Reputation management, an industry built around the notion that you can erase the mistakes and criticisms of the past and promote an unblemished digital record, can help brands overcome disaster and reinvent themselves. Sometimes, reputation management is an essential tool in the marketing arsenal that can be the difference between sink and swim.

And other times, reputation management companies can make things even worse.

Plenty of these companies are perfectly above board, but some reputation management firms employ unethical or even illegal practices that can land their clients in even hotter water if they're not careful. Here are some of the common schemes and underhanded tactics employed by the online reputation management industry, and red flags to look out for when partnering with a company.

Black Hat Reputation Management Tactics

Sometimes reputation management services will leverage black hat tactics to harm their clients' competitors. These tactics are always unethical and, in some cases, illegal. Some black hat reputation management tactics include creating a slew of false accounts to report competitors, developing fake websites for review placements, and developing spam content.

One of the most directly dishonest, unethical, and legally risky practices reputation management companies engage in are the buying or generating of fake reviews to promote clients and support competitors. Misrepresenting clients in this way means those who use their services aren't getting what they anticipate, and unfairly attacking competitors with fake reviews might even cross the legal boundaries of libel.

In some cases, reputation management companies even author fake reviews and comments against their own clients, then turn around and sue the commenter for defamation. Once sued, an agreement is put forth that the comment was based on a falsehood, and then unsuspecting judges tend to issue orders which require Google to de-index the website on which the invalid complaint was posted.

Not only can this remove the original negative comments from search engine results, but it also justifies the exorbitant sums reputation management companies charge for their services. This practice is so common that stories of ongoing lawsuits against reputation management companies are easy to find.

Review websites are great places for consumers to exercise their first amendment rights, but without proper measures this type can destroy a business. That is especially the case when there are deceptive reputation management companies willing to pen hit pieces for hire lurking in the shadows.

For many businesses, the allegations mean the end of the road. In addition, these complaint boards are often dedicated to aggregating, and at times aggravating, ratings and reviews, which not only destroy a business but are prominent in search engines.

What You Should Do

If you find yourself in need of an online reputation management service, whether to prevent any problems or to manage the fallout from a crisis, you should do your homework to make sure you aren't partnering with an unscrupulous company that could end up further damaging your reputation or even dragging you into a protracted legal battle.

"It can be difficult to identify shady online reputation management companies," said Sam Michelson, CEO and founder of digital reputation management firm Five Blocks. "A few telltale signs include the inability to find out who stands behind the company, tactics that include creating a lot of articles, and no clear explanation of the work being done behind the scenes."

To find out about the behavior of a particular company, you should consider speaking with other clients that have used the company's services before. If there is any hint that the company engaged in underhanded behavior, it is time to run in the other direction. You should also review a company's services and question them about ethics and whether they employ black hat tactics. And to be safe, get all communications with the company in writing.

As the old adage goes, you're better safe than sorry.