There are laws against false advertising, even on the Internet. In New York, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has reached a settlement with a plastic surgeon over fake consumer reviews published online.
Under the settlement, the cosmetic surgery company Lifestyle Lift will stop publishing anonymous positive reviews about the company to Internet message boards and other Web sites, and will pay $300,000 in penalties and costs to the State of New York. The case is believed to be the first in the nation aimed at combating "astroturfing," a growing problem on the Internet.
According to Cuomo, Lifestyle Lift employees published positive reviews and comments about the company to trick Web-browsing consumers into believing that satisfied customers were posting their own stories.
"These tactics constitute deceptive commercial practices, false advertising, and fraudulent and illegal conduct under New York and federal consumer protection law," Cuomo said.
He says the settlement marks a strike against the growing practice of "astroturfing," in which employees pose as independent consumers to post positive reviews and commentary to Web sites and Internet message boards about their own company.
"This company's attempt to generate business by duping consumers was cynical, manipulative, and illegal," said Cuomo. "My office has and will continue to be on the forefront in protecting consumers against emerging fraud and deception, including astroturfing, on the Internet."
Lifestyle Lift has more than 40 locations across the U.S. The company engaged in a concerted effort to bombard Internet message boards with positive stories about themselves.
According to the complaint, Lifestyle Lift's president believed that negative Internet postings had significantly hurt the companys reputation and thought the success of the company hinged on controlling messages posted online. Company employees were allegedly directed to create accounts with various Internet message boards and pose as satisfied customers of Lifestyle Lift. Employees also reportedly attacked legitimate message board posters who criticized Lifestyle Lift and tried to get those posts removed from message boards.
Internal emails discovered by Cuomo's investigation show that Lifestyle Lift employees were given specific instructions to engage in this illegal activity. One e-mail to employees said: "Friday is going to be a slow day--I need you to devote the day to doing more postings on the web as a satisfied client." Another internal email directed a Lifestyle Lift employee to "Put your wig and skirt on and tell them about the great experience you had."
In addition to posting on various Internet message board services, Cuomo said Lifestyle Lift also registered and created stand-alone Web sites, such as MyFaceliftStory.com, designed to appear as if they were created by independent and satisfied customers of Lifestyle Lift.
The sites offered positive narratives about the Lifestyle Lift experience. Some of these sites purported to offer forums for users to add their own comments about Lifestyle Lift. In reality, however, Cuomo says Lifestyle Lift either provided all the "user comments" themselves, or closely monitored and edited third-party comments to skew the discussion in favor of Lifestyle Lift.
Under the terms of the settlement, Lifestyle Lift employees will no longer pose as consumers when publishing on the Internet. The company will not promote Lifestyle Lift's services on the Internet without clearly and conspicuously disclosing that they are responsible for the content. The company will also pay $300,000 in penalties and costs to New York State.