Anyone who has ever wound up with a crappy meal or mysteriously shredded dry cleaning knows that to rely on Yelp is to play with fire. It's one thing, after all, to trust the General Public's palate when it comes to selecting a decent steak house—it's another when a company pays a freelancer to dream up entirely fantastical reviews. Luckily, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced today the bust of 19 companies posting fraudulent reviews, forcing them to A) stop it and B) pony up more than $350,000 in fines—or between $2,500 to $100,000 each.
"Operation Clean Turf"—a reference to the practice of "astroturfing," or masking the source of a message—was a year-long sting conducted by the attorney general to sniff out companies accused of paying far-flung freelancers to write favorable reviews on sites like Yelp, Google Maps and Citysearch. As the NY Times noted, "In some cases, the reputation shops bribed their clients’ customers to write more fake reviews, giving them $50 gift certificates for their trouble. They also went on review sites that criticized their own fake-review operations and wrote fake reviews denying they wrote fake reviews."
Many companies weren't terribly discreet when it came to their advertising tactics, often soliciting reviewers on forums like Craigslist. Here, horrifyingly, is one such ad from a New York City spa. Ew.:
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.
Like the spa, many of the places named in the bust, unfortunately, are the last places on Earth you want engaging in underhanded dealings. If you've booked a liposuction at Lite Touch Plastic Surgery because you read it's the BEST Place for Laser Hair Removal and much MORE!!!!"— cancel it. If you've booked a romantic date at Scores Gentlemen's Club because "they walk around in cute dressed that slip off easily"—cancel it. If you booked a massage at Metamorphosis Day Spa because "the masseuse at Metamorphosis...wielded a very powerful fist, but applied it gently, and with care; like Bruce Lee"—actually, keep that one. I'd like to know what that means.
According to a study conducted by Gartner, between 10 and 15 percent of social media reviews will be fake by 2014, so if you haven't already, it might be time to make some friends.