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New York's attorney general gets promises from 19 businesses to halt the practice of producing conjured-up reviews.
Sorting through online reviews can really pay off for consumers who are looking to filter product choices or make purchasing decisions. But what if what they were reading was not produced by other consumers at all, but rather by companies paid to promote the products and services?
It happens a lot more than many consumers realize, making it a challenge to parse out the legitimate reviews from the phony ones.
New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman's office took some steps to cleaning up the playing field on Monday -- announcing that 19 companies agreed to stop writing phony reviews. They will collectively pay more than $350,000 in penalties.
"Consumers rely on reviews from their peers to make daily purchasing decisions on anything from food and clothing to recreation and sightseeing," Schneiderman said. "This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution."
Investigators said websites including Yelp, Google Local, and CitySearch were peppered with paid reviews. Writers were paid $1 to $10 for the reviews, according to Schneiderman's office. Some were written by contractors in Bangladesh, Eastern Europe and the Philippines.
Schneiderman's investigators pretended they were the owner of a yogurt shop in Brooklyn and were seeking help from search engine optimization companies to help deal with negative consumer reviews. As part of their "reputation management" services, the companies offered to write their own reviews.
They used high-tech tools to fake where they were located and created phony identities to write the reviews, the attorney general's office said.
A lot of the sites have taken significant steps to find and delete the phony reviews, including Yelp, Schneiderman's office said.
"More than 100 million visitors come to Yelp each month, making it critical that Yelp protect the integrity of its content," Yelp's Senior Litigation Counsel Aaron Schur said. "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."Among the companies that agreed to stop the practice of posting phony reviews, known as "astroturfing," and pay a penalty:
- Zamdel, doing business as eBoxed, an SEO company that posted more than 1,500 fake reviews.
- XVIO, an SEO company that posted "hundreds" of fake reviews and ran a so-called secret shopper campaign that provided free or discounted goods and services in exchange for reviews.
- Laser Cosmetica, a laser hair-removal business that hired an SEO company to post fake reviews and told employees and friends to do the same.
- US Coachways, a bus charter company that produced its own phony reviews, had employers pose as customers and paid customers to write positive comments.
"In today’s online environment, customers need to be at the center both in services and with instilling trust, Booking.com Chief Marketing Officer Paul Hennessy said. "In that effort, all 24 million reviews on Booking.com are by invite only to customers who have booked through the website."
Here are some tips to consider when reading reviews:
- Be skeptical of those with overly glowing language or marketing terms as well as those that seem to go to an extreme in a negative direction. You'll get a better sense of reality from those that focus on the actual experience or use of a product.
- If a review really catches your attention, click on the reviewer's name to see other comments posted by the same person. It can give you a sense whether the commenter is a serial complainer or perhaps only writes positive reviews for a certain brand.
- Be leery of reviews that try to explain away problems cited in other reviews.
More from MSN Money:
I don't trust reviews unless they come from trusted online magazines, etc. One exception is sites like Amazon, where you can get a good idea from reviews that aren't all that glowing.
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