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Crime Spam The Courts

Brooklyn Yogurt Shop Sting Snares Fake Reviewers For NY Attorney General 168

Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Reuters reports that nineteen companies caught writing fake reviews on websites such as Yelp, Google Local and CitySearch have been snared in a year-long sting operation by the New York Attorney General and will pay $350,000 in penalties. The Attorney General's office set up a fake yogurt shop in Brooklyn, New York, and sought help from firms that specialize in boosting online search results to combat negative reviews. Search optimization companies offered to post fake reviews of the yogurt shop, created online profiles, and paid as little as $1 per review to freelance writers in the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe. To avoid detection the companies used 'advanced IP spoofing techniques' to hide their true identities. 'This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution,' said Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. 'More than 100 million visitors come to Yelp each month, making it critical that Yelp protect the integrity of its content,' said Aaron Schur, Yelp's Senior Litigation Counsel."
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Brooklyn Yogurt Shop Sting Snares Fake Reviewers For NY Attorney General

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  • ..as little? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gl4ss ( 559668 ) on Tuesday September 24, 2013 @08:08AM (#44932827) Homepage Journal

    that's huge money for such little work. especially in countries like bangladesh.

    • Re:..as little? (Score:4, Informative)

      by SJHillman ( 1966756 ) on Tuesday September 24, 2013 @08:11AM (#44932839)

      Depends on your perspective. If your perspective is a Bangladesh worker, it's huge. If your cost perspective is an American spender, it's tiny. This article is written for first-world readers, so $1 is tiny.

    • Re:..as little? (Score:4, Informative)

      by digitalchinky ( 650880 ) on Tuesday September 24, 2013 @08:32AM (#44932963)

      Nope, no money for a huge amount of work. This has been a growing industry here in the Philippines for at least the last 5 years. Google "sulit money from home" and you'll get an inkling of how popular it is. Most people get burned, promised a few thousand USD per month, never see a cent, and the only contact info they have is a cellphone number that is no longer in service. The majority of these businesses require an upfront 'starters' fee, usually somewhere around $50 to $100 USD - crazy, feeds and scams off the gullible at both ends. It brings a lot of money in to the country, so it won't stop any time soon.

      • So with that in mind, how about they change their reviews to:
          I was paid to write good review by [sleazy marketing co], but they are evil and never sent me any money.

        • So with that in mind, how about they change their reviews to:
              I was paid to write good review by [sleazy marketing co], but they are evil and never sent me any money.

          Then [sleazy marketing co]'s other stooges report the review as being against guidelines, and it is removed. Better to just flip the meaning. Change a good review to a bad one, or vice versa. Make it sound believable. Of course, that's just more work, and for no money...

  • by dkleinsc ( 563838 ) on Tuesday September 24, 2013 @08:10AM (#44932833) Homepage

    "Yogurt! Yogurt! I hate Yogurt! Even with strawberries."

  • by The_Star_Child ( 2660919 ) on Tuesday September 24, 2013 @08:11AM (#44932837)
    What has the world come to?!
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 24, 2013 @08:11AM (#44932843)

    it seems to me, if yelp is interested in preserving it's value to customers, part of that would be preventing fake reviews. why would we get our legal system involved? not to mention - when did it become illegal to lie on the internet...or conversly - when did the internet become even close to being legitimate enough that you need the legal system to protect it's truthfulness?

    • by SJHillman ( 1966756 ) on Tuesday September 24, 2013 @08:14AM (#44932851)

      Probably around the time billions of sales dollars a year are highly influenced by online reviews, articles, etc. It's always been illegal to lie online if the lying falls under libel or slander laws, as well as fraud, false advertising, etc.

      • by geminidomino ( 614729 ) on Tuesday September 24, 2013 @08:21AM (#44932893) Journal

        Yet, oddly enough, paying yelp to remove negative reviews doesn't seem to fall under those headers.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by kamapuaa ( 555446 )

          It's a myth. Negative yelp reviews will often stay there, no matter the company. 5 years ago or so these accusations were being made, it seems some Yelp salesmen were making unwarranted claims that advertising would make their negative reviews go away. So Yelp made their filtered reviews publicly available.

          Sorry to stand up for the big guys and obviously there is some fraud going on, but "pay yelp to get rid of negative reviews" isn't one of them.

      • Wait, IANAL but. Under Slander and Libel you have to show harm. False advertising is prosmising something you don't deliver on. Opinions that "these are the best waffles in the world" and "my salesman was the nicest and most helpful person ever" have never been an issue because they are opinion. Heck resturants advertise the best waffles in the world all the time, and since it can't be objectively proven...

        So again what is the exact crime, breaking Yelp's TOS?

        • IANAL, which is why I included the "etc" because I don't know all the legal ins and outs of those various laws. I would imagine it would fall under something like misleading the consumer because you're purporting to be another customer giving the review, not the company advertising its own product.

