As his Ferrari and swish apartment overlooking Collaroy Beach in NSW can attest, the tech boom has been kind to Sabre. The 39-year-old tried - and failed - to take on Apple with coloured iMac look-alikes during the dotcom boom, but he hopped on a path to riches after founding Publicity Monster in 2006.
The company cold calls businesses promising to get them in the top 7 rankings on Google Local for a keyword of their choice, but in many cases doesn't deliver results and has both harassed and threatened those who complain with legal action or suspension, customers and former staff say. If it fails to achieve desired results it often attempts to change a customer's chosen keyword to a far inferior one that is easier to rank.
Publicity Monster was a bold move by a man who has perfected the art of self promotion. He boasts his attempt to take on Apple "became international news overnight" and claims on his gossip blog Bitch Pleaz to have administered former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's official Facebook page (denied by Rudd's spokesman).
Sabre has worked as a party promoter and in 2008 he attracted national press for claiming to have offered the once-notorious party boy Corey Worthington a $10,000 contract to join his team. In 2007 he led a campaign to ban the "shuffle" dance style in clubs.
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The substance of those claims may certainly be questioned but under no doubt is the level of complaints against Publicity Monster. In NSW alone 28 claims have been lodged against the company in the past two years in the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal, while a further 6 have been lodged in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. It is understood consumer protection authorities in NSW and Victoria are also investigating the firm following dozens of complaints.
The importance of Google in driving leads to businesses has created a vibrant industry of firms claiming to have unlocked the secrets of Google's algorithm. Publicity Monster, which advertises a 90-day money-back guarantee, has been doing patricularly well, making up to $50,000 a week in sales, former staff say.
Whirlpool has been littered with 78 pages of mostly critical discussion about the company, but others, like marriage celebrant Marie Kouroulisis, have gone a step further. Kouroulisis was due to appear before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal yesterday and told Fairfax Media Publicity Monster not only didn't deliver the promised results but had also been "harassing me with countless phone calls" demanding payment.
Customers complain Publicity Monster's money-back guarantee is non-existent - and that the company covers itself with unreasonable and buried terms and conditions. Recently the NSW Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal seemed to agree, awarding Muscle Health Centre, in an action undefended by Publicity Monster, a refund of $2095.10.
Former staff told Fairfax Media they were "locking" customers in to year-long contracts by misleading them on the terms and conditions. Contracts were then automatically renewed after a two-week cancellation period, which some customers say they had no idea about.
"We had the things that we were told to say [in the sales pitch] and we figured out that we could say other things as well," said one former staff member. "So you would just tell people things that you can to get them over the line."
The company's terms state that customers can only get a refund between days 90 and 100 of their contract, another piece of fine print many customers were not made aware of when signing up.
One customer, Tony Gelme, who has been diagnosed with oesophagal cancer, said he was charged for a second year even though he asked to cancel his contract. Gelme, who claims Publicity Monster's services to him were "meaingless and innefective", said the company charged him anyway and only cancelled his contract after he provided "a letter from my GP confirming the diagnosis". It still refuses to offer him a refund.
Sabre says the onus is on customers to read the terms and conditions but Fairfax Media could only find them by navigating deep into the site and pasting an obscure URL into a new browser window.
Customers who have refused to pay for what they regard as inadequate service say they have been harrassed by the company, which has also sent debt collectors after some clients and threatened others with the suspension of their Google Local listing if they don't pay up.
Fairfax Media spoke in detail to nine customers of Publicity Monster and many would not talk publicly out of fear of legal action.
The company has previously threatened legal action against customers who have left negative reviews online, and in at least two cases discovered by Fairfax Media it only offered a refund to clients if their comments were removed.
Sabre was unapologetic about this apparent blackmail, saying "we keep their privacy in our transactions [with them] and we expect the customer to do the same". "Anything that's [published that's] negative ... they’re more than welcome to [be] put on[line] ... [but] if it's something that is illegal where they've put in their personal opinion about what we do and how we do it, we look at it [and] we send it to our lawyers," he said.
Publicity Monster threatened to sue Fairfax Media before publication of this story.
In addition to promising high Google rankings Publicity Monster also provides "reputation cleansing" services, which it appears to be adept at as negative reviews about the company have disappeared from True Local, Google Local and other sites. Fake glowing reviews about the company - one using a missing person's picture - have been discovered by Whirlpool users.
Fairfax Media does not suggest Publicity Monster or Sabre were responsible for placing fake reviews online.
Former staff claim Sabre employed almost all staff as contractors to avoid paying leave and superannuation entitlements which enabled him to fire them on the spot. They say he created a high pressure environment - commissions were only paid to those who pulled in more than $3000 a week in sales - and screamed at them.
Asked if he ever screamed at staff, Sabre said "if they've done the wrong thing", but not regularly. "I'm not some kind of monster, pardon the pun - I treat my people really really well. We're under pressure because we want to deliver a really good product to our customers."
Sabre, who promises service will improve, said only "a handful of customers" were having issues with their accounts when compared to the 4500 customers Publicity Monster manages as of today. "And we're going to work through it. The rest of our customers - we've got them ranking on the front page of Google," he said.
Google wouldn't comment on whether it had received complaints about the company. But in a statement it said all Google AdWords Certified Partners, such as Publicity Monster, must adhere to its third-party policies. "Businesses who believe a partner is in violation of these policies can lodge a complaint and those that are in violation can have their partnership status revoked," the search giant said. Those policies state that certified partners must "not make improper guarantees about Google to your clients, including ... claiming that you can guarantee top placements in Google, or that ads will appear in Google Search at all times".
After publication of this article, Sabre tweeted the following:
This reporter is on Facebook: /bengrubb