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When Rave Reviews Become Risky Re: Internet Reviews

Most consumers today take to the Internet when looking for a place to shop, eat, vacation, or play. It is no surprise, then, that businesses want to boost their online ratings and garner gleaming reviews on sites such as Yelp, Angie's List, TripAdvisor, Urbanspoon, and the like. What businesses may not know, however, is that relying on deceitful methods to improve an online reputation is illegal. Requiring employees to post reviews under fake names or paying a stranger for his positive feedback may seem like an easy form of self-promotion, but it can lead to costly and damaging repercussions.

Nineteen New York businesses learned this lesson the hard way. After a year-long undercover investigation in 2013 by the New York Attorney General's office, the businesses agreed to pay more than $350,000 in penalties for writing or paying for fake online reviews. "Astroturfing" is the practice of preparing or disseminating a false or deceptive review that a reasonable consumer would believe to be a neutral, third-party testimonial. The New York Attorney General's investigation, dubbed "Operation Clean Turf," took an unprecedented look into the reputation management industry and the manipulation of consumer-review websites and revealed that false reviews run rampant.

While a sham review about a restaurant's Sunday brunch could be harmless, consider false reviews raving about a surgeon's work, a babysitting company's background check process, or a lawyer's success rate and you can more clearly see how a little white lie can become an ambush for the non-suspecting consumer who relies on it. A wide variety of businesses, including a dental practice and charter bus company, were caught in Operation Clean Turf.

The Attorney General had power to prosecute the businesses pursuant to New York's consumer protection laws that prevent false advertising and deceptive business practices, specifically NY. Gen. Bus. Laws 349 and 350. What qualifies as false advertising varies from state to state, but consumer protection statutes generally prohibit the same kind of misconduct. In Kentucky, KRS 367.170, also known as the Kentucky Consumer Protection Act, protects against "unfair, false, misleading or deceptive acts or practice in trade or commerce." In addition to state laws, consumers are also afforded protection at the national level from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC was not involved in the New York investigation, but had it been, the conduct at issue would have likely violated Section 5(a) of the FTC Act, the consumer protection statute which provides that "unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce...are...declared unlawful." (15 U.S.C. Sec. 45(a)(1)).

Regulatory agencies are not the only ones cracking down on false advertisements. Review companies themselves seek to protect the integrity of the content that appears on their site and therefore usually include a provision in their Terms of Use prohibiting users from posting false or intentionally misleading material. Fake online reviews can violate these provisions and constitute a breach of contract.

Businesses in the hospitality industry have always succeeded or failed, at least in part, based on consumers' word-of-mouth. Today, however, those words can reach a much wider audience at an alarming pace. Instead of improving online reviews with deceptive methods, turn your focus to improving customers' experiences and interactions with your business. If truly false and negative online reviews are affecting business, business owners may have a claim for defamation. Business owners can also seek reprieve from negative posts by contacting the offending websites and asking for derogatory material to be removed, or by addressing customers' feedback in-kind.

© 2019 by McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie & Kirkland, PLLC. All rights reserved.


About this Author

Stephen G. Amato, civil litigation attorney, McBrayer Law Firm

Mr. Amato has practiced law throughout Kentucky since his graduation from the University of Kentucky College of Law in 1990. He has been nominated and identified in Kentucky Super Lawyers® for six consecutive years, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.

His practice is diverse, focusing on civil litigation and administrative law. His litigation practice is focused primarily on employment law, representing employers in all state and federal trial courts, state and local administrative agencies, and throughout the respective courts of appeal. Employment-related issues with which Mr....