New York regulators will announce on Monday the most comprehensive crackdown to date on deceptive reviews on the Internet. Agreements have been reached with 19 companies to cease their misleading practices and pay a total of $350,000 in penalties.
The yearlong investigation encompassed companies that create fake reviews as well as the clients that buy them. Among those signing the agreements are a charter bus operator, a teeth-whitening service, a laser hair-removal chain and an adult entertainment club. Also signing are several reputation-enhancement firms that place fraudulent reviews on sites like Google, Yelp, Citysearch and Yahoo.
A phony review of a restaurant may lead to a bad meal, which is disappointing. But the investigation uncovered a wide range of services buying fake reviews that could do more permanent damage: dentists, lawyers, even an ultrasound clinic.
“What we’ve found is even worse than old-fashioned false advertising,” said Eric T. Schneiderman, the New York attorney general. “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, making this practice even more deceiving.”