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seeking assistance from search engine optimization (SEO) companies in rehabilitating the shop's online reputation. During these discussions, some of these ...
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OCTOBER 2013

ADVERTISING, MARKETING & PROMOTIONS

>> ALERT NEW YORK ATTORNEY GENERAL TAKES ACTION AGAINST FAKE ONLINE REVIEWS New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman recently announced that 19 companies agreed to cease their practice of writing fake online reviews. These settlements are the result of “Operation Clean Turf,” an investigation into the manipulation of consumer-review websites, such as Yelp, Google Local and CitySearch, by the companies that create these fake reviews, as well as the clients that pay for them. BACKGROUND Over the course of a year, representatives from the New York Attorney General’s office posed as owners of a Brooklyn yogurt shop seeking assistance from search engine optimization (SEO) companies in rehabilitating the shop’s online reputation. During these discussions, some of these companies offered to write or obtain fake reviews of the shop and post the fake reviews on consumer-review websites as part of their reputation management services. The investigation also revealed that the SEO companies set up false online profiles on consumer-review websites and used IP spoofing techniques to hide their identities in order to post fake reviews. In addition, the companies solicited reviews from foreign freelance writers, from countries such as the Philippines and Bangladesh, paying $1 to $10 per fake review.

THE BOTTOM LINE As the SEO companies become increasingly sophisticated in providing fake online reviews, regulators and review sites will need to continue to monitor reviews to help ensure their veracity. Businesses that use SEO companies should conduct due diligence to ensure that the SEO companies are not soliciting fake reviews on their behalf as there will likely be more enforcement against astroturfers in this area in the future.

Brazenly, the companies even posted on Craigslist, Freelancer.com and other sites to solicit bogus reviews. For example, one company posted the following advertisement to solicit reviews: “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.” The New York Attorney General entered into Assurances of Discontinuance with 19 of the companies investigated and issued penalties totaling more than $350,000 and ranging from $2,500 to slightly under $100,000 per company. Under the agreements, the companies also agreed to cease writing and soliciting fake online reviews.

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Attorney Advertising 1384

OCTOBER 2013

ADVERTISING, MARKETING & PROMOTIONS >> ALERT ILLEGALITY OF ASTROTURFING Publishing fictitious reviews is a form of false advertising known as “astroturfing.” Astroturfing violates New York General Business Law Sections 349 and 350, and violations could result in further actions by the

New York Attorney General’s office. Despite the laws against astroturfing, research indicates that the number of fake reviews on consumer-review sites is expected to increase over the next year.

FOR MORE INFORMATION Ronald R. Urbach Chairman/Co-Chair 212.468.4824 [email protected] Allison Fitzpatrick Partner 212.468.4866 [email protected] Alison Winter Associate 212.468.4976 [email protected] or the D&G attorney with whom you have regular contact.

Davis & Gilbert LLP T: 212.468.4800 1740 Broadway, New York, NY 10019 www.dglaw.com © 2013 Davis & Gilbert LLP