Yelp Sues Law Firm For Posting Fake Reviews

from the be-careful-what-you-review dept

Fake reviews online are something many people have just come to expect. Just recently we discussed an example of where it was obvious there were a ton of fake reviews on Amazon.com. Many sites that include user reviews work pretty hard to scrub the obviously fake ones, but it appears Yelp has taken that to a new level, deciding to sue a law firm for posting fake reviews. It should be noted that this same law firm, McMillan Group, previously had sued Yelp, claiming that it had been "coerced" into buying ads to get favorable reviews, so you could argue that there's a reason this particular firm was targeted. But, either way, it raises some fairly interesting legal questions.

Specifically, Yelp is arguing that when McMillan employees created fake accounts in order to post bogus positive reviews for their own firm, they violated the terms of service of the site. Thankfully, (unlike Craigslist), Yelp doesn't try to argue that violating the TOS is a CFAA violation. Instead, the lawsuit focuses on some specific charges including breach of contract, intentional interference with contractual relations, unfair competition and false advertising.

The filing details, rather comprehensively, how over a period of a few months, it appears that employees at the firm created accounts and immediately posted positive reviews of the firm, sometimes claiming things that are unlikely to be true. For example, certain users claim to be clients of the firm, which focuses on bankruptcy law, and then point out that the individuals in question have never filed for bankruptcy. There's also an amusing bit in which four accounts are created, one after the other, from a McMillan IP address, each leaving very positive reviews within minutes of creation, then logging out right before another account is created. And, of course, none of those accounts ever logged back in. Oh, and two of the accounts created one after the other started their posts with the identical sentence, including a typo:
They promissed [sic] me a fresh start through a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy and I got it.
Same exact sentence in both, one posted right after the other, but with different names and different accounts. Throughout the filing, you realize that these attempts to fake reviews are so hamhanded, that they were clearly done by someone who has no idea how to cover their own tracks. There were lots of cases of using the same IP address which was already associated with the company. In another case, the same email address is used for multiple accounts. It's as if they don't realize that Yelp can check these things.

No matter what, this should be an interesting lawsuit. While it does seem pretty clear that Yelp has caught this firm red-handed writing fake reviews, there are some pretty big questions as to whether or not that's actually a legal offense for the courts to sort out. There's a part of me that thinks that Yelp has every right to take action on its own site against those reviews and reviewers -- such as deleting the reviews and banning the reviewers -- but making the legal claims stick feels like a pretty big stretch. Also, some of the reviews they complain about don't even seem that questionable -- such as the so-called "circle of local lawyers" in San Diego who all reviewed each other. In some cases, those reviews just say things about how they recommend their own clients to those other lawyers when an issue comes up (such as bankruptcy) that another lawyer specializes in. That may actually be completely accurate.

There may be something to the fact that lawyer advertisements tend to be much more heavily regulated, so I could see a potential issue with false advertising, but I'm not sure that that's an issue for Yelp to take up directly, rather than whoever's in charge of making sure lawyers are advertising within the limitations of existing regulations. There's also some potential argument that a customer of the law firm could have standing to argue that they were harmed after believing fake reviews (though, even that's a stretch), but to argue that Yelp itself is harmed is, again, a bigger stretch (not impossible, but not a slam dunk).

None of this is a defense of the actions of whoever wrote those reviews, as it appears there's fairly strong evidence that the reviews are faked, I'm just not convinced that means it violates the law.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

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    Gothenem (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 12:41pm

    McMillan Group: I'm being sued! Yelp me!

     

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    Arthur Moore (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 1:01pm

    Cease and Desist

    I have not looked at the specifics of the lawsuit, but I could see yelp going for a Cease and Desist court order.

    At this point the fake reviews are like harassment. They're annoying, easily identified, but still take time and energy to remove.

    While the default lawsuit strategy is "go for the money" a simple C&D would be enough to both get the point across.

     

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      pixelpusher220 (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 1:24pm

      Re: Cease and Desist

      Yelp is a site dedicated to providing consumer reviews of companies and services.

      This law firm is clearly diluