(NaturalNews) The revolutionary form of expression and communication known as the Internet does indeed have its drawbacks, as demonstrated in a recent law enforcement effort initiated by the attorney general for the state of New York.
According to a report in International Business Times, AG Eric Schneiderman has levied 19 companies with a $350,000 fine after investigators in his office uncovered a host of phony review writing for Google Local, Yelp and others.
An investigation by Schneiderman's office "revealed that a raft of search engine optimization (SEO) companies created dummy accounts and paid writers from the Bangladesh and the Philippines $1 to $10 per review after his office set up a fake yoghurt shop in Brooklyn, New York and sought help to combat negative comments," IB Times reported.
Fake reviews harm businesses
"Consumers rely on reviews from their peers to make daily purchasing decisions on anything from food and clothing to recreation and sightseeing," Schneiderman said in a statement. "This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution."
Dubbed "Operation Clean Turf," the sting also discovered that companies had created hundreds of bogus accounts in a bid to outflank website review controls. Also, Schneiderman's office found that a number of businesses allegedly schemed with family, friends and employees to write positive site reviews.
"This included an adult entertainment club, a laser hair removal firm and a family owned bus company," said IB Times.
Schneiderman says the phony reviews are violations of rules governing advertising and business practices because they are deceptive.
During the investigation, the AG's office also found solicitations on huge U.S. websites like Craigslist.com, Freelancer.com, and oDesk.com to hire people to write the phony reviews.
Using the 'Net to troll for anonymous 'reviewers'
The AG provided an example from one SEO company which 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.
Here's another example uncovered by Schneiderman's office, this one for a spa in New York City looking for help writing phony reviews:
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.
In another example, a New York City nightclub was looking for folks to post reviews "without getting flagged":
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
Companies welcome the crackdown
Following the release of the statement by Schneiderman, Yelp shares fell by 9 percent. Nevertheless, the company said it welcomed the crackdown, because it was vital to the company to preserve and protect the integrity of its content. Yelp officials pledged the company would continue to assist law enforcement efforts to crack down on the fake reviews. Per Aaron Schur, Yelp's Senior Litigation Counsel:
More than 100 million visitors come to Yelp each month, making it critical that Yelp protect the integrity of its content. We take many steps to do this, including the use of automated filtering software, leveraging our vast user community for tips about suspicious content, undercover sting operations, legal action, and cooperation with law enforcement.
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