On Monday, the New York State Attorney General announced agreements with 19 companies to stop their practice of submitting fake reviews at many social networking websites. The year-long undercover investigation, code named "Operation Clean Turf," found:
"... the manipulation of consumer-review websites... companies had flooded the Internet with fake consumer reviews on websites such as Yelp, Google Local, and CitySearch... 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."
The agreements, called Assurances Of Discontinuance, require the 19 companies to pay more than $350,000 in fines. Fines for individual companies ranged from $2,500 to about $100,000.
Some of the defendant companies involved were Search Engine Optimization (SEO) firms. SEO firms help client companies' websites appear on the first page of search results at search engines such as Google, Yahoo, and Bing. The SEO firms also offered reputation management services which included "astroturfing" -- a form of fake advertising where a company prepares and/or distributes fake reviews where reasonable consumers would believe those reviews to be from a neutral, third-party. Some SEO firms also changed the IP addresses of users' computers submitting fake reviews to avoid the filters at social netowrking websites to reject fake reviews.
The SEO companies that agreed to stop their astroturfing activities (bold emphasis added):
"Zamdel, Inc., d/b/a eBoxed, a search engine optimization company based in New York City, which posted more than 1,500 fake reviews of clients on consumer-review websites such as Yelp.com, Google Places, Yahoo! Local, Citysearch, Judy's Book and InsiderPages.com..."
"XVIO, Inc., another search engine optimization company based in New York city, which posted hundreds of fake reviews of clients on consumer-review websites. XVIO also conducted a "secret shopper" campaign where its agents received free or discounted goods and services from XVIO's clients in exchange for a review. However, the reviewers were encouraged to post on consumer-review websites only if they were positive, the "secret shopper" did not disclose that he or she had received a free or discounted product or service..."
"Laser Cosmetica, the now-former owner of this well-known laser hair-removal business with multiple locations in the tri-state area orchestrated an astroturfing campaign, hiring an SEO company that posted fake reviews on consumer-review websites, and instructed employees and friends to write fake reviews on consumer-review websites. They also offered discounts on services in exchange for online reviews, without requiring the customer to disclose the gift in the review."
"US Coachways, Inc. The management of this leading national bus charter company based in Staten Island, NY orchestrated an astroturfing campaign, writing bogus reviews themselves, soliciting freelance writers from oDesk.com and Fiverr.com to write bogus reviews, and urging employees to pose as customers and write positive reviews..."
"Swam Media Group, Inc. and Scores Media Group, LLC. The manager of this licensee of the Scores gentlemen's club franchise orchestrated an astroturfing campaign with the help of a freelance writer that resulted in 175 fake reviews of entertainers at the Scores adult club in New York City and an affiliated website, scoreslive.com..."
The companies that signed Assurance of Discontinuance agreements included:
- 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
- XVIO, Inc.
- Zamdel, Inc. d/b/a eBoxed
Congratulations to the New York State Attorney General, and his investigative team, for putting a stop to this business practice in New York State. Now, attorney generals in other states also need to take action.