Not Everyone Gets Away With It

Whether one likes it or not, and I don’t in case that’s unclear, people use the internet to “learn” about the people, products and services they need. They read reviews, which makes reviews matter regardless of whether or not they should. And that means reviews becomes the target of deception.  I know. Shocking, right?

The problem is huge and intractable, as people and businesses fight with review sites to clean up phony negative reviews and sites try to stop phony positive reviews.  The internal war is a losing proposition, as websites need reviews to maintain eyeballs to boost advertising revenues, while simultaneously maintaining some level of credibility. Sometimes, phony reviews are pretty obvious, but as the internet matures, so too does the industry of deception.

In an attempt to end this, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has moved into gear. From the New York Times:

New York regulators will announce on Monday the most comprehensive crackdown to date on deceptive reviews on the Internet. Agreements have been reached with 19 companies to cease their misleading practices and pay a total of $350,000 in penalties.

The yearlong investigation encompassed companies that create fake reviews as well as the clients that buy them. Among those signing the agreements are a charter bus operator, a teeth-whitening service, a laser hair-removal chain and an adult entertainment club. Also signing are several reputation-enhancement firms that place fraudulent reviews on sites like Google, Yelp, Citysearch and Yahoo.

Laser hair removal?  Adult Entertainment? Ah, it must just be those scuzzy, low-rent sorts of businesses playing the deception game, right?

But the investigation uncovered a wide range of services buying fake reviews that could do more permanent damage: dentists, lawyers, even an ultrasound clinic.

Yes, lawyers, which may or may not be related to the adult entertainment industry.  For those who seek business from those who search for lawyers on the internet, reviews matter, and good reviews (and the elimination of bad reviews) represent money.  So what if it’s a lie, a sham. It’s the internet, and everybody knows it’s an ethics free zone, where lies and deception are what differentiates a success from a failure.

In a 2011 Harvard Business School study, a researcher found that restaurants that increased their ranking on Yelp by one star raised their revenues by 5 to 9 percent. A 2012 Gartner study estimated that one in seven recommendations or ratings on social media sites like Facebook would soon be fake. And there have been instances where all the reviews of a product have been secretly bought and paid for by the seller of the product.

The problem is the downward spiral, as one’s competition deceives better than you, forcing you to up your game.  Or knock the competition down a few pegs by some unkind words. Whatever works. The joys of astroturfing. So the AG decides to get into the game.

“Sadly, it will take continued policing, both by law enforcement and the review sites themselves, to make sure some businesses stop lying to customers they claim to serve,” Mr. Schneiderman said.

Given my views on deceptive practices by lawyers, this is one of the few times I wouldn’t mind working for the government.  But that comes with a caveat, as law enforcement intrusion into the space of online reviews is itself a scary proposition.  While many deceptive reviews are obvious and flagrant, many are well done and can’t be distinguished from the real thing. And this has given rise to an industry bent on fabrication which has become increasingly sophisticated.

So does the better liar win? That only encourages the growth of the deception industry.  And the flip side is that the reputation management industry has its legitimate purposes, where businesses are falsely slammed by haters, competition and nutjobs.  Countering false negatives has grown as a necessity in the age of deceptive reviews as well, and for anyone who has been on south side of a nutjob heading north, it’s a terrible place to be.

Fake reviews undermine the credibility of the Internet. Olivia Roat, a marketing consultant for Main Street Host, a Buffalo digital marketing agency, discussed her growing realization that fake reviews are omnipresent on the company’s blog last year. “Say it ain’t so!” she wrote. Who, she wondered, could be trusted?

The problem is whether there ever was, is, or can be credibility of the internet. But then, marketer Olivia Roat ought to know this.

Apparently not Main Street Host, which was one of the 19 companies that signed an agreement to desist.

It’s one thing for restaurants to engage in deceptive reviews. They may be perpetrating a fraud on the public, but the worst that comes of it is a lousy meal. I don’t suggest that’s okay, or that any fraud is acceptable, but the harm is limited. When it comes to lawyers, that can’t be said.

There has been much criticism of those of us who name and shame lawyers engaged in deceptive practices, doing whatever they can to win the race to the bottom.  But we’re not restaurants, and the potential for harm from deception is far greater than a bad meal.  We have the ability to destroy people’s lives, and the voices crying that the price is acceptable if it gets some desperate lawyer a new client are pathetically appealing to too many hungry lawyers.

We don’t sell meals. We don’t sell laundry detergent. We don’t sell anything. We serve clients. That lawyers have succumbed to these internet scams isn’t surprising, and that a marketeering industry exists to help lawyers to do so, replete with cheerleaders, is no shocker either.

While the scrutiny of the Attorney General is, to some extent, a welcome addition to preventing deception on the internet, it’s both a sad commentary on what’s become of a noble profession, and concern that it will create new incentives to engage in increasingly more sophisticated and bulletproof fraud.

For years now, I’ve promoted the notion that we clean up our own mess by advocating for integrity within the profession and shaming those who can’t stop themselves from sliding into the gutter.  No doubt, fear of law enforcement oversight will cause a few to rethink their strategy, but deception has become so pervasive and ingrained in the internet that many fail to appreciate they’re engaged in it.

False reviews, whether positive or negative, are just the beginning of the problem, though a huge problem it is.  When Schneiderman does his next round, and he no doubt will, let’s hope that there are no lawyers on the list along with adult entertainment clubs and laser hair removal salons.  Let that be the case because lawyers choose integrity over common scams. Can we not decide to be better than the worst on the internet?

3 comments on “Not Everyone Gets Away With It

  1. A Voice of Sanity

    “Fake reviews undermine the credibility of the Internet.”

    That’s the funniest thing I have read in a very long time! I really did laugh out loud.

    Search Wikipedia or the internet for “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”.

    This is the most important thing to know about the internet.

    1. SHG Post author

      You dope, search SJ for “on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” If you’re going to come up with something funny, try to find something new instead of something that’s appeared here a couple hundred times.

Comments are closed.