The latest trend in scams, known as astroturfing, involves paying individuals to provide fake on-line reviews for businesses. Consumers are more than ever relying on reviews when deciding to make purchase decisions. The practice of paying for fake on line reviews is apparently widespread.
New York Attorney GeneralEric T. Schneiderman today announced that 19 companies had agreed to cease their practice of writing fake online reviews for businesses and to pay more than $350,000 in penalties. "Operation Clean Turf," a year-long undercover investigation into the reputation management industry, the manipulation of consumer-review websites, and the practice of astroturfing, found that companies had flooded the Internet with fake consumer reviews on websites such as Yelp, Google Local, and CitySearch. In the course of the investigation, the Attorney General's office found that many of these companies used techniques to hide their identities, such as creating fake online profiles on consumer review websites and paying freelance writers from as far away as the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe for $1 to $10 per review. By producing fake reviews, these companies violated multiple state laws against false advertising and engaged in illegal and deceptive business practices.
"Consumers rely on reviews from their peers to make daily purchasing decisions on anything from food and clothing to recreation and sightseeing," Attorney General Schneiderman said. "This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution. And companies that continue to engage in these practices should take note: "Astroturfing" is the 21st century's version of false advertising, and prosecutors have many tools at their disposal to put an end to it."
Undercover Investigation of "Search Engine Optimization" Companies
In recent years, the reputation management industry has exploded as businesses have become increasingly concerned about their online reputations. So-called search engine optimization ("SEO") companies routinely offer online reputation management as part of their services.
Posing as the owner of a yogurt shop in Brooklyn, representatives from Attorney General Schneiderman's office called the leading SEO companies in New York to request assistance in combating negative reviews on consumer-review websites. During these calls, representatives from some of these companies offered to write fake reviews of the yogurt shop and post them on consumer-review websites such as Yelp.com, Google Local and Citysearch.com, as part of their reputation management services.
The investigation revealed that SEO companies were using advanced IP spoofing techniques to hide their identities, as well as setting up hundreds of bogus online profiles on consumer review websites to post the reviews. The investigation found that many consumer-review websites have implemented filters to detect and filter or delete fake reviews, with Yelp's being the most aggressive.
"More than 100 million visitors come to Yelp each month, making it critical that Yelp protect the integrity of its content," said Aaron Schur, Yelp's Senior Litigation Counsel. "We take many steps to do this, including the use of automated filtering software, leveraging our vast user community for tips about suspicious content, undercover sting operations, legal action, and cooperation with law enforcement. We applaud NY Attorney General Schneiderman for his willingness to tackle the issue of illegal fake reviews head on, and for his success in shutting down these operators. We look forward to continuing to cooperate with the New York Attorney General's office and any other interested law enforcement office or regulator to protect consumers and business owners from efforts to mislead."
Besides using their own employees to write and post the reviews, the companies hired freelance writers from as far away as the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe for $1 to $10 per review. One SEO company required that freelancers have an established Yelp account, more than 3 months old, with more than 15 reviews (at least half unfiltered), and 10 Yelp "friends," as an attempt to avoid Yelp's advanced review filter.
Attorney General Schneiderman's office also discovered solicitations on sites such as Craigslist.com, Freelancer.com and oDesk.com to hire people to write fake reviews. For example, one SEO company posted the following:
We need a person that can post multiple positive reviews on major REVIEW sites. Example: Google Maps, Yelp, CitySearch. Must be from different IP addresses… So you must be able to have multiple IPs. The reviews will be only few sentences long. Need to have some understanding on how Yelp filters works. Previous experience is a plus…just apply --)we are a marketing company.
In another example, a spa in New York City was looking for help writing fake reviews:
I need someone who is a YELP expert to post positive reviews for a spa that will not be filtered using legitimate existing yelp accounts must have at least 10 friends on Yelp. Please be a yelp expert!! I will pay $10 per-review after 3 days they must meet the criteria above.
