Astroturfing dragnet laid by New York State

Astroturfing dragnet laid by New York State

Summary: Attorney General Schneiderman sets up sting operation to weed out the companies writing fake online reviews on Yelp and other such sites. 19 companies in the SEO/reputation management business have paid fines and agreed never to do it again.

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TOPICS: E-Commerce
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A year-long investigation by the New York State Attorney General's office has uncovered the dirty little secret of the SEO and "Reputation Management" business: they will write fake online consumer reviews for you on Yelp, Google Local, CitySearch and other such sites. The AG's office secured agreements from 19 of these companies to stop writing such reviews and collected $350,000 in fines from them.

Fake online user content is known as "astroturfing," alluding to fake "grass roots" of the opinions.

The companies cited by the AG hired freelancers from around the world to write reviews, paying between $1 and $10 each. One had strict requirements for freelancers, "…that freelancers have an established Yelp account, more than 3 months old, with more than 15 reviews (at least half unfiltered), and 10 Yelp "friends," as an attempt to avoid Yelp's advanced review filter".

They also found advertisements for freelancers on sites such as Craigslist, Freelancer.com and oDesk.com, quoting one not very-subtle-ad:

We need a person that can post multiple positive reviews on major REVIEW sites.  Example:  Google Maps, Yelp, CitySearch.  Must be from different IP addresses… So you must be able to have multiple IPs.  The reviews will be only few sentences long.  Need to have some understanding on how Yelp filters works.  Previous experience is a plus…just apply --)we are a marketing company.

Not all of the 19 companies cited are marketing/SEO/reputation management companies. Several appear to be businesses which wrote or solicited positive reviews on their own, including :

  • 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

The penalties ranged from $2500 to just under $100,000.

Hat tip to Reason, which questions the worthiness of dedicating meaningful resources to this sort of crime when both violent and property crimes are ticking up over the last year or two (although down quite a bit over the last decade). 

Topic: E-Commerce

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7 comments
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  • Not suprised

    Having heard the ads from Reputation.com on the radio, this was exactly what I suspected. Let's face it, these techniques/business undermine the value of 'Customer' reviews to other potential customers. That said, I guess as a business owner, the ability to ameliorate the impacts of a bad deal/unhappy customer would be of value...As always, Caveat Emptor!
    chipbeef
  • it's commendable what the AG did

    but isn't this law infringing the first amendment?
    Pretty much all the advertising is more or less lies.
    LlNUX Geek
    • Fraud is not protected speech

      Commercial fraud has never been considered protected speech
      larry@...
  • now

    Wonder when zdnet posts will get investigated :)
    danbi
    • This is the only thing I agree with you until now.

      Isn't it great. :D
      Ram U
  • positive reviews are fluff

    If you want to get a sense of how a business is, find the nature of the negative reviews, filter out user error frustration, and then observe how the business responds (if at all) to the negative review.
    rwwff
    • not really any better

      Apart from the fact that lots of negative reviews are by people who are just too mad about whatever happened, if I'm hiring someone to say nice things about me, why wouldn't I pay them to say bad things about the competition?
      larry@...