rookie mistakes along the way.

Shaun Freeman had spent years building up two Instagram accounts, which he describes as similar to TMZ but with “a little more character.” The pages, which had hundreds of thousands of followers, had also been a significant source of income to Freeman, who has also worked in the entertainment industry and uses the stage name Young Platinum.

He says his pages had been suspended or disabled in the past, but he was able to get them back through Meta’s appeals process, and once through a complaint to the California Attorney General’s office. But in 2023 he again lost access to both accounts. He says one was disabled and one is inaccessible due to what seems like a technical glitch.

He tried to file appeals and even asked a friend of a friend who worked at Meta to look into what had happened, but was unsuccessful. Apparently out of other options, he filed a small claims case in Nevada in February. A hearing was scheduled for May, but Freeman had trouble figuring out the legal mechanics. “It took me months and months to figure out how to get them served,” Freeman says. He was eventually able to hire a process server and got the necessary signature 10 days before his hearing. But it may have been too late. Court records show the case was dismissed for failure to serve.

Even without operator error, Meta seems content to create hardship for would-be litigants over matters much smaller than the company’s more headline-grabbing antitrust and child safety disputes. Based on correspondence reviewed by Engadget, the company maintains a separate “small claims docket” email address to contact would-be litigants.

Ron Gaul, who lives in North Dakota, filed a small claims suit after Meta disabled his account following a wave of what he describes as targeted harassment. The case was eventually dismissed after Meta’s lawyers had the case moved to district court, which is permissible for a small claims case under North Dakota law.

Gaul says he couldn’t keep up with the motions filed by Meta’s lawyers, whom he had hoped to avoid by filing in small claims court. “I went to small claims because I couldn’t have a lawyer,” he tells Engadget.

Ryan, an Arizona real estate agent who asked to be identified by his first name only, decided to sue Meta in small claims with his partner after their Facebook accounts were disabled in the fall of 2022. They were both admins of several large Facebook Groups and he says their accounts were disabled over a supposed copyright violation.

Before a scheduled hearing, the company reached out. “They started basically trying to bully us,” says Ryan, who asked to be identified by his first name only. “They started saying that they have a terms of service [and] they can do whatever they want, they could delete people for any reason.” Much like Gaul, Ryan expected small claims would level the playing field. But according to emails and court records reviewed by Engadget, Meta often deploys its own legal resources as well as outside law firms to respond to these sorts of claims and engage with small claims litigants outside of court. “They put people that still have legal training against these people that are, you know, representing themselves,” he said.

In the end, Meta’s legal team was able to help Ryan get his account back and he agreed to drop himself from the small claims case. But two months later his partner had still not gotten back into hers. Meta eventually told her that her account had been permanently deleted and was no longer able to be restored. Meta eventually offered $3,500 — the maximum amount for a small claims case in Arizona. He says they wanted more, but Meta refused, and they felt like they were out of options. Ryan claims they had already lost tens of thousands of dollars in potential sales that they normally sourced from Facebook. “We were prepared to go further, but no lawyer would really take it on without a $15,000 retainer and it wasn’t worth it.”

While it may seem surprising that Meta would give these small claims cases so much attention, Zucker, the Cal State Northridge professor, says that big companies have their own reasons for wanting to avoid court. “I don’t think places like Google or Meta want to have a bunch of judgments against them … because then that becomes a public record and starts floating around,” he says. “So they do take these things seriously.”

Without responding to specific questions about the substance of this story, Meta instead sent Engadget the following statement:

“We know that losing and recovering access to your online accounts can be a frustrating experience. We invest heavily in designing account security systems to help prevent account compromise in the first place, and in educating our users, including by regularly sharing new security features and tips for how people can stay safe and vigilant against potential targeting by hackers. But we also know that bad actors, including scammers, target people across the internet and constantly adapt to evade detection by social media platforms like ours, email and telecom providers, banks and others. To detect malicious activity and help protect people who may have gotten compromised via email phishing, malware or other means, we also constantly improve our detection, enforcement and support systems, in addition to providing channels where people can report account access issues to us, working with law enforcement and taking legal action against malicious groups.”

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