In this example, a nightclub in New York City was looking for people to post the reviews "without getting flagged":
Need Review Posters for Yelp, Citysearch, Google
Hello…We need someone to post 1-2 reviews daily on sites like: Yelp, Google reviews, Citysearch and any other similar sites. We will supply the text/review. You must be able to post these without getting flagged. This will be a long term assignment that will last at least 3 months. You are bidding per week. We are offering $1.00 dollar for every post. Thank you
Online Reputation Can Make Or Break a Business
Multiple studies conclude that online reviews can make or break companies. According to one survey, 90% of consumers say that online reviews influence their buying decisions. A highly-cited Harvard Business School study from 2011 estimated that a one-star rating increase on Yelp translated to an increase of 5% to 9% in revenues for a restaurant. Cornell researchers have found that a one-star swing in a hotel's online ratings at sites like Travelocity and TripAdvisor is tied to an 11% sway in room rates, on average. Gartner projects that by 2014, between 10% and 15% of social media reviews will be fake.
Nineteen SEO Companies and Small Businesses Entered into Assurances of Discontinuances
The OAG has entered into Assurances of Discontinuance with 19 companies, with penalties ranging from $2500 to just under $100,000. The practice of preparing or disseminating a false or deceptive review that a reasonable consumer would believe to be a neutral, third-party review is a form of false advertising known as "astroturfing." Astroturfing is false and deceptive, and it violates, inter alia, New York Executive Law § 63(12), and New York General Business Law §§ 349 and 350.
For more information or a free consultation on your legal issue contact Scott and Fenderson PLLC, your injury law and family law attorneys, at 727-321-0099. http://www.scottandfenderson.com
Starting Oct. 1, texting while driving will be illegal in Florida. Bill boards along the state's highways will light up Thursday, Oct. 1 and Oct. 15 with the message "Don't text and drive, It's the law." Florida will become the 41st state to prohibit texting while driving for all motorists. But unlike the majority of those states, the law will be a secondary offense. That means an officer will have to witness another offense, like swerving or running a stop sign, to ticket the driver. Texting is permitted if you're stopped at a red light or if you have a talk-to-text device like the iPhone's Siri. The penalties are $30 plus court costs for a first offense and $60 for a second offense. The state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and the Department of Transportation will join a campaign being led by wireless phone companies to discourage students from texting while driving. The average, teen sends five times as many text messages a day as a typical adult. The FDOT has adapted for Florida materials from a federal program against distracted driving and, with the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, is sponsoring "Put It Down Day" Oct. 1 to coincide with the new law. The violation will be a secondary offense, meaning law enforcement officials must pull drivers over for another reason. Drivers cannot manually type or enter multiple letters, numbers, symbols or other characters into a wireless communications device or while sending or reading data for "nonvoice interpersonal communication." This includes texting, emailing and instant messaging. Texting is allowed in hands-off, high-tech cars and when a car is stopped at a red light or in a traffic jam. Get a free "Dont Text and Drive" bumper sticker at Scott and Fenderson Attorneys, 4755 Central Ave, St. Pete, or Call us at 727-321-0099.http://www.scottandfenderson.com
That is apparently what the Congress intended when they overwhelmingly passed the 2012 Biggert-Waters act. This misleading and poorly thought out piece of legislation will completely devastate the Florida Real Estate Market and make most waterfront homes worthless, and price most right out of their home, and foreclosures will soar in Florida. This new law and the resulting change in flood insurance costs could cost some individual homeowners millions of dollars when their heretofore million dollar water front home becomes worthless because it cannot be sold for any price.
Biggert-Waters was promoted as a way to help keep the National Flood Insurance Program afloat after suffering huge losses from Hurricane Katrina. Key to the make over was getting rid of what FEMA consider to be subsidized rates, in some cases gradually and in other cases — like the sale of a home — in one fell swoop.
Most flood policyholders nationwide will see only single-digit increases in rates next year. In fact, nationally only 20 percent of all flood policies are subsidized. But in Florida, the impact will be much greater. With 40 percent of all flood policies nationwide, Florida has by far the most subsidized homes. More than 50,000 of Pinellas County's 142,000 properties with flood policies have subsidized flood rates, more than any other county nationwide.
The buyer of a subsidized property will have to pay the full risk rate for any policy issued or renewed on or after Oct. 1. That could more than triple the rates immediately. If you bought a subsidized property after the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act became law a year ago, you could have to pay the full risk rate for a policy renewal starting in October. A premium that was $3000 could now be $20,000. This rate increase will surely deter anyone considering purchasing an affected home in Florida.
Has this changed sales contracts?
The Florida Board of Realtors recently changed its standard sales contract to let buyers know they may need to get a flood certification to obtain flood insurance. New contract language makes a buyer's offer contingent on obtaining flood coverage by a certain date at a price not to exceed a cap that is written into the contract. Moreover, the buyer and seller have to agree on when the contract can be terminated if the property is ineligible for flood insurance.
