There are a couple of interesting stories out this week on the use of paid writers to plant false reviews on sites like Yelp. In the case of Yelp, the company insisted that its filters suspicious reviews, but New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has fined businesses which admit to this fraudulent practice. They range from massage centers to plastic surgeons.
One report discussed below looked at 316,415 Yelp reviews of Boston restaurants and found 16% were filtered and identified as fake.
In “Operation Clean Turf.” the New York Attorney General found fake reviews planted by various businesses. Notably, these businesses posted wanted ads for people to help them commit this fraud. Many of these reviewers came from the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe at cost of $1 to $10 per review. However, such reviews have been found to increase revenues by 5% to 9% rise.
Websites like Yelp, Google Local, and CitySearch are commonly targeted. This dishonest work is sometimes the result of “search engine optimization” (“SEO”) companies that “manage” online reputations. Undercover agents met with SEOs and were offered false reviews.
One SEO company required that the fakers maintain a Yelp account for more than 3 months old with more than 15 reviews (at least half unfiltered) and 10 Yelp “friends.”
Attorney General Schneiderman’s office also discovered solicitations on sites such as Craigslist.com, Freelancer.com and oDesk.com to hire people to write fake reviews. For example, one SEO company posted the following:
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.
Some businesses advertised directly for liars:
I need someone who is a YELP expert to post positive reviews for a spa that will not be filtered using legitimate existing yelp accounts must have at least 10 friends on Yelp. Please be a yelp expert!! I will pay $10 per-review after 3 days they must meet the criteria above.
A nightclub in New York posted this:
Need Review Posters for Yelp, Citysearch, Google
Hello…We need someone to post 1-2 reviews daily on sites like: Yelp, Google reviews, Citysearch and any other similar sites. We will supply the text/review. You must be able to post these without getting flagged. This will be a long term assignment that will last at least 3 months. You are bidding per week. We are offering $1.00 dollar for every post. Thank you
What is disappointing is that such fraudulent conduct can be resolved with a fine and an “Assurance of Discontinuance.”
Here is the rogue’s gallery of lying businesses — not nearly the reviews that they wanted:
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. eBoxed attempted to defeat consumer-review website filters by changing the IP address of the computer from which it posted the reviews every week, making the reviews look like they came from different users.
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 of the reviewed-business in the review, and the client knew the identity of the “secret shopper” prior to providing the product or service to be reviewed.
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. They also offered $50 gift certificates to customers to write positive reviews without requiring that the customers disclose the gift in the review.
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, most of which were posted online.
The entire list of companies that entered into Assurances of Discontinuance is:
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
Zamdel, Inc. d/b/a eBoxed
The investigation was conducted by Assistant Attorneys General Clark Russell and Jordan Adler, and Investigator Vanessa Ip, in the Internet Bureau, with special assistance from Deputy Bureau Chief Susan Scharbach of the Real Estate Finance Bureau, under the supervision of Executive Deputy Attorney General of Economic Justice Karla G. Sanchez.
Such misconduct has an obviously serious detrimental impact on a critical part of our economy. With a huge portion of purchases now occurring over the Internet, such fraud undermines the liability of sites like Yelp much like disinformation sites like the National Report degrade news reporting and public interest coverage. With a low detection rate, the level of punishment needs to be sufficiently high as a counterbalance to achieve deterrence. There is clearly not that level of deterrence today. These are cases of intentional acts of fraud for profit.
The question is whether companies like Yelp can sue independently of the government to achieve such deterrence. It would seem clearly that some SEOs could be sued for such fraudulent conduct. However, sites may be reluctant to publicize such vulnerability or unreliability of their review systems. Prosecution may remain the best option.
While I have defended the protection afforded lies in the context of Stolen Valor cases, this is paid fraudulent acts done for profit.
What do you think?
Source: Market Watch