Internet Law

Lawyers among those who paid for fake online reviews; probe leads to settlements with 19 companies

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Investigators for the New York Attorney General’s office scoured Craigslist and posed as the owner of a yogurt shop to uncover companies that sought fake online reviews or offered to write them for clients.

As a result of the findings, 19 companies have agreed to stop writing fake reviews—a process known as “astroturfing”—and to pay more than $350,000 in penalties, according to a press release and this story by the New York Times. The Times says the announcement represents “the most comprehensive crackdown to date on deceptive reviews on the Internet.”

The probe found a wide range of professionals buying fake reviews, including lawyers and dentists, the Times says, though no law firms are listed among the 19 companies that reached agreement with the attorney general. Companies that did reach agreement included a nightclub, and charter bus company, and a laser hair-removal business. Some companies hired search engine optimization (SEO) companies to post fake reviews, while others placed ads on Craigslist or other websites seeking people to write positive reviews.

Also participating in the settlement were several SEO companies. Some asked their own employees to write reviews or hired freelancers from as far away as the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe to write reviews at a cost of $1 to $10 apiece. One SEO used a “secret shopper” campaign that offered free or discounted products in exchange for reviews and asked that they be positive.

The fake reviews violate New York laws against false advertising and constitute deceptive business practices, according to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Among those praising the crackdown was Aaron Schur, senior litigation counsel for Yelp, which recently sued a bankruptcy law firm and accused it of posting fake reviews. “This shows that fake reviews are a legitimate target of law enforcement,” he told the Times.

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