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Many consumers put a lot of faith in online user reviews when choosing where to buy goods or services. Websites host reviews for nearly everything, from restaurants to prisons. But the popularity of these sites has also created a booming market for fake positive reviews, which has undermined the credibility of review platforms. While Yelp and other sites have software that is designed to catch phony reviews, they continue to slip through the cracks. Now, Yelp is trying other methods to prevent fake reviews and in the process is drawing back the curtain on the world of online review sites.
Yelp has recently taken a number of actions to clean up its site. It created ‘Consumer Alerts’ for reviews that appear overly optimistic and started flagging businesses that it caught posting fake reviews. In September, however, Yelp took its efforts to the courts, filing lawsuits to show that it is serious about the issue.
One of the suits Yelp filed was against a Vancouver man who allegedly accepted money in exchange for writing positive reviews about several business or finding others to write reviews. Another suit targets a San Diego-based bankruptcy lawyer, Julian McMillan, whose employees allegedly wrote fake reviews about the firm, pretending to be clients. Yelp claimed $25,000 in damages to its business. McMillan, however, claims that Yelp’s suit is retaliation for a victory against Yelp in small claims court and his efforts to gather small business owners in a class action lawsuit against the company.
Yelp has acknowledged that the risk of losing credibility among users is a major risk to the company. Fake reviews are not the only threat to the site’s credibility, however. Yelp has received a lot of criticism for offering to hide negative reviews — for a price. Several business owners claimed that Yelp representatives called them shortly after they received negative reviews, offering to hide or remove the reviews for several hundred dollars a month. They also suspected that Yelp employees moved past negative reviews to the top of their review list before calling, and removed positive reviews or added negative ones when the owners declined to pay Yelp. The judge in McMillan’s case allegedly went so far as to call Yelp “the modern-day version of the mafia . . . .”
Whatever its motivations, Yelp isn’t the only one cracking down on fake reviews. Recently, New York’s Attorney General’s office conducted a year-long undercover investigation, dubbed “Operation Clean Turf,” to identify companies that commission or write fake online reviews, a process called ‘astroturfing.’ Officials found 19 companies using various techniques to post fake reviews, from concealing their IP addresses to paying individuals in other countries $1-$10 per review. One company, Zamdel, allegedly posted over 1,500 fake reviews on sites like Yelp and Google Places. The accused companies now face fines ranging from $2,500 to nearly $100,000.
Fake reviews will not disappear any time soon, but it will probably become increasingly difficult to create them on a large scale now that companies and states are both cracking down. Although consumers may read online reviews with more skepticism after the broad publicity of fake reviews, host sites will likely continue to thrive nonetheless.
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