Government Waste

New York In Year-Long Sting Operation Against…Fake Yelp Reviews

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Yelp
Yelp

You know that friend who opened a sandwich shop and asked you to help out by posting a few kind words on Yelp? Oh, you do, eh? Busted! At least, that's the take in New York, where Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman proudly announces the culmination of "Operation Clean Turf," a year-long undercover investigation into less-than-honest online reviews posted by friends, company staffers and paid flaks. Cuz that's such a good use of law-enforcement resources in a state that has seen a slight uptick in both violent and property crime in the past year (though they're both happily down over the past decade), even as it manages to make government budgets look relatively non-disastrous only through the use of gimmicks to paper over deficits.

In order to conduct its year-long investigation into the menace of bogus Yelp write-ups, the AG's office dedicated staff and resources to setting up a fake Brooklyn yogurt shop (using free-range goat milk, no doubt), and then contacting search engine optimization companies to help deal with negative reviews. "During these calls, representatives from some of these companies offered to write fake reviews of the yogurt shop and post them on consumer-review websites such as Yelp.com, Google Local and Citysearch.com, as part of their reputation management services."

Scandalous! Won't somebody save the children from rave reviews about frogurt joints with surly service? Even fake frogurt joints.

Reports A.G. Schneiderman's 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.  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.

In another example, a spa in New York City was looking for help writing fake 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.

The press release also reports that "many consumer-review websites have implemented filters to detect and filter or delete fake reviews, with Yelp's being the most aggressive," which suggests that the review sites are already on the job. That makes sense, since their usefulness depends on weeding out the phonies and keeping their services reasonably reliable.

But never mind being booted for violating Yelp's terms of service. The company is happy for the official assist, with Aaron Schur, Yelp's Senior Litigation Counsel, saying, "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."

After all, the Attorney General's office has crack taxpayer-supported investigators who might otherwise be wasting their time on murderers, rapists and serial constitution-violators elected as mayors of major cities. Why should Yelp pay if New Yorkers will pick up the tab instead?

The Office of the Attorney General reports that the hand of justice has descended upon these fake-reviewing miscreants who engaged in "astroturfing" by hiring SEO companies, or simply soliciting reviews from employees, friends, and customers open to accepting gift certificates in return for online thumbs-up. "The OAG has entered into Assurances of Discontinuance with 19 companies, with penalties ranging from $2500 to just under $100,000."

New Yorkers can now sleep safe. Well, except for the ones concerned about real crimes.

NEXT: Denver Creates a Cannabis Cartel, Reinforcing Colorado's Pot Protectionism

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  1. Yeah, because nothing will fix NY’s economy faster than targeting these fake Yelpers! Shows you how stupid these people really are…

    1. The effort to stamp out fake ads, although ludicrous in itself, is a minor affair when compared with the persecution of an academic whistle-blower who used fake online identities (or “sock-puppets”) and satire to condemn the conduct of a group of religiously oriented Dead Sea Scroll scholars. In that instance no product or business was promoted at all, but only an ideological viewpoint. Yet Manhattan prosecutors are arguing that this type of intellectual guerrilla warfare aims to cause legally cognizable “harm” or to obtain an illicit “benefit” for purposes of New York’s fraud laws. That’s a far more troubling legal development than the assault on fake ads, and would merit some serious attention from Reason. See the case documentation at:

      http://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  2. I was under the impression that most YELP reviews are fake.

  3. So, what is the actual criminal statute these people violated?

    1. The FYTW statute.

    2. The federal wire fraud statute, one of several similar laws outlawing payola in print, broadcast, etc. media. It’s why at the end of the show they have to say, “Promotional consideration received from…”, and why articles in scientific journals supported by page charges to the authors have to have a fine print disclaimer at the bottom saying they have to label the article an adv’t.

    3. I was wondering the same thing through the whole article. Then we get this at the end:

      “The OAG has entered into Assurances of Discontinuance with 19 companies, with penalties ranging from $2500 to just under $100,000.”

      Who cares if they broke a law? They can still be strong-armed into compliance.

  4. Also, New Yorkers something something get what they deserve something something…

  5. Up next, paid testimonials in television ads

  6. Is anyone else, who uses Chrome/Reasonable, getting a big block across the bottom of their screen with a huge link in it?

    1. ANd a new link every time I reload?

      1. It’s blocking you every time Epi. I figured it had finally started to work.

        1. Clearly it’s not working properly because it isn’t blocking Hugh, and it is blocking kinnath and I. Although it is nice to know I won’t be immediately assaulted by Epi’s words every time the page reloads.

          1. Assault is a harsh word, jesse. I prefer “molested”.

            1. I prefer “molested”.

              We all know that already.

