WASHINGTON - Fake online products reviews have been around for years, fueled by unscrupulous marketers seeking to boost sales.
But a recent crackdown by authorities in New York could be the shock needed for the online sector to clean up its act.
The New York state attorney general's office recently ordered 19 companies to halt these practices and pay fines totaling US$350,000 (S$440,000) to settle charges of manipulating online reviews for sites such as Yelp, Google+ and others.
The settlement stemmed from an undercover investigation in which officials created a fake yogurt shop in Brooklyn and sought help in marketing from so-called "search engine optimization" firms that work to boost a company's online presence.
The investigators discovered online ads such as this one: "Hello… We need someone to post 1-2 reviews daily on sites like: Yelp, Google reviews, Citysearch and any other similar sites. We will supply the text/review… We are offering $1.00 dollar for every post."
The companies hired writers from as far away as the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe, according to the investigators.
"Consumers rely on reviews from their peers to make daily purchasing decisions on anything from food and clothing to recreation and sightseeing," state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said.
"This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution. "
Growth in fake reviews
While the extent of fake reviews is not clear, a 2012 report by the research firm Gartner concluded that between two and six per cent of online reviews are "fake or deceptive," and predicted this will grow to around 10 per cent by 2014.
The prevalence of fake reviews is due to the high stakes involved.