In sunnier times, from the office of their Oregon rental in the summer of 2012, John Palmer had shouted down to his wife.
"Jen, come up here. Do you know who KlearGear is?"
John had forgotten, but she hadn't.
It was through KlearGear that, in December 2008, John had tried to order her a few Christmas gifts nothing big, just small desk toys and a keychain. They hadn't shipped, and after an email exchange in which the couple says the company took a defiant tone, the company had canceled the order.
"We're talking maybe 20 bucks' worth of product," Jen Palmer said. Still, she had been frustrated by customer service's responses to John's email KlearGear never answered the phone, she says and decided she'd warn other consumers. So, in February 2009, she detailed her experience with KlearGear on RipoffReport.com.
"We were just floored," Jen said. "We could not believe that somebody would threaten us like that."
The Palmers say they searched on Wayback Machine, an Internet archiver, and found that the non-disparagement clause didn't exist at the time of their purchase. But KlearGear, which The Tribune was unable to reach for this story, stood firm.
"They said, 'If it's not down within 72 hours, we're going to bill you this $3,500," Palmer said. Ripoff Report has a policy of never removing reviews unless they contain incorrect information and even then, only when a business initiates the request. Palmer said she shared that with KlearGear, but they reiterated: The onus was on the Palmers.
A couple of months later, with the review still live, John noticed the $3,500 charge on a credit report. When they tried to dispute that debt with the credit reporting agencies, they say, KlearGear maintained that it was owed and sought an additional $50 "dispute fee."
Ever since, "this is hanging over our heads," said Jen Palmer, who says they have always lived within their means and rarely use credit. "We know that we can't do what we need to do for our family."
They say fear of denial kept them from refinancing their house, and from getting a home equity loan for roof and window fixes. Last December, they say they encountered troubles trying to buy a car a used one, at that.
"They said, 'By the way, who's KlearGear and why do you owe them $3,500?'" Palmer said. "John and I just looked at each other and started laughing one of those laughs where it's like, this is not funny, this is tragic."
Then, in October, the final straw. Their furnace wouldn't turn on, and a technician told them it probably had to be replaced. They couldn't get credit to pay for the fix, so they were left to bundle up in afghans that Jen had crocheted until they finally paid out of pocket after three weeks.
Jen's boss suggested she call KUTV's Matt Gephardt. After his report, Public Citizen agreed to represent the couple, and earlier this week the Washington, D.C., nonprofit sent a letter to KlearGear asking that the company eliminate the charge, restore the Palmers' credit and compensate them $75,000 for their troubles.
Public Citizen attorney Scott Michelman said that even if the clause were present in the conditions during John Palmer's purchase attempt, such conditions are "unconscionable," and unlikely to hold up in court.
"We're trying to put a stop to it by showing these companies that they can't actually enforce these things," he said. "What's unfortunate is it's hard to know how many people were deterred from speaking their mind from fear that they can't."
Michelman said that so-called fine print is only valid if the terms are deemed reasonable.
The Tribune repeatedly tried to call KlearGear, which lists an address in Grandville, Mich., but could not get through to a person or a voicemail. A listing on the Better Business Bureau site says that in 2012, KlearGear was displaying a BBB Accredited Business logo and an A+ rating that it had not received. The site no longer displays that logo.
The company was given until Dec. 16 to respond to Public Citizen's letter, and Jen said that if they don't, they will pursue legal action.
"We want to make sure that this never happens to anybody else again," Jen said.