New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman made Page One news yesterday, Sept. 23, in the New York Times with his announcement that he had shaken down $350,000 from 19 companies he had accused of violating “laws against false advertising” and which “engaged in illegal and deceptive business practices.”
Schneiderman didn’t call the $350,000 collected a “shakedown” in his press release. Rather, he called it an “agreement” with 19 New York firms in exchange for their promise to stop flooding such websites as Yelp, Google Local, and Citysearch with fake online consumer reviews. The fake reviews, written for pay by freelancers both here and abroad, were purchased for as little as $1 a pop, and sang the praises of a charter bus company, a teeth-whitening emporium, a strip club, and a hair-removal service, among other companies. Both “reputation management” companies procuring the fake reviews and companies that purchased the fake reviews entered into the agreement with the attorney general.
That the reader reviews appearing in Yelp and Citysearch pages might be as loaded as a pair of dice at a floating craps game will not astonish anybody who has ever read those pages. On more than one occasion, I have struggled to find a single trustworthy review beneath a restaurant or services listing. The positive reviews always read too positive, as if composed by somebody with a neurotransmitter imbalance, and too many of the negative reviews seem animated by some vile but unnamed transgression committed by the proprietor. Had the attorney general’s investigators desired to perform a useful public service, they would have found the honest reviews on consumer referral sites and marked those pages with a yellow highlighter.
Of course, honest Yelp reviews can be as potentially dangerous to the well-being of consumers as dishonest ones produced for pay. Let’s say some tongueless fool fancies himself a connoisseur of Mexican food, starts contributing his rave views of this cantina and that taqueria to Yelp, and readers start following his advice. Perhaps I go too far to describe an incorrect opinion stated forcefully as fraud, but surely the consumer damage done by the misinformed online reviewers equals or surpasses the consumer damage done by the paid writers of fake reviews. Where is the New York attorney general when you need him to exterminate that class of fraud?
If Attorney General Schneiderman were serious about stamping out the “large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet” that he claims to be investigating, he’d look into the “sponsored content” racket (aka, “native advertising”), in which online publishers accept money from advertising clients (Logitech, Scientology, Coca-Cola, Dell, et al.) to dress up advertising messages in the cloth and stitching of editorial content. These pages are easily larger-scale and more intentionally deceitful than any of the scams described in Schneiderman’s press release.