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19 companies fined $350,000 for fake online reviews

After a lengthy investigation, one state has cracked down on fake online reviews, particularly on Yelp, fining nearly 20 companies a total of $350,000. It just got real.

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Fake Yelp reviews cost brands big time

Yelp recently filed a lawsuit against a lone law firm, alleging fake reviews, getting the ball rolling on their taking legal action against companies seeking to boost their profile by faking reviews or buying fake reviews. They’ve been policing the site for some time now and businesses are known for suing each other over defamatory comments, but news out of New York has just made it even costlier for businesses faking reviews.

New York’s Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has announced that after a year-long investigation (“Operation Clean Turf”), 19 companies have agreed to pay fines for writing fake reviews on Yelp, totaling $350,000 in penalties.

Because fake reviews are considered astroturfing, wherein a commenter on a website, be it Yelp, a blog, or otherwise, posts commentary acting as a disinterested third party, hiding (aka lying about) their affiliation with the company being defended or positively reviewed. Review sites like Yelp have been tainted with this behavior, by companies themselves and by freelancers hired to write positive reviews and make them look legitimate.

Aside from Yelp cracking down, New York has begun what could become a trend of other states investigating and fining companies that pad their reviews online, not just on Yelp but on Citysearch, Google Local, and others, according to Schneiderman.

In a statement, the AG said, ” In the course of the investigation, the Attorney General’s office found that many of these companies used techniques to hide their identities, such as creating fake online profiles on consumer review websites and paying freelance writers from as far away as the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe for $1 to $10 per review. By producing fake reviews, these companies violated multiple state laws against false advertising and engaged in illegal and deceptive business practices.”

Astroturfing is referred to as false advertising by AG

“Consumers rely on reviews from their peers to make daily purchasing decisions on anything from food and clothing to recreation and sightseeing,” Schneiderman noted. “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.”

As a result of the investigation, the following 19 companies involved have agreed to stop astroturfing and will cough up anywhere from $2,500 to $100,000 each:

  1. A&E Wig Fashions, Inc. d/b/a A&E and NYS Surgery Center
  2. A.H. Dental P.C. d/b/a Platinum Dental
  3. Body Laser Spa Inc.
  4. The Block Group, LLC, d/b/a Laser Cosmetica and LC MedSpa, LLC
  5. Bread and Butter NY, LLC d/b/a La Pomme Nightclub and Events Space
  6. Envision MT Corp.
  7. iSEOiSEO
  8. Medical Message Clinic and HerballYours.com
  9. Metamorphosis Day Spa, Inc.
  10. Outer Beauty, P.C., Lite Touch Plastic Surgery, P.C., Staten Island Special Surgery, P.C., Sans Pareil Surgical, PLLC
  11. Stillwater Media Group
  12. Swan Media Group, Inc. and Scores Media Group, LLC
  13. US Coachways Limousine, Inc. and US Coachways, Inc.
  14. Utilities International, Inc. d/b/a Main Street Host
  15. The Web Empire, LLC
  16. Webtools, LLC and Webtools Internet Solutions Ltd.
  17. West Village Teeth Whitening Service, LLC; Magic Smile, Inc., aka Magic Smile
  18. XVIO, Inc.
  19. Zamdel, Inc. d/b/a eBoxed

How did these companies get away with it in the first place?

These companies didn’t just fool the Yelp system, they manipulated Google Places, Yahoo! Local, Citysearch, Judy’s Book, InsiderPages.com and more. One company posted over 1,500 fake reviews online by masking their IP address so there were no red flags on the review sites’ end.

Another company offered free or discounted services in exchange for positive reviews, while another hired an SEO company to post fake reviews. Another company blatantly solicited freelance writers from Fiverr.com and oDesk.com to write fake reviews, and asked employees to pose as customers and write positive reviews. That same company offered $50 gift certificates to customers willing to write positive reviews without disclosing the gift in the review.

There are many ways to cheat the system, but after years of these abuses, the review sites and law enforcement are getting involved and wising up, costing businesses big time. We hope in the future to see punishments of the very people and review mills generating these fake reviews in mass.

Marti Trewe reports on business and technology news, chasing his passion for helping entrepreneurs and small businesses to stay well informed in the fast paced 140-character world. Marti rarely sleeps and thrives on reader news tips, especially about startups and big moves in leadership.

Social Media

Why your Instagram follower counts might be jacked

(SOCIAL MEDIA) What’s going on with Instagram follower counts? It’s a v-day bug, of course!

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Yesterday, I did what I usually do on Instagram – peruse through my own profile because I enjoy my photos. Though my follower count is nothing to write home about, I was confused when I noticed I had lost about 10 followers and had mysteriously unfollowed about the same number of people.

To quote Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, “I was like, totally buggin’”. Turns out, bug was the operative prefix as a bug was cause for the issue, and many users were feeling the bite.

TechCrunch shared that Instagram confirmed the bug was the problem causing follower counts to change. The social media platform also said that the issue should be resolved by 9 a.m. PST on Valentine’s Day (because the only love worth celebrating is that of your follower count!)

At first, many users, myself included, assumed that the decrease in followers came from an attempt from Instagram to remove fake spam accounts. However, when we noticed that our following count had also gone down, that was when people took to Twitter to complain.

One user wrote, “so I just lost like 4K on Instagram and it unfollowed like 100 people within a matter of minutes? what’s going on [whining emoji] like I’m not mad about my follower count cause I’d rather have less spam followers and better engagement but like why is it unfollowing people?!”

