NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman Fines 19 SEO Companies for Fake Google Local and Yelp Reviews in Yogurt Shop Sting (Photo: http://www.ag.ny.gov/)
NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman Fines 19 SEO Companies for Fake Google Local and Yelp Reviews in Yogurt Shop Sting (Photo: http://www.ag.ny.gov/)

The New York Attorney General has slapped 19 companies with a $350,000 fine after his office unearthed fake review writing for Google Local, Yelp, and others in a yogurt shop sting.

Eric Schneiderman revealed that a raft of search engine optimisation (SEO) companies created dummy accounts and paid writers from the Bangladesh and the Philippines $1 to $10 per review after his office set up a fake yoghurt shop in Brooklyn, New York and sought help to combat negative comments.

"Consumers rely on reviews from their peers to make daily purchasing decisions on anything from food and clothing to recreation and sightseeing," said Schneiderman in a statement.

"This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution."

The sting, dubbed Operation Clean Turf, also revealed that companies created hundreds of bogus accounts to circumvent website review controls.

Schneiderman's office also unearthed a number of firms that allegedly got family, friends, and employees to write positive reviews.

This included an adult entertainment club, a laser hair removal firm and a family owned bus company.

Schneiderman said the fake reviews broke the law against false advertising and deceptive business practices.

The Adverts for Fake Writers

Schneiderman's office said it also discovered solicitations on massive US websites such as Craigslist.com, Freelancer.com and oDesk.com to hire people to write fake reviews.

The office provided an example from one SEO company which 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.

In this example, a nightclub in New York City was looking for people to post the reviews "without getting flagged":

Need Review Posters for Yelp, Citysearch, Google

Hello...We need someone to post 1-2 reviews daily on sites like: Yelp, Google reviews, Citysearch and any other similar sites. We will supply the text/review. You must be able to post these without getting flagged. This will be a long term assignment that will last at least 3 months. You are bidding per week. We are offering $1.00 dollar for every post. Thank you

Yelp Shares Fall

Yelp shares plummeted by 9% after the statement was released but the group said it welcomed the crackdown.

Yelp said it was critical that the company protect the integrity of its content and it would continue to work with law enforcement agencies as well as taking steps itself to combat fraud.

"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 in a statement.

"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."