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New York Attorney General Cracks Down On Fake Online Reviews

Businesses That Solicit Fake Review Can Mean Danger For Consumers, A.G. Says

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NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — If you rely on online reviews for the inside scoop on businesses, some new revelations suggest you might want to rethink your strategy.

As CBS 2’s Janelle Burrell reported, an investigation by the New York Attorney General’s office found that some New York City companies have been paying people to write positive reviews to boost their reputations online.

“They will write dozens and dozens of phony reviews and actually provide strategy for how to force bad reviews down further on the website,” Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said.

All it takes is a simple Google search to find ads looking for people to write and post fake online reviews.

“I’m in need of someone to post reviews that I send to various websites,” one ad read.

Schneiderman said other business owners asked their employees to post positive reviews, WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell reported.

The practice wasn’t met with approval among Tri-State Area residents who spoke to CBS 2 Monday.

“It’s misleading, for sure,” one resident said.

“It’s not right that they’re doing that, to have people writing reviews and they’ve never been there,” added Sherrie Tolbert of Mount Vernon.

But false reviews on websites such as Yelp.com, Google Local, and CitySearch are more common than one might think.

In an undercover investigation dubbed “Operation Clean Turf,” state prosecutors found 19 businesses using made-up profiles or paying others to post deceptive ratings through third-party reputation management companies.

“These companies were soliciting people to write phony reviews from as far away as Eastern Europe and Bangladesh,” Schneiderman.

The writers of the fake reviews are sometimes paid as little as $1 to do it, officials told 1010 WINS’ Sonia Rincon.

“It is worse than false advertising,” Schneiderman said. “If you see an advertisement that you know comes from the company, like a billboard, you know that the company’s paying for it.”

Among the companies alleged to have used fake reviews was the Metamorphosis Day Spa in Midtown East. The owner of the spa denied the allegations.

“No, it’s wrong,” she said.

But Schneiderman said the company is one of 19 being fined between $2,500 and $100,000.

“It’s settled,” the spa owner said. “Whatever it was, they found out it was a mistake.”

But Schneiderman said it is a crime, known as “astroturfing,” which can be dangerous.

“Doctors and dentists and clinics that deal with health issues like weight loss — this can be very dangerous,” Schneiderman said. “This is not just a matter of fraud. This is a matter of public safety.”

The impact of online reviews on businesses can be significant. A recent study shows that 90 percent of consumers say positive of online reviews influence what they buy.

But with the warnings, many shoppers said they are now doing their homework.

“I think the best sources to ask are friends, directly, who have been there,” said Lauren Salze of the Upper West Side.

“Can’t trust too many people,” added Sean Mash of the Upper West Side. “This is New York City.”

Officials said it is a lesson in online safety that can save you and your wallet.

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