In an increasingly tech-reliant world, most of us do not step foot in a restaurant or buy anything online without doing at least a modicum of Internet research. And who better to look to before making a reservation or adding a gadget to your shopping cart than other consumers who have dined at that restaurant and used that gadget? Sadly, some of the reviews we relied upon were, in fact, totally fake.
The New York Attorney General recently announced that it had conducted "Operation Clean Turf," a year-long undercover investigation into the manipulation of consumer-review websites by the companies that create these fake reviews, as well as the clients that pay for them. Posing as the owner of a Brooklyn yogurt shop, representatives of the Attorney General's office contacted search engine optimization (SEO) companies and requested assistance combating negative reviews on consumer-review websites. Some of these companies offered to write fake reviews for the yogurt shop and post them on sites such as Yelp.com, Google Local and Citysearch.com, as part of the companies' reputation management services. Research shows that consumer reviews have significant impact on a company's success.
The investigation also revealed that the companies used advanced IP spoofing techniques to hide their identities, as well as set up hundreds of false online profiles on consumer-review websites in order to post the bogus reviews. Besides using their own employees to write and post the fake reviews, the companies hired freelance writers from as far away as the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe for $1 to $10 per review. (Last we checked, La Pomme Nightclub has yet to open a location in the Ganges Delta.)
According to the New York Attorney General, the SEO companies also solicited people on Craigslist.com, Freelancer.com and other sites to write fake reviews. The companies were not always subtle in recruiting people to engage in their fraudulent practices. For example, one company's solicitation stated:
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.
By producing fake reviews, the SEO companies violated several state laws prohibiting false advertising and illegal and deceptive business practices. For example, the practice of disseminating a false or deceptive review that a reasonable consumer would believe to be a neutral, third-party review is a form of false advertising known as "astroturfing." Despite the prohibition on astroturfing, the number of fake reviews on consumer-review sites is expected to increase over the next year.
Feeling mislead yet? The good news is that regulators are shining light on this shady practice, and some of the responsible companies are paying the price. As a result of the New York Attorney General's investigation, 19 companies agreed to stop writing fake online reviews of products and services and pay more than $350,000 in penalties.
Regulators are not the only ones taking action. Many consumer-review websites such as Yelp have implemented filters to detect or delete fake reviews. Recently, automotive information site Edmunds.com sued a company that allegedly posted more than 60 fake reviews of car dealers on its site. And with very good reason -- the integrity of these product review sites depends on the authenticity of reviews.
As the fakers become increasingly sophisticated in their deceptive tactics, regulators and review sites will need to continue to monitor reviews to help ensure their veracity. Otherwise, the most trustworthy way to get other consumers' opinions may be crowdsourcing your Twitter followers or Facebook friends. When the truffle mac and cheese dish at the new restaurant downtown ends up being less than you'd hoped, at least you'll know who sent you there.