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



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.