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Best yogurt ever! Fake online reviews targeted by N.Y. attorney general.

Nineteen companies have agreed to pay more than $350,000 in penalties for breaking laws against false advertising and deceptive business practices, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced Monday.

By Staff writer / September 23, 2013



New York

Those with a discerning ear for huckster-speak may have always suspected that some of the gushing praise for online products was probably posted by company partisans.

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It’s an online technique sometimes called “astroturfing,” or laying down fake grass-roots excitement to help build a better online ranking for a business or product.

It’s even become a full-blown racket when companies have hired freelance writers – sometimes paid up to $10 for every fake gush they tap out – to go to sites such as Citysearch, Google Local, or Yelp and praise products and businesses they've never seen, let alone tried.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced Monday that 19 local companies have fessed up to using such techniques, agreeing to pay more than $350,000 in penalties for breaking laws against false advertising and deceptive business practices.

"Consumers rely on reviews from their peers to make daily purchasing decisions on anything from food and clothing to recreation and sightseeing," Mr. 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. And companies that continue to engage in these practices should take note: ‘Astroturfing’ is the 21st century's version of false advertising, and prosecutors have many tools at their disposal to put an end to it."

In 2010, a California marketing company settled charges brought by the Federal Trade Commission under guidelines for Internet endorsements. New York appears to be the first state to try to police astroturfing, going back to 2009.

For the current crackdown, Schneiderman had even set up a fictitious Brooklyn yogurt store. It was part of a year-long undercover investigation into the reputation management industry, which includes those who offer “search engine optimization” (SEO) services to improve a business’s Google ranking.

The “owners” of the yogurt store called leading SEO companies in New York, complaining about negative reviews and wondering if they could do anything to improve their online image. Many of them offered to write fake reviews for the shop and post them on consumer-based search engines, according to the attorney general’s announcement Monday.

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