Businesses Hit With $350,000 in Fines for Fake Online Reviews

writing fake online reviews

Writing fake online reviews can land your business in serious trouble and cost you more than you gained in reputation or sales. Just ask 19 businesses caught in New York’s “Operation Clean Turf.”

The undercover investigation snagged SEO companies and small businesses engaged in an activity Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman is calling “astroturfing.”

Schneiderman’s office defines astroturfing as the “practice of preparing or disseminating a false or deceptive review that a reasonable consumer would believe to be a neutral, third-party review.”

The technique is a form of false advertising, according to the state Attorney General.

An announcement from Schneiderman’s office says the investigation uncovered businesses that allegedly created false accounts on review sites like Yelp, Google Local and CitySearch.

The companies then hired freelancers in the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe to write reviews for between $1 and $10 a piece, Schneiderman’s office said.

Schneiderman’s office shared some of the ads allegedly posted on sites like Craigslist, and like this one by an SEO company:

“We need a person that can post multiple positive reviews on major REVIEW sites. Example: Google Maps, Yelp, CitySearch. Must be from different IP addresses… So you must be able to have multiple IPs. The reviews will be only few sentences long. Need to have some understanding on how Yelp filters works. Previous experience is a plus…just apply –) we are a marketing company.”

Sting Uncovers Businesses Writing Fake Online Reviews

Schneiderman’s office uncovered the fake online review writing activities with a year-long sting operation.

Posing as proprietors of a yogurt shop in Brooklyn, investigators called local SEO firms about problems with negative reviews on sites like Yelp.

Some SEO firms contacted offered fake review writing as part of their “reputation management” services, Schneiderman’s office said.

The investigation also uncovered hundreds of fake profiles created on social media review sites and complex techniques used by companies to mask user IPs and hide the true identities of these accounts.

Nineteen companies entered into agreements with the attorney general’s office to pay between $2,500 and $100,000 in fines and avoid further prosecution.

This isn’t the first time writing fake online reviews has resulted in legal troubles. Recently, Yelp filed suit for writing fake reviews against a San Diego law firm, claiming it had faked some of its own reviews on the site.

Fake Photo via Shutterstock


Shawn Hessinger Shawn Hessinger is the Executive Editor for Small Business Trends and a professional journalist with more than 20 years experience in traditional and digital media for trade publications and news sites. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has served as a beat reporter, columnist, editorial writer, bureau chief and managing editor for the Berks Mont Newspapers.

19 Reactions
  1. Ouch! Those fines are painful and having the AG get into the thick of it marks a much more aggressive approach.

    What’s truly sad is that companies need these fake reviews. Even companies with poor customer service tend to have at least a handful of customers that would give them a positive review. The key is to get these happy customers to voice their opinions, not just the negative Nancys.

  2. I know I might get opposed for this. But I personally don’t see anything wrong with fake reviews especially if a certain company is able to match the quality of the product or service indicated in the review. Could this just be another way of extracting money from businesses? I don’t know. These reviews are necessary if a new company is to rival an old and established company. So why deny them of that?

  3. Depending on where you come from, ‘Astroturfing’ might be acceptable in certain cultures but not in others where there is a heavy penalty in doing so.

  4. This is great and they should definitely be fined. I have heard of cases from different restaurants where people come in and explicitly tell the manager of the restaurant to give them free food or they will write a bad review. Sometimes it works in their favor but most times they get kicked out of the restaurant.
    Makes you wonder how useful some reviews that you read online really are.

  5. Yelp should and MUST continue to force businesses to be listed on Yelp against the wishes of a business owner that requests removal. The very notion that a business owner can decide how they want to advertise or not advertise their own business is abominable and disgusting!