            2. Then what do you call what SF’s words do?

              1. NutraSweet’s words caress you with their foulness, jesse. It’s like being fondled by a corpse.

                1. That would explain why I’m so fond of SF’s writing.

              2. I sooth the troubled psyche of a grateful nation.

              3. Then what do you call what SF’s words do?

                SF is really Abholos toying with his new iPad.

          2. Is it blocking Nutrasweet as well? The least it could do is spare me one of his Warty novellas.

            1. I can never be blocked, much like Warty’s semen.

        2. Remove ^\s from the Reasonable options and it’ll stop hiding several of the commenters, but it doesn’t fix the long linky versions of our names in the history table.

          1. I fixed the ^\s problem earlier, but the block at bottom of screen is new.

            1. And now it is fixed.

      2. I just got here today. Anything I can do to make it go away and has it been reported to the H&R comment overlords?

        1. Disable Reasonable.

        2. Reasonable is freeware written by a H&R regular. Reason has nothing to do with it and can’t “fix” it.

        3. I figure reasonable has taken the Yelp approach of blocking random commenters and waiting for the payoff.

          1. Not random. It’s another fuckup with how email addresses publicly displayed are handled. If you change to a webpage or hide your email you should escape the wrath of the filter. If everyone does it then we may get a normal-sized history box back.

            REASON IS CLEARLY CONSPIRING AGAINST THOSE WHO WOULD LIKE TO COMMUNICATE OUTSIDE OF THEIR CONTROL! Where is Walker when we need him!?

        4. I just clicked off the display public email icon hit update. Checked it out on the web page and my moniker was blue and the big comments block was still there.

          I went back in, rechecked the display email publically box, hit update and now EVERYTHING is back to normal, to include a small recent comments box.

          Not sure if it was my actions, or some part of those actions or it was fixed at the source, but I’m back to normal.

          1. Until I hit submit for that comment and now I’m back to the big box.

            FUCKING NSA!

              1. Okay I disabled reasonable and reenabled it and it looks like I’m back to normal.

            1. The big box is just if someone with an email attached to their name is in the recent comments history.

  7. In my personal opinion (Hello, litigation happy, Yelp!), I think Yelp’s business model is a lot like a mafia protection racket. I’d love to claim that analogy as my own, but it was actually made by a judge hearing a claim against Yelp:

    “Yelp’s lawsuit against McMillan was filed just days before a San Diego superior court judge was supposed to rule on Yelp’s appeal of a small claims case that McMillan filed against Yelp. The initial small claims judge likened Yelp’s practices to the Mafia”

    http://arstechnica.com/tech-po…..e-reviews/

    Yelp lists companies on its website and, effectively, solicits reviews. Negative reviews seem to go up right away, but positive reviews go to a filtered section that you have to hit another link to see–unless the business in question pays Yelp. And when you start getting a lot of negative reviews, that seems to be when Yelp comes calling.

    Psssssst. Hey Mack. Did you know someone’s messing up your business? You want to make the problem go away?

    Yelp’s a disgrace, and if they’re siccing the police on small business owners who, in their own defense, starting posting positive reviews because they couldn’t or wouldn’t bow to Yelp’s pressure and pay Yelp what looks like protection money to me?

    Then that wouldn’t surprise me at all.

    1. So it’s like the Rainbow Push coalition of review sites.

      1. “The company is happy for the official assist, with Aaron Schur, Yelp’s Senior Litigation Counsel, saying, “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.”

        I don’t know. Did the Rainbow Push coalition ever invite law enforcement or the police to crack down on businesses who wouldn’t pay what amounts to protection money?

        1. If you count the DOJ’s civil rights division, then yes.

          1. Boom. Cookie to Playa’s kids. In the heezy.

        2. Did the Rainbow Push coalition ever invite law enforcement or the police to crack down on businesses who wouldn’t pay what amounts to protection money?

          If by “law enforcement or the police” you mean the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ, then yes.

          1. Then I guess it’s a fair analogy.

            Although in Yelp’s case, the businesses in question aren’t being charged with any crime–and they aren’t being charged with any kind of racial discrimination, either.

            The mostly small businesses in question are being charged with not having paid Yelp what seems to amount to protection money–and writing positive reviews about themselves on a website.

    2. If you see the “Find Us On Yelp!” sticker up on the window of a business, you can be 100% sure not to trust any of the reviews.

    3. So this is the like the NY AG office assisting the mafia.

  8. Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman proudly announces the culmination of “Operation Clean Turf,

    Law enforcement in this country really has nothing to do. Oh wait.. yes… FAKE Yelp reviews! Yes, ignore what I said. Focus on this… all the time!

    We need a Yelp SWAT division!

