Plastic Surgery Co. Settles with NYS over False Reviews

In an agreement yesterday that portends significant change in local search marketing, New York State Attorney General, Andrew Cuomo secured a $300,000 settlement with Lifestyle Lift, a cosmetic surgery company that “flooded the internet with false positive reviews”. The press release claims that this is believed to be the first case in the nation against “astroturfing” on the Internet.

From the release:

Lifestyle Lift employees published positive reviews and comments about the company to trick Web-browsing consumers into believing that satisfied customers were posting their own stories. These tactics constitute deceptive commercial practices, false advertising, and fraudulent and illegal conduct under New York and federal consumer protection law. The settlement marks a strike against the growing practice of “astroturfing,” in which employees pose as independent consumers to post positive reviews and commentary to Web sites and Internet message boards about their own company.”

“This company’s attempt to generate business by duping consumers was cynical, manipulative, and illegal,” said Attorney General Cuomo. “My office has and will continue to be on the forefront in protecting consumers against emerging fraud and deception, including ‘astroturfing,’ on the Internet.”

Internal emails discovered by Attorney General Cuomo’s investigation show that Lifestyle Lift employees were given specific instructions to engage in this illegal activity. One e-mail to employees said: “Friday is going to be a slow day – I need you to devote the day to doing more postings on the web as a satisfied client.” Another internal email directed a Lifestyle Lift employee to “Put your wig and skirt on and tell them about the great experience you had.”

In addition to posting on various Internet message board services, Lifestyle Lift also registered and created stand-alone Web sites, such as MyFaceliftStory.com, designed to appear as if they were created by independent and satisfied customers of Lifestyle Lift. The sites offered positive narratives about the Lifestyle Lift experience. Some of these sites purported to offer forums for users to add their own comments about Lifestyle Lift. In reality, however, Lifestyle Lift either provided all the “user comments” themselves, or closely monitored and edited third-party comments to skew the discussion in favor of Lifestyle Lift. Examples of these narratives can be downloaded at www.oag.state.ny.us/bureaus/internet_bureau/pdfs/LifestyleLiftStories.pdf.

According to the Attorney General’s settlement, Lifestyle Lift employees will no longer pose as consumers when publishing on the Internet. The company will not promote Lifestyle Lift’s services on the Internet without clearly and conspicuously disclosing that they are responsible for the content. The company will also pay $300,000 in penalties and costs to New York State.

This settlement should come as welcome news in the wild west of local marketing as it not only strikes at bogus reviews but at deceptive and misleading websites. Obviously the cases are many and State resources are few but it won’t take many cases like this to grab the attention of locksmiths, lawyers and others to force a change to their online marketing strategies.

Will Scott has an excellent piece relating to this settlement and how small businesses should approach the review process ethically.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Plastic Surgery Co. Settles with NYS over False Reviews by

15 thoughts on “Plastic Surgery Co. Settles with NYS over False Reviews”

  1. Thanks for the info, Mike. Very informative! I’m really hoping this raises some eyebrows to any who does the same. The strange thing is the ones I see doing this same thing happen to be in the legal field.

  2. It certainly is a shot across the bow of anyone that systematically does this and there are many. I don’t think one case will be enough to put an end to it and it may just drive unethical marketers into more sophisticated behaviors (hmm…what is marketing anyways?).

    Yes it is bizarre that the some in legal field would stoop to such depths but there are, like locksmiths & cosmetic surgery, some more focused on high returns than integrity in their internet marketing.

  3. It’s interesting how the internet creates a disconnect for some people where posting fake stuff is so easy to do it must be acceptable. When talking to clients about online reviews and how they influence things, in particular Maps rankings, there is s certain number of people who’s first thought is “we can just write a bunch of fake reviews”. I discourage them citing various reason like “Google can see your IP address and may notice duplicates”, “most fake reviews read just like that, fake”, “leaving the same review across multiple review sites ends up creating duplicates inside Gmaps when they aggregate the data”, etc… Now I have a new one to add to the list…It’s Illegal and you might face a very expensive slap on the wrist!

  4. This is very interesting to me. I see how the systematic abuse would violate the laws mentioned. However, what seems strangely absent is any mention of systematic abuse by competitors who engage in defamation and personal attacks to drive business away from others. I’d like to see the States and Feds regulate these false reviews that are damaging to businesses which are left defenseless when it happens. Especially in smaller areas where most businesses only garner 5-10 reviews total.
    How would you advise a client who is a victim of this type of thing – many review sites have no mechanism for owner feedback, and some I would say even censor it.

  5. @Larry

    The whole review world is pretty screwy and in the absence of meaningful legal oversight will continue to be the wild west.

    I would recommend a 4 prong strategy:

    1)Run a truly great business that focuses first and foremost on the customer so that you have happy customers

    2) Implement an honest customer focused review process that encourages customers to leave meaningful reviews. Perhaps having a page on your website leading people to the appropriate website and email contact after the sale encouraging them to leave you feedback.