Have banks adapted as well?
All mortgage lenders have greater financial incentive to make sure that homes in flood zones carry the required coverage. Previously, the government imposed a fine of $350 per loan that did not have the required policy in place. That rose to $2,000 per loan under the new law. A total fine cap of $100,000 per lender was removed so now there is no cap.
WHY THIS IS A HUGE RIP OFF FOR FLORIDA
Florida didn't trigger the financial crisis within the National Flood Insurance Program. Of the nation’s top 10 flood-claim events since 1978, only one, Hurricane Ivan, caused heavy damage in Florida.
In fact, over the past 35 years, Florida's property owners have helped prop up the program, paying four times more than what they have gotten back in claims.
In the history of the flood program, Florida property owners have paid $16.1 billion in premiums while collecting just $3.7 billion in claims, according to a 2011 analysis by the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Center for Risk Management and Decision Processes.
Contrast that with Louisiana, which paid $4.4 billion in premiums but collected almost four times that in claims, the vast majority tied to Hurricane Katrina.
Since 1978, Texas ($5.5 billion), New Jersey ($4.8 billion) and New York ($4.4 billion) have also received more payouts than Florida, while paying far less in premiums. And those numbers predate last year's Superstorm Sandy, which caused billions more in flood damage in the Northeast.
And year after year, Florida ponies up a third of all premiums into the program.
"Flood in Florida is a moneymaker" for the government. The payback for all that financial help: About 270,000 Florida properties could face huge flood insurance rate hikes. That's three times more than the next most-affected state, New Jersey.
The bull's-eye is on Pinellas County, which leads all counties across the nation with almost 51,000 affected properties, roughly an eighth of its homes and businesses.
Most Floridians are unaware of what's about to hit them, a lot of people here think this doesn't pertain to them — that it's a New Jersey situation from (Hurricane) Sandy or a Louisiana issue due to (Hurricane) Katrina.
First hit are investor-owned properties losing their subsidies. They face increases of 25 percent a year for multiple years until their rates reflect the "full rate risk" of flooding.
Owners of older homes in low lying areas could face rate increases of up to 20 percent a year after their communities adopt new flood insurance rate maps as part of the program overhaul. Rate hikes used to be capped at 10 percent.
If a house or business is sold, the rate increases could be even more stunning. Anyone who has bought a rate-subsidized property after the new flood law was signed July 6, 2012, will have to pay the full rate for coverage after Oct. 1. That could be more than triple the price paid by the previous owner.
Pinellas County has more than 24,000 properties facing that kind of rate shock if they sell. Pinellas is No. 1 in the nation in that category, too. $3,000 premiums that will jump to $12,000 for policies renewed after October; or $9,000 premiums soaring to $22,000.
Elsewhere in Tampa Bay, 14,484 Hillsborough County properties could lose their subsidized rates over time. In Pasco, the number is 11,413; in Hernando, 1,044; in Citrus, 2,882.
Among the many misconceptions about Biggert-Waters is that it mainly affects beachfront property owners. To the contrary, many of the subsidized properties are inland in Pinellas and Hillsborough County.
WHAT IS BEING DONE TO STOP THIS INSANITY?
There are several measures being discussed in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to stave off "unintended consequences" of Biggert-Waters. But so far the sole measure that has passed the House would only delay a small part of the law — and not stop the premium hikes from hitting new buyers of subsidized properties.
Click the link below to sign a petition against Biggert-Waters.
Also Write to your congressman and tell them to reverse Biggert Waters before all Florida Real Estate becomes worthless. If you live in Pinellas County write to your congressman and let them know how much the biggert waters act may end up costing the citizens of Florida. Here are the names and addresses of a couple you may want to write to. If you live outside Pinellas County, look up your Congressman and write to them too.
7132 Little Road
New Port Richey, FL 34654
Ph: 727-232-2921 .
9210 113th Street Seminole, FL 33772
Phone: (727) 392-4100
4144 N Armenia Ave
Tampa, FL 33607
170 Fitzgerald Road, St 1
Lakeland, FL 33813
Phone: (863) 644-8215
3802 Spectrum Boulevard
Tampa, FL 33612
Phone: (813) 977-6450
Sam Gibbons Federal Court House
801 N. Florida Ave., 4th Floor
Tampa, FL 33602
To see more on the Biggert Waters act of 2012 click on the following link: