NEW YORK — Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today 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. This operation also uncovered that many agencies selling SEO services do not know how to screen potential clients.
Posing as the owner of a yogurt shop in Brooklyn, representatives from Attorney General Schneiderman’s office called the leading SEO companies in New York to request assistance in combating negative reviews on consumer-review websites. 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.
“While engaging in the practice of writing fake online reviews is reprehensible,” Attorney General Schneiderman said, “What’s really amazing is how these so-called ‘reputation management experts’ couldn’t easily figure out that the yogurt shop was a fake business.”
The Attorney General’s office has released the following set of recommendations for SEO agencies to follow any time they get a call from a business requesting a fake review program:
- Search Google for the business’ name in quotes. If there are no results, they could be a fake business.
- Search Google for the business’ telephone number in quotes. If there are no results, they could be a fake business.
- Search the website of the Secretary of State for the state where the business is located. If they are not listed in the state’s business database, they could be a fake business.
- Search Google Maps for the business at their given address. If they do not show up, they could be a fake. Do not try the same search on Apple Maps. It’s not a valid test.
“Unfortunately” said a noted reputation management consultant who wished to remain anonymous but had reviewed the recommendations, “These fake businesses don’t sound any different than most real ones.”