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.