Astroturfing: The growing problem of false business reviews
by Carol Thompson
Astroturfing– the business of bogus business reviews is a growing problem for businesses large and small. Fake reviews, both positive and negative are wreaking havoc on legitimate business owners who don’t know how to fight back.
Websites such as Ripoff Report, Yelp, Pissed Consumer and Google provide consumers with the opportunity to praise or vent. However, the reviews aren’t always posted by legitimate consumers.
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According to market research firm Gartner, one of every 10 online product reviews are fake, written by paid reviewers, and a 2013 survey by SEO experts BrightLocal reported 85 percent of the 3,000 consumers it surveyed read online reviews for local businesses, and 73 percent said positive reviews made them more trusting of a business.
A business may feel a similar business is driving customers away and retaliate with false negative reviews, often bought and paid for. According to studies, negative reviewers can be had for as little as one dollar and as much as $10 on websites such as Craigslist, ODesk, fiverr, and Freelancer.com.
While paid reviews aren’t allowed on the review sites, there are many who know how to slip past the filters and often it’s difficult to prove that the reviewer was paid for the comment.
While there are those clever enough to game the system, there is a way to combat bogus reviews.
The first, and least expensive, step is to ask the website to remove the offending comments. According to Vory’s, when a competitor publishes a false review about your business online, or a fake review touting their own company, this violates the United States’ Lanham Act. The Lanham Act prohibits false advertising by competitors and provides that a business can recover significant damages, including treble (triple) damages, disgorgement of the competitors’ profits, costs of corrective advertising, and attorney’s fees if the publication of the false review is willful – which it overwhelmingly is. 15 U.S. Code § 1117(a).
There are also legal steps that can be taken.
In a recent Pennsylvania case, a marble and granite installation business sued a competitor after it allegedly discovered that several posts on various product review websites were originating from its competitor’s IP address. The competitor attempted to argue: 1) these false reviews, as a matter of law, did not constitute false advertising, and 2) it was not responsible for its own employees’ online reviews. But the Court disagreed and held the fake reviews constituted defamation and trademark infringement, violating the Lanham Act. The Court subsequently denied the competitor’s motion to dismiss the case. NTP Marble, Inc. v. AAA Hellenic Marble, Inc., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93856 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 24, 2012), according to Vory’s.
Because many of the reviews are posted anonymously or pseudonymously, the first step is to file a John Doe lawsuit, which will provide the vehicle to serve the website with a subpoena to disclose the information about the review, including the IP address of the computer used.
One the information is obtained, the offenders name is then added to the lawsuit in place of John Doe.
A lawsuit result in the reviews being removed as well as monetary damages.