    1. If Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman hadn’t issued a press release telling us that Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman had successfully busted this racket, then how would Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman know that we even knew who Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman was and that Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman was doing Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman‘s job properly? What if Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman wanted to someday run for higher office and Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman was concerned that the public might not know who Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman was? I’m sure that Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman is a fine man and just wants to make sure everybody knows that Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman is on the job. Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman

  9. “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.”

    Wasn’t it the YELP ad sales team that got caught shaking down businesses? IIRC, they offered to delete negative reviews in exchange for purchasing YELP ads, and posted negative reviews about businesses that refused…

    1. I see Ken has beat me to it by 2 minutes.

      1. He beat you and your kids…

        1. It does’t matter. They have zero monetary value.

        2. I don’t beat people’s children.

          …hardly ever.

    2. Yeah, it isn’t that they were “caught” doing that.

      People are saying that’s essentially their business model.

  10. Who the fuck reads positive reviews (aka chaff)?

    1. People looking for a dentist.

      People looking for a new restaurant to try.

      I’m not going to a dentist with a lot of negative reviews and few positive ones, that’s for sure.

      On my long range bike rides, I ride in the mountains for a couple thousand miles in a week, and I’m staying in some pretty obscure places. It’s good to listen to what other travelers have said. I don’t need to go to a campground where the showers are so nasty, I’ll need to take antibiotics on the way home, yeah, but if somebody’s there to tell me where the showers are kept really clean? That’s the kind of information I need to know.

      1. Flip flops dude… flip flops

        1. Oh, I always got those, too, but some of ’em, you don’t even want to go in with flip flops. So, you don’t go in, but then you’ve got a long ride for the day, no shower, and after a couple of days?

          At that point, I’d rather dump a gallon of drinking water over my head in the 7-11 parking lot then get into one of those green, shaggy ass shower stalls.

          And especially if you’re gonna take a chick with you part of the way. If I’ve got a girl with me, I’m trying to find a clean B&B somewhere–at least every other night. And if you take a chick to a campground where the showers suck, you’re sabotaging yourself–real bad.

          You know why guys spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on RVs? It’s because their woman won’t go out into the wilderness with them unless they can bring their own rest room and shower with them.

          If it’s just me, I don’t usually give a rip, but I don’t want it to be just me.

  11. such a good use of law-enforcement resources in a state that has seen a slight uptick in both violent and property crime in the past year

    You don’t expect them to go after violent criminals, do you? I mean, those people are violent! They’ve got wives and families to go home to! Why do hate OFFICER SAFETY!!!

  12. “””The press release also reports that “many consumer-review websites have implemented filters to detect and filter or delete fake reviews, with Yelp’s being the most aggressive,” which suggests that the review sites are already on the job. That makes sense, since their usefulness depends on weeding out the phonies and keeping their services reasonably reliable.”””

    But do the CARE about you!?!? Or are they just doing this so they can line their greedy corporate pockets!!

  13. OT:

    Ted Turner says men should be banned from holding political office for 100 years

    Appearing at the International Women’s Earth and Climate Summit in New York City, Turner proposed “men be barred from political office.

    WTF? There is really something named that? Why?

    TED TURNER: Well, I came up with the idea at least 20 years ago that we needed more women in politics. It would take a different turn.

    Yes, and what a wonderful turn it has taken. Corruption is practically unknown now in the government since female politicians are divine snowflakes of purity due only to the fact that they have a vagina.

    1. …I guess Turner was unaware that the House of Representatives led by Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) didn’t pass a budget for the fiscal years of 2010 or 2011….

    2. Jane really worked his ass over, didn’t she?

    3. I figure he’s just trying to get laid.

    4. Ted Turner says men should be banned from holding political office for 100 years is a complete moron

      FTFY

  14. Any of you who are terribly bored, you should go to Yelp and write a positive review of a local business. The smaller the better–since the smaller they are, the less likely they are to be able to afford to pay Yelp.

    Go write that positive review, and then wait a couple of days. Go back to the business you reviewed, and I’d bet any kind of doughnut you want that the review will have disappeared and will only show up in the filter.

    1. I occasionally write reviews on YELP, and I’ve never had one to disappear, yet.

      1. I’ve written reviews, and they’ve disappeared.

        YOU can still see them, but when you go to the company’s page from within Yelp? To see my review, you have to click a tiny gray link at the bottom of the reviews on the left that reads “filtered”.

        Get this! In order to get into the reviews by clicking the “filtered” link? You have to type in one of those hard to read pass codes–so they know you aren’t a bot. …because we need to keep the world safe from review reading bots? That doesn’t make sense.

        It would make sense to stop bots from posting–but you have to type in a squiggly hard to read sequence in order to read a page? IF IF IF you can find the link to the filtered reviews?

        I’m not buyin’ it.

        P.S. I just double checked. I said nice things about my dentist. It’s still filtered.

