NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman Targets Astroturfing: Fake Reviews of Hair Removal Services, Strippers, and More
We truly hate to be the ones to tell you this, but sometimes people say stuff on the Internet that is ... not true. Take a moment to collect yourselves. Case in point: 19 companies were scolded and fined yesterday by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for so-called Astroturfing: the practice of posting fake reviews on sites like Yelp, Google Local, and CitySearch. According to the AG, the companies hired freelance writers to write the fake ads from as far away as the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Eastern Europe, paying $1 to $10 per review.
Image via Twitter New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman
Schneiderman announced yesterday that the companies' dastardly fake reviews were uncovered as part of a year-long undercover investigation called "Operation Clean Turf." Investigators from the AG's office posed as the owner of a yogurt shop in Brooklyn (yes, really) and called high-profile SEO and PR companies in New York "to request assistance in combating negative reviews on consumer-review websites." Several of those companies helpfully offered to write fake reviews. The AG's office says they were also using "advanced IP spoofing techniques to hide their identities, as well as setting up hundreds of bogus online profiles on consumer review websites to post the reviews."
Several of the companies cited by the AG, including "reputation management" firms XVIO and eBoxed, wrote fake reviews on behalf of other clients. And some companies simply wrote reviews for themselves (or hired poorly paid Eastern Europeans to do it), including bus service US Coachways, strip club Scores, and several plastic surgeons. Alarmingly, one of those surgeons, A&E and NYS Surgery Center, is actually run by a company called A&E Wig Fashions, Inc., meaning that they started out in fake hair before expanding into cutting people open.
The companies have been ordered to pay a total of $350,000 in fines, with $100,000 the most that a single company is required to pay. All of them have also signed "Assurances of Discontinuance" to make sure they cut it out.
The AG's office also had high praise for review websites that had installed filters to catch fake reviews, saying that Yelp's was especially effective. The site keeps those fake reviews helpfully cached in a "filtered" section, which you can read. Here's one from "Susan M." of Salt Lake City, who just had to sing the praises of Scores:
We came into New York from Europe on a layover, and wanting to see the nightlife, started at Scores. What a proper good time. Sorry we had no more time, as different nights at Scores would have afforded us the joy of Lingerie (Lingerie Mondays) or Western Night Six-shooting hotties. Still, it was lovely to sit a bit and be spoiled by beautiful dames with double Ds doing private numbers I understand can be had any night Scores is open.
Because there's nothing women named "Susan" from Salt Lake City love more than enormous breasts, and being from Europe.
In an interview with the New York Times, Schneiderman said he didn't expect the problem of fake people on the Internet to vanish overnight. "Sadly, it will take continued policing, both by law enforcement and the review sites themselves, to make sure some businesses stop lying to customers they claim to serve," he told the paper.
We called the AG's office to ask why they chose to focus on the scourge of online fake reviews, and did not immediately hear back. We also contacted several of the cited companies for comment. None of them responded, except for XVIO's marketing director, who answered his phone long enough to say that he had nothing to say before hanging up very quickly.
The AG's full press release is below, and lists all of the companies that were caught red- and fake-handed. Be careful out there.