Fake reviews are a known problem online—but New York has managed to crack down on them using an equally fake yogurt shop. After a yearlong investigation, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman this week announced that the state has reached settlements with 19 companies; they'll stop with the bogus reviews and pay $350,000 in fines. Those companies fall into two buckets: businesses that are unhappy with their review ratings on sites like Yelp, and businesses that help those companies by delivering fake reviews (a process Bloomberg notes is called "astroturfing").
The fake reviews were sometimes written by foreigners for as little as a dollar a pop; other times actual customers were bribed with gift certificates to pen them. In the case of the New York sting ("Operation Clean Turf"), Schneiderman's investigators got things going by pretending to be the owner of a Brooklyn yogurt shop in need of some review fluffing; they contacted SEO shops looking for help. That led them to the 19 companies. The New York Times reports that dentists, lawyers, and an ultrasound clinic were among the businesses buying fake reviews. "When you look at a billboard, you can tell it’s a paid advertisement—but on Yelp or Citysearch, you assume you’re reading authentic consumer opinions," says Schneiderman. Though the investigation only uncovered problems in New York, "This shows that fake reviews are a legitimate target of law enforcement," says Yelp's senior litigation counsel. (Read more online review stories.)