  15. Yeah, but what about reviews on Amazon.com? Album reviews read like they are written by either paid reviewers or aspiring Rolling Stone’s writers looking to build a portfolio.

    1. It’s fairly easy to spot fake reviews, most of the time.

        1. This one is totally real.

          After checking to ensure that the shirt would properly cover my girth, I walked from my trailer to Wal-mart with the shirt on

          LOLd at that.

        2. That is freaking hilarious. How did you find that?

          1. It’s not on par with the one about the toy drone, but it’s still pretty damn good.

          2. It is an old meme…see how there are 2100 reviews? It hit 4chan at one point.

        3. meh, not quite as poetic as Tuscan Whole Milk

        4. My favorite: The $14,000 Audioquest K2 Terminated Speaker Cables

          http://www.amazon.com/gp/produ…..dp_product

          “My cats chewed on this cable and now they can both speak. One of them is gay and the other wants to kill me. I would have rather not known.”

        5. This one cracked me up.

          “At my 9-to-5 I’ve gotten by for years on my old Two Wolf Moon T-Shirt. “Bring the loader over to bay 4″ they’d say, and I’d get over there and get it done, my two wolves classy enough for work but also letting the passing ladies know I’m a raging torrent of untamed American spirit yearning to breath free, preferably naked. I’m no Don Juan, but I did ok — mostly with Janice from Accounting, until she got diptheria.”

      1. I find the same to be true of any online site from yelp to urban spoon to trip adviser. Some of them are obviously written by someone who has an axe to grind or would bitch if they were hung with a new rope. All of these sorts of sites have limited usefulness.

        They are very good if it is a big business with a lot of customers, like a big resort or very large restaurant. There there are enough real reviews that the fake ones can’t change the overall impression. The smaller the business the less reliable the reviews.

        1. Unless there are enough reviews that you can form a balanced opinion from it, reviews are pretty worthless.

        2. would bitch if they were hung with a new rope

          “Seriously, this rope fucking chafes like crazy! What is it, brand fucking new? Everyone knows you use a broken in rope to hang someone, not a brand new one. Jesus H. Christ, it’s like you’ve never lynched anyone before! And the drop was obviously the incorrect length, since I’m still swinging here strangling to death instead of the drop breaking my neck instantly. Seriously?! Worst. Hangman. Ever!”

        3. It is easy to parse the reviews and ratings on Urbanspoon. I find it more useful than Yelp and other review sites.

          Some of the best restaurant experience and opinion info is gleaned from searching forum queries and chat on sites that aren’t in the review business.

      2. You should apply to the NY Attorney General’s Office. Perhaps you could half the take on extortion money from record execs.

    2. I usually figure that some people just make writing online reviews a hobby.

  16. I am currently posting on Yelp right now. Not any reviews, just setting up accounts for biz owners. Very few reviews on Yelp are real, and they are fairly worthless, good or bad, as far as bringing in customers. What Yelp IS good for is that is a middle to small part of the current “SEO Biosphere”. What this means, is that if you list a local biz on Google, Bing, Yahoo, Yelp, and a few other sites, they tend to reinforce each other. So, for instance, Google sends its Bots crawling through the web, and it finds your listing on Bing. It then compares that with the info on Google Places, and if they match then your rank goes up a little bit. Then the Bots find the same info on Yelp, and it goes up a little bit again. Rinse and repeat over several such sites, and PRESTO, your biz is now on the first page of Google (providing, of course, that other basic things have been done correctly). This is actually what I have doing for a living for the last several years.

  17. Other useful book reviews

  18. I cranked out a ton of phony endorsements for a test prep materials company. David in China still solicits me occasionally for more work, but I’m pretty burned out. How many different ways can you say essentially the same thing in about 100 words?

    1. Wait. So you and Denver Jay are the dudes that make $4567 a week at home from your computer?

      1. To get $4567 a week, I think you have to have a webcam and do something…unconventional with barnyard animals.

        1. Please elaborate

      2. Nio man that is his cousin’s roommate’s aunt.

      3. Shit I wish. I have to work at least 40 hours just to make a living wage. And its usually a lot more than that. Basically, if I am awake, I have my laptop. When I watch tv, working. When I am waiting at Doc’s office, working. Etc.
        The biggest advantage for me is that Mrs DenverJay has lots of health issues, and doing this means I am not off at work all day.

        1. Also, I do a lot more than just post on Yelp all day. While a huge amount is just posting, the sweet science of SEO has more to it. I have gotten pretty good at Adobe Fireworks, know a small amount of code, spend a lot of time forwarding the biz phone to mine for various confirmation reasons, handle social media replies and invites, etc.

  19. This is definitely a major issue with all review type sites. All of them are being abused and not enough monitoring. I like that yelp is going through and deleting some of these reviews but I would like to know how they are going about doing this. Denver SEO

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