    • by Trepidity ( 597 )

      Given how broadly the computer-crime laws are written, they're lucky they didn't get thrown in jail for that "advanced IP spoofing"...

    • Seems like pretty straightforward fraud to me, and in addition it probably violates many consumer protection statutes. Besides, it's the NY Attorney General, not the federal government. People in NY like this kind of action from the Attorney General... it's what gets them elected.

    • not to mention - when did it become illegal to lie on the internet...

      It's called wire fraud, and it was illegal long before the Internet. Basically, it makes it a federal crime to use interstate electronic communications to knowingly spread false information for commercial gain.

  • Where's the Yogurt? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by barlevg ( 2111272 ) on Tuesday September 24, 2013 @08:34AM (#44932979)
    I'm unclear: was this fake Yogurt shop actually listed on Yelp? Or did he just pose as a Yogurt shop owner and seek the help of SEO firms?

    If the former, one might imagine a hapless Brooklynite trying to find this awesome place they read about on Yelp and being sorely disappointed when the address ended up being, what? A PO box? And then wouldn't they then go onto Yelp and report the address as wrong?
  • by schwit1 ( 797399 ) on Tuesday September 24, 2013 @08:48AM (#44933067)

    Where are the feds with this one? IP spoofing was one of the charges the feds used to intimidate Aaron Swartz.

  • Seinfeld Episode (Score:4, Insightful)

    by chill ( 34294 ) on Tuesday September 24, 2013 @08:51AM (#44933087) Journal

    This sounds suspiciously like a Seinfeld episode.

  • by Jason Levine ( 196982 ) on Tuesday September 24, 2013 @08:52AM (#44933099) Homepage

    This kind of thing has been going on for as long as there have been online comments about products. One of the first sites I ran was an infomercial product review site. I got some great reviews saying how good or awful products were (tip: don't buy Epil-Stop). I would also get a sudden flood of positive reviews on a product. At that time, the fake reviewers weren't too sophisticated so you could tell that the 100 positive reviews from 100 "different people" were coming from the same IP address. I'd junk them but even at the time it was a lot of effort for what was a one man operation. I can sympathize with the comments moderation teams at Yelp, Amazon, and any other place that accepts user comments on products but tries to weed out fake ones.

    • The fact that you cared about the quality of the reviews on your site makes you different, and sadly outdated in today's internet climate.

      Yelp is almost certainly in on the scam and making money on it. (It is the only way to explain why their site is the way it is.)
      Amazon just doesn't give a shit. (Though this leads to hilarious reviews.)

    • I can sympathize with the comments moderation teams at Yelp, Amazon

      They must be getting better at automating this - my reviews at Amazon are usually (but not always) getting posted in about 5 minutes these days, vs. days to hours in the past. My guess is they have an automated grading system with a worker who merely sanity checks the results.

  • What *exactly* have they been fined for? For being wrong on the Internet? There'd be huge financial opportunity in that.
  • Require reviewers to post a "selfie" with the product, at the place of business, and so on. They should have a profile picture too, naturally.

    • by swb ( 14022 )

      That will work well for a lot of personal care products.

      "Here's me with my hemorrhoid cream. Notice how easy it is to apply."

  • by koan ( 80826 )

    There's more than one kind of fake review.
    One is just straight up lying, they got paid to post but never actually used the service/product.
    The other is the way Apple does it, where just before the release of a new product "independent" tech blogs, and various other bottom feeding scum bubble up to praise their fruity overlords and go full gush on something they have never used (generate false excitement).

    Then there are the reviews that while true, they don't allow or they remove bad reviews.

    You're better of

  • ... until all the fake reviewers are in prison for 10 years, and the executives of the businesses doing this in prison for 30 years.

    • ... until all the fake reviewers are in prison for 10 years, and the executives of the businesses doing this in prison for 30 years.

      'Cause seeking vengeance with rape cages is so much better than implementing a reputation system that review sites could use to delegitimize fake reviewers.

  • Discovering fake stuff on the internet is easy. Proving which miscreants posted it is hard.
    The investigation sounds a lot like the one Wired wrote up about Google helping people get illegal drug sites high up in the PageRank.
    They had recordings from helpdesk people on how to get around it.
    Several recordings for (supposedly) different companies to help skirt the rules Google supposedly had in place.
    I don't know why people believe stuff they read on the internet. Probably for the same reason they believe
  • Starting a Tor client and using random exit nodes is "advanced"?

  • A year or two back I posted a review of a food truck that was positive about the product, but negative about some of the business practices of the truck. The vendor complained to Yelp, and they pulled the review because it wasn't just about the product itself. Business practices matter as well, at least they should. And the ease that the vendor had in getting a negative review turfed tells me that nothing on Yelp is to be trusted at all.

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