Authorities Crack Down on Fake Yelp Reviews

Put this in the category of “things that may seem harmless, but are actually illegal.” 

We have talked in the past about the growing influence of Yelp and similar sites—as well as their pitfalls. Chief among the latter is that you can never quite be sure which reviews are from real customers. One recent study estimated that as many as 20 percent of Yelp reviews may be fake.

Yelp, of course, has a rather controversial algorithm meant to “filter” suspicious reviews out. But it has also taken steps to stop fake reviews, including busting up what it called a “review swapping ring.”

Last year, Yelp penalized a group of businesses for paying for reviews, including one San Diego jeweler, according to The New York Times: 

[The jeweler said he] was forced to solicit reviews after others got away with doing it. “We have noticed that some of our larger, corporate run competitors have been unfairly trying to get reviews written for them on Yelp, which puts us at a disadvantage,” wrote [the jeweler]. He said he would pay $200 for a review of a new custom-designed ring.

For three months, Yelp put a little “badge of shame” on the companies’ profiles: “We caught someone red-handed trying to buy reviews for this business.”

Yet writing fake reviews can get you in trouble with more than just Yelp. It’s also considered deceptive advertising—and against the law:

[New York] Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman [on Sept. 23] announced that 19 companies had agreed to cease their practice of writing fake online reviews for businesses and to pay more than $350,000 in penalties. “Operation Clean Turf,” a year-long undercover investigation into the reputation management industry, the manipulation of consumer-review websites, and the practice of astroturfing, found that companies had flooded the Internet with fake consumer reviews on websites such as Yelp, Google Local, and CitySearch. … By producing fake reviews, these companies violated multiple state laws against false advertising and engaged in illegal and deceptive business practices.

Some 19 businesses received fines in the wake of the investigation, the New York state attorney  general’s news release said—including many local small businesses. This time, none were jewelers.

But Jewelers Vigilance Committee president and CEO Cecilia Gardner says we should expect to see more cases like this. 

Writing false reviews “is absolutely false advertising,” Gardner says. “I’m quite amazed when people are startled that it is deceptive.”

What some of these businesses allegedly did was clearly unethical, like recruiting and paying people to write good reviews of their company. Yet, even more common practices—such as people praising their own (or friend’s and families’) stores under an alias, or offering discounts to customers who write good reviews—may fall in a legal gray area.

Here, courtesy of JVC, are the FTC’s endorsement guides. These two points should be kept in mind:

Endorsements must be truthful and not misleading …

If there’s a connection between the endorser and the marketer of the product that would affect how people evaluate the endorsement, it should be disclosed.

So go ahead, talk about your company on Yelp. You can even answer any complaints you get. (This article includes guidelines on how to do that.) Just do it under your own name. Or else …

JCK News Director