Detailed by Reuters yesterday, the New York Attorney General’s office announced the success of a sting conducted over the last year in which 19 companies were caught offering the creation of fake online reviews on sites like Google Local and Yelp. In order to reach out to those companies, employees within the AG’s office pretended to be owners of a Brooklyn yogurt shop that wanted to boost the restaurant’s online profile with positive reviews. Commonly called astroturfing, employees of the 19 marketing companies would alter their IP addresses when creating reviews to appear as if each review was written by a different person.
In a statement released to the New York Times, Schneiderman stated “What we’ve found is even worse than old-fashioned false advertising. When you look at a billboard, you can tell it’s a paid advertisement — but on Yelp or Citysearch, you assume you’re reading authentic consumer opinions, making this practice even more deceiving.” Schneiderman continued “This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution.”
Some of the companies in question would also attempt to defend their fake reviews, basically attempting to dissuade real customers from besmirching and disqualifying existing fake reviews. The marketing companies would also reach out to seasoned Yelp reviewers and attempt to bribe them with gift certificates and other perks in order to get a positive review for a specific business.
According to the New York AG’s office, all of these practices are illegal as it “violated multiple state laws against false advertising and engaged in illegal and deceptive business practices.” These companies used sites like Craigslist, Freelancer.com and oDesk.com to locate individuals to write fake reviews and paid out in a range of $1 to $10 for said reviews.