THE NEW YORK attorney general's office has collared 19 companies that posted fake reviews to popular websites.
It has also fined the firms $350,000 and made them promise not to post fake reviews again.
"Consumers rely on reviews from their peers to make daily purchasing decisions on anything from food and clothing to recreation and sightseeing," said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
"This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution. And companies that continue to engage in these practices should take note: 'Astroturfing' is the 21st century's version of false advertising, and prosecutors have many tools at their disposal to put an end to it."
The badvertisers had been posting fake reviews on websites including Yelp, Google Local and Citysearch, and were working hard to cover their tracks.
Freelance review writers were sourced from places far and wide, including the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe. The attorney general's office said that some were paid as little as $1 a review.
The prosecutors took down those companies involved through a yoghurt flavoured sting operation. Agents approached New York based search engine optimisation firms with their yoghurt shop and were offered a range of less than savoury advertising opportunities.
Although the legitimate web firms make efforts to filter out fakers, they can't always catch them all. Yelp praised the attorney general's office for its efforts.
"More than 100 million visitors come to Yelp each month, making it critical that Yelp protect the integrity of its content," said Yelp senior litigation counsel Aaron Schur.
"We take many steps to do this, including the use of automated filtering software, leveraging our vast user community for tips about suspicious content, undercover sting operations, legal action, and cooperation with law enforcement. We applaud New York Attorney General Schneiderman for his willingness to tackle the issue of illegal fake reviews head on, and for his success in shutting down these operators."
The 19 companies involved will have to pay fines ranging from $2,500 to just under $100,000. µ
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