NY Attorney General sets up fake yogurt shop to combat astroturfing

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September 26, 2013

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman

By Greg Janetka

NEW YORK CITY, New York: Following a year-long undercover investigation, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) announced on Monday that 19 companies caught writing fake online reviews agreed to stop the practice and pay over $350,000 in fines.[1]

The sting, known as "Operation Clean Turf," targeted what is known as "astroturfing." Schneiderman called the practice "21st century's false advertising," stating, "Consumers rely on reviews from their peers to make daily purchasing decisions on anything from food and clothing to recreation and sightseeing. This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution."[1]

Setting up a fake yogurt shop in Brooklyn, the AG's office contacted search optimization companies to post fake positive reviews of the business on sites such as Yelp and Google Local. In many cases the companies offered to write such reviews for a fee, for which they used their own writers as well as freelancers from overseas, including the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe. The Attorney General's office also found offers for freelancers to write fake reviews posted on Craigslist.com, Freelancer.com and oDesk.com.[2]

A number of businesses were also found to be engaging in the practice of posting fake reviews for themselves. One such company, US Coachways, had employees posting fake reviews, as well as offering $50 gift certificates to customers to write positive reviews without requiring them to disclose the gift. Yelp has said they welcome the crackdown.[3]

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