In a much needed move, the New York state attorney general’s office ordered 19 companies to stop posting fake online reviews of their product/services, and asked them to pay fines totaling $350,000 to settle charges for posting reviews on sites like Google+, Yelp, among others, reports Times of India. This follows an undercover investigation, pretending to represent a fake yogurt shop in Brooklyn, and approaching Search Engine Optimization firms to boost its online presence.

Typically, online reviews tend to be trusted by potential customers, because they appear to be from other customers, especially those with previous experience with the service or product.

A couple of years ago while I was still in college, a social media agency from Mumbai had approached me with a similar, part-time job. My job would have been to visit various forums, review sites, blogs, and post about my ‘experience’ with the agency’s clients. I would have to make comments with a certain set of keywords given to me but write different sentences every time. Getting a part time job offer while still in college seemed like a good way to make some extra cash and I suppose these agencies outsource such jobs to students, who have extra time and need some quick way to get money.

Needless to say I did not accept the offer.

Fake online reviews do not just deceive users, they also affect the user review sites. Many times, companies even post negative reviews about competing brands: in December 2012, user reviews portal MouthShut.com had deleted around 4,100 fake profiles from its website, claiming that certain members were posting overtly positive reviews for promoting certain brands while writing negative reviews damaging the reputation of rivals.

Now there is a move to allow companies to allow verified reviews only: earlier this month, it inked a multi-year partnership with the life insurance company AEGON Religare, wherein only verified customers of AEGON Religare can write reviews on the platform. In August 2013, MouthShut had revealed that it had received over 790 takedown notices, 240 legal notices, and has 11 court cases registered against it. That said, the IT Rules can adversely affect consumer review sites like MouthShut, and the company is fighting a case challenging the IT Rules based on section 79 of the IT Act 2008.

While we feel that user generated content sites should not be held responsible for the content that is being posted, it does impact the company image, and hence, its business, when a potential customer reads about it. This leads to potential misuse of the web from competitors, and there needs to be a way to address the issue of fake reviews in India as well.

Also read: CAPTCHA Spam