OFTEN praised as "non-profit, righteous guardians," privately owned consumer-protection websites are getting popular among locals, who use them as free online platforms to publish names of dishonest companies when they get cheated.

But it turns out these websites are working not only for consumers but are also dealing with the dishonest companies, demanding they pay money if they want to get their names off the blacklists on their sites.

The websites win the trust of consumers by collecting their complaints and publishing the names of dishonest companies.

But they then cash in by contacting those companies to offer expensive services to delete the complaints, or they simply wait for the companies to find them for such services.

Consumers waiting for replies from the consumer-protection websites are often surprised to find their complaints magically disappear because they were treated merely as bait for the websites to cash in, Shanghai Daily has found.

"Pay 1,000 yuan (US$158) now and you will see the complaint gone in one minute," a worker with one such website, 315w.com, told the reporter who posed as an e-commerce vendor.

As the reporter bargained, trying to lower the price, the worker warned the site would move the complaint to its front page and would not remove it until the money is delivered.

According to The Beijing News, hundreds of such websites are doing business across the country. It was revealed that each website may earn tens of thousands of yuan per day. No Chinese law states that this practice is illegal.

But the websites are not the only ones turning consumer fury into money, as a lot of so-called "network public relations" companies are competing to share the profits.

They offer special services to other companies to delete consumers' complaints or even negative news reports by using their relationships with webmasters at websites, or by hacking.

"You pay me 800 yuan and I will talk to the website to delete the complaint immediately. If it dare blackmail you again, we will launch the attack," said an official with Beijing CITIC Networks, one such company, when the reporter asked it for help.

The "attack" means hacking into the website's server and taking the site down, which is illegal.

In a recent case, a man running one such company was detained by Shanghai police after he hired a hacker to attack a popular website, shutting it down for four days and causing it to lose over 40,000 yuan in advertising income.

The man, surnamed Liu, attacked the website with 1.64 million registered users in a bid to threaten it to delete a negative piece of information about his client. He charged 23,000 yuan from the client for the service, police said.

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