Instagram also used Twitter as a way to explain the issue, which is where they shared that the problem should be fixed by Thursday morning. “We’re aware of an issue that is causing a change in account follower numbers for some people right now. We’re working to resolve this as quickly as possible,” the company tweeted on February 13. “Update: we’re expecting to have this issue resolved by 9 a.m. PST tomorrow. We understand this is frustrating, and our team is hard at work to get things back to normal.”

My follower/following count went back to normal a few hours after I noticed the issue, but it may take just a bit longer for all users to see the counts restored.

Share with us below if this issue threw off your social media game yesterday!

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Fallout from Facebook’s shady program spying on children

(SOCIAL MEDIA) Facebook is barely even trying to be sneaky anymore, paying children to allow them to spy. Shameless.

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Facebook recently landed in hot (boiling) water when it was uncovered that Facebook has been paying teens to install a “research” VPN on their devices that would allow the tech giant to see all of the teen’s cellular and web usage, for about $20 worth of gift cards each month.

The participants were largely recruited into the program as a result of targeted Snapchat and Instragram ads, and offered participants additional incentives to refer friends into the program too.

The purpose of this Big Brother program was not to empower young minds with technological innovation, but to use all of this data to track Facebook’s competitors, keep track of emerging trends, and otherwise be creepin’ on the kids. The program reportedly went so far as to ask users to share screenshots of their Amazon order history pages.  

According to the report: “Facebook sidesteps the App Store and rewards teenagers and adults to download the Research app and give it root access to network traffic in what may be a violation of Apple policy so the social network can decrypt and analyze their phone activity.”

Oh, and if the privacy concerns of this whole program weren’t terrifying enough; it has been going on since 2016.

Almost immediately after the news broke, Apple banned Facebook’s Research VPN and shut down the iOs version of the Research app, before Facebook could suspend the program voluntarily. Apple also released a statement condemning the program and Facebook’s shady choice to hide it in the iOs Developer certificate rather than the App Store (where apps that collect personal data have been banned since last summer).

This entire debacle highlights the murky borders of online consent when children and teens are involved. Not only are teens less likely to be aware of the risks of sharing their data, but also often parental “consent” is not real. There’s no verification of parental consent; if a teen checks a box in an online form saying that they are their parent—the website is none the wiser. The same is true for many age verification processes.

If you are a real parent reading this and want to check to make sure that your teen’s not selling their personal data for pennies, you LifeHacker has instructions to help you identify whether or not they are in the program (and get them out of it!).

This entire debacle is a nice reminder that large tech companies may offer innovative services, high salaries to employees, and strange new ways of keeping in touch with people we’d probably forgotten by now, but the product is not the social networks they build.

The product that Facebook, Google, Amazon, and other giants are really interested in is data – we’ve been reporting that for over a decade now. Their treatment of people that may not even be able to consent to sharing their data highlights this narrow goal. If you a not a person, but rather a collection of market insights, what does your age matter? It’s just another variable for the algorithms (robots).

The upside of this entire debacle is that many parents previously unaware of this type of program are now talking to their children about this topic.

Further, this gives politicians more tangible evidence of why media companies like Facebook should never get a free pass for bad behavior.

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We’re skeptical of FB’s reason for killing the Moments app

(SOCIAL MEDIA) Facebook is killing Moments. Turns out, most people don’t know it exists – here’s what we’ll all be missing.

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January was the longest year ever, amirite guys? Now all that’s over, we can finally say goodbye to toxic things like Whole 30 oversharers and, if we’re lucky, terrible products from tech giants.

I love writing about tech companies’ failed attempts at ~cool~ new products. Honestly, it’s become a personal hobby, or, dare I say, delight. Nothing warms my ice cold heart like seeing Google Glass, Google+, and the Facebook “Moments” app go up in flames.

*record screeches*

Wait, hold up… there was a Facebook Moments app? What the heck is (or was) the Moments app?

In case if you didn’t know like most people, here’s what you need to know:

Moments was originally created in 2015 as a way for Facebook users to privately share photos outside of the standard Facebook platform. The app implemented machine learning and facial recognition technology to help group photos, and then “recommended” who to share the photos with based off who was in the picture.

Get off my lawn.

If there’s anything we learned in 2018, it’s that we can totally trust Facebook with very private and personal information!

And I know what you’re thinking: why would this crappier and creepier version of Google Photos be necessary? Spoiler alert: it’s not.

In a moment of temporary sanity, Facebook announced it’s shutting down Moments and the app in its entirety on February 25th, citing a notable lack of downloads.

Here’s the interesting bit, though: no other reasons were mentioned like security or privacy concerns, and they insisted it’s pulling the plug only because not enough people downloaded it.

Considering Facebook bullied hundreds of thousands of users into downloading the app, so much so that in 2016 it was #1 in the App Store for several days, do we really believe the “no user base” excuse?

What else is going on under the hood of Moments that isn’t being revealed?

Given the recent controversies surrounding Facebook’s lack of data transparency and unethical decision making in this realm of personal data, I have a hunch something else might be behind this sudden “no downloads” rhetoric.

Only time, and perhaps another amusing congressional hearing, will tell.

In the off chance you’re one of the seven people with photos on Moments, you’ve been forewarned, and make sure to delete all of your data from it in case if Zuck pulls another Cambridge Analytica.

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