On September 23rd the New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced that 19 companies agreed to stop writing fake online reviews. The companies are paying more than $350,000 in penalties. In what the N.Y AG’s office is calling “Operation Clean Turf,” they companies flooded the Internet with fake consumer reviews on websites such as Yelp, Google Local, and CitySearch. This was a year-long undercover investigation into the reputation management industry, the manipulation of consumer-review websites, and the practice of astroturfing. In the course of the investigation, the Attorney General’s office found that many of these companies used techniques to hide their identities, such as creating fake online profiles on consumer review websites and paying freelance writers from as far away as the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe for $1 to $10 per review. By producing fake reviews, these companies violated multiple state laws against false advertising and engaged in illegal and deceptive business practices.
Consumers rely on reviews from their peers to make daily purchasing decisions on anything from food and clothing to recreation and sightseeing,” Attorney General Schneiderman said. “This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution. And companies that continue to engage in these practices should take note: “Astroturfing” is the 21st century’s version of false advertising, and prosecutors have many tools at their disposal to put an end to it.”
Online reputations have garnered increasing influence with consumers causing businesses to hire reputation management companies. As a result the reputation management industry has exploded. So-called search engine optimization (“SEO”) companies routinely offer online reputation management as part of their services.
Agents of the N.Y. AG’s office posed the owner of a yogurt shop in Brooklyn. They called the leading SEO companies in New York to request assistance in fighting bad reviews on consumer-review websites. Employees representing the some of the SEOs offered to write fake reviews of the yogurt shop to be posted on consumer-review websites such as Yelp.com, Google Local and Citysearch.com, as part of their reputation management services.
It is important to know that Yelp.com, Google Local and Citysearch.com and other consumer-review websites had no knowledge of that these reviews were being falsified.
The SEO companies were setting up phony accounts on consumer review websites to post the reviews. They were also hiding their identities by using IP spoofing techniques. The investigation found that many consumer-review websites have implemented filters to detect and filter or delete fake reviews, with Yelp’s being the most aggressive.
In one instance a spa in New York City was paying for fake reviews directly running the following ad:
I need someone who is a YELP expert to post positive reviews for a spa that will not be filtered using legitimate existing yelp accounts must have at least 10 friends on Yelp. Please be a yelp expert!! I will pay $10 per-review after 3 days they must meet the criteria above.
The entire list of companies that have paid fines and entered into Assurances of Discontinuance with the New York Attorney General is:
A&E Wig Fashions, Inc. d/b/a A&E and NYS Surgery Center
A.H. Dental P.C. d/b/a Platinum Dental
Body Laser Spa Inc.
The Block Group, LLC, d/b/a Laser Cosmetica and LC MedSpa, LLC
Bread and Butter NY, LLC d/b/a La Pomme Nightclub and Events Space
Envision MT Corp.
Medical Message Clinic and HerballYours.com
Metamorphosis Day Spa, Inc.
Outer Beauty, P.C., Lite Touch Plastic Surgery, P.C., Staten Island Special Surgery, P.C., Sans Pareil Surgical, PLLC
Stillwater Media Group
Swan Media Group, Inc. and Scores Media Group, LLC
US Coachways Limousine, Inc. and US Coachways, Inc.
Utilities International, Inc. d/b/a Main Street Host
The Web Empire, LLC
Webtools, LLC and Webtools Internet Solutions Ltd.
West Village Teeth Whitening Service, LLC; Magic Smile, Inc., aka Magic Smile
Zamdel, Inc. d/b/a eBoxed