Beware of 'Astroturfing': Fake user reviews online

By Tobie StangerLifestyle and BudgetConsumer Reports

News this week that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman penalized and reached agreements with 19 companies that paid for fake "astroturf" reviews on sites such as Yelp, Google Local, and CitySearch adds an interesting twist to our recent reporting on such sites.

Schneiderman, whose office conducted a yearlong investigation of "astroturfing"—a form of false advertising—reached agreements with the 19 service providers to cease compensating people for posting phony reviews. The businesses will pay a total of more than $350,000 in penalties. They include a charter bus service, a teeth-whitening service, a laser hair-removal chain, and an adult entertainment club. Some reviewers didn't even live in the the United States and had never tried the services they reviewed.

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The Schneiderman report singled out Yelp as having the most aggressive filtering system to weed out fake praise and pans among the sites included in its investigation.

Our recent investigation of the methods of five sites—Angie's List, Consumer's Checkbook, Google+ Local, Porch, and Yelp, and of the Better Business Bureau—makes it clear that consumers must understand the limitations of online user reviews. We found that online review companies' methodologies may skew user responses. Angie’s List, for example, encourages businesses to solicit reviews by giving customers free, postage-paid forms, stickers on thank you notes, and Web links embedded in e-mail invoices. Experts who study survey techniques say that those methods can create a bias for positive reviews.

(In addition to expert reviews of products and services, Consumer Reports posts user reviews, for which it engages a third-party company that employs people and computers to screen for spam and other fraud. That contractor estimates that among the more than 2,600 clients it serves, it flags about 2 percent of reviews as suspicious, and ultimately rejects about 3 in 1,000 as fraudulent.)

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