    3)Creating some reputation management tracking system where you manually watch critical sites and automate alerts via Google Alerts that alerts to track any and all mentions of your name

    4)When you do find libelous or competitor placed reviews work with the website to have them removed.

    It may not be successful all the time but following the above you will encourage enough good reviews that they might offset bogus ones and you will be able to track and hopefully counteract the bogus ones.

  6. @Mike

    Thanks for the input.

    We already do this on a regular basis. We are currently looking at filing a Jane Doe suit to get the info on the offending parties (we have credible suspicions of who is behind it – one of whom may be a deep pocket). We are the new and more successful business in town, and it is no secret that the older businesses are gunning for us. We do run a great business, but it’s disheartening when someone can anonymously wreck tens of thousands of spending on advertising and goodwill.

    When the offending parties business gets slow, we tend to get a flare up and I have to contact Google, Yahoo, etc. We’ve had success in either getting the offending posts removed or resetting the entire LBL, but this is a major PITA.

    Does anyone know if there is general rumbling in the business sector for an amendment requiring hosts of reviews to provide an owner response/investigation mechanism? I’m not talking prior restraint, but at least some way to mitigate or remove.

  7. It is patently clear that reviews are a mixed bag with regard to businesses and the web. The wide distribution and availability of reviews is positive for a business when honest, and destructive when dishonest.

    More to the point honest reviews are a gift to consumers. What better advice is there than word of mouth either extolling or criticising a business.

    Regardless, the proliferation of reviews and its usage as a mechanism for evaluating and ranking the importance of businesses within Google Maps opens up a can of worms.

    Ultimately, a clever business or local seo is going to “create reviews” to rank higher in Maps.

    I was intriqued when reviewing maps rankings for Dentists in two small adjacent towns.

    At the top of the maps listings for both adjacent towns was a dentist with 49 reviews. There was some overlap amongst listed dentists, but of the 15 listed dentists following the top ranked dentist…the next most reviews was 12.

    Huge difference between 49 and 12. Bigger difference between 49 and the average number of reviews per dentist (about 6). Its statistically not reasonable.

    The dentist with the most reviews uses a medical email/communications system for customers that includes an opportunity for reviews DemandForce. The vast majority of the 49 came from that source. The dentist pays for the communications system.

    A totally independant medical review source is ratemds. The dentist with the 49 reviews, most coming from DemandForce had reviews from ratemds.com.

    I’m not saying the reviews were faked at all as in the example Mike wrote about above. I’m simply pointing out how the volume of reviews has an enormous impact on rankings within Maps….and it is incredibly subject to manipulation.

    I operate businesses of certain types. In one industry there are virtually no independently generated reviews. Virtually none. In fact before reviews got popular in web use, I scoured the internet for review commentary on the industry and in particular our business.

    Two things: Most review commentary was critical. Happily our business didn’t receive any of that negativity for years. There was relatively little positive public commentary anywheres on the internet.

    Now I look at some businesses in the industry in a certain market….and the business ranked first in Google Maps has HUNDREDS of positive reviews. HUNDREDS. I was speaking with one of their competitors. The competitor has just under 100 reviews. He laughed in acknowledgement with me……our customer “types” don’t tend to write reviews.

    Most of these businesses generate an “internal” critique review for customers. It is given to customers after completing the service. The “internal” review was essentially used to see if the business was meeting customer expectations.

    None of these reviews historically saw public light.

    Artificially generating reviews to rank higher in Google Maps does nothing for consumers, does nothing for generating a “better maps listing”, and simply creates a lot of busy work to “spam”/manipulate Maps.google.com rankings.

    Generating reviews as referenced above in the blog piece has been deemed criminal and justifiably so. Faked reviews are manipulative. If they can criminally be used to manipulate consumers they can be used to manipulate search engine algos.

    I simply think Google should diminish the importance of reviews as an algo element. At the least it would be simple mathematics to evaluate a relatively large number of reviews…(such as 49) relative to the next highest number (12) or an average of 6….and determine that there is something inappropriate in that volume. Then recalculate rankings with a somewhat diminished value attached to reviews.

    That would keep the Maps.Google engineers busy for a while and out of trouble :D

  8. I can assure you Life styles is not the only company that is posting false ratings information so that consumers can feel like the site and physician have many reviews. I know several other sites that are offering free doctor ratings and are gaming the system, however they have not been caught yet.

    Donna

  9. Have you heard the commercial on the EIB (Rush Limbaugh) radio network? Reputation management is the soup of the day. A firm claims to be able to eliminate negative Google reviews. GMap SPAM is reaching new heights. Not just bogus by owner, black hats and competition sources but fictitious business addressees and the use of multiple descriptive keywords in business title field abound. Violations of published guidelines that also influence a positive ranking performance? Very disheartening indeed.

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