New York Attorney General Investigation Into Fake Online Reviews (Like Yelp): "Operation Clean Turf" Clamps Down on 19 Companies For Fake Online Reviews

Back in September 2013, the New York Attorney General announced the results of a year-long investigation into fake online reviews, resulting in 19 different companies being nabbed by the New York prosecutor and fined over $300,000.00.

False advertising online via fake reviews?  It's called "astroturfing."

According to the New York AG, false advertising where an SEO company or other business pays someone money for preparing or disseminating a false or deceptive review that may be reasonably assumed to be a neutral, third-party review is a form of "astroturfing."

New York State Attorney General
Eric T. Schneiderman
From the press release:

  • Besides using their own employees to write and post the reviews, the companies hired freelance writers from as far away as the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe for $1 to $10 per review.  One SEO company required that freelancers have an established Yelp account, more than 3 months old, with more than 15 reviews (at least half unfiltered), and 10 Yelp "friends," as an attempt to avoid Yelp's advanced review filter. ,,, 
  • 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.  ....
  • The OAG has entered into Assurances of Discontinuance with 19 companies, with penalties ranging from $2500 to just under $100,000.  The practice of preparing or 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."  Astroturfing is false and deceptive, and it violates, inter alia, New York Executive Law § 63(12), and New York General Business Law §§ 349 and 350.

What does Yelp have to say about it?
"More than 100 million visitors come to Yelp each month, making it critical that Yelp protect the integrity of its content," said Aaron Schur, Yelp's Senior Litigation Counsel. "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. We applaud NY Attorney General Schneiderman for his willingness to tackle the issue of illegal fake reviews head on, and for his success in shutting down these operators. We look forward to continuing to cooperate with the New York Attorney General's office and any other interested law enforcement office or regulator to protect consumers and business owners from efforts to mislead."

Who got caught for "astroturfing" by the New York Attorney General in September?

Here is the list of 19 companies identified in the news release describing "Operation Clean Turf":

  1. A&E Wig Fashions, Inc. d/b/a A&E and NYS Surgery Center 
  2. A.H. Dental P.C. d/b/a Platinum Dental 
  3. Body Laser Spa Inc. 
  4. The Block Group, LLC, d/b/a Laser Cosmetica and LC MedSpa, LLC 
  5. Bread and Butter NY, LLC d/b/a La Pomme Nightclub and Events Space 
  6. Envision MT Corp. 
  7. iSEOiSEO 
  8. Medical Message Clinic and HerballYours.com 
  9. Metamorphosis Day Spa, Inc. 
  10. Outer Beauty, P.C., Lite Touch Plastic Surgery, P.C., Staten Island Special Surgery, P.C., Sans Pareil Surgical, PLLC
  11. Stillwater Media Group 
  12. Swan Media Group, Inc. and Scores Media Group, LLC 
  13. US Coachways Limousine, Inc. and US Coachways, Inc. 
  14. Utilities International, Inc. d/b/a Main Street Host 
  15. The Web Empire, LLC 
  16. Webtools, LLC and Webtools Internet Solutions Ltd. 
  17. West Village Teeth Whitening Service, LLC; Magic Smile, Inc., aka Magic Smile 
  18. XVIO, Inc. 
  19. Zamdel, Inc. d/b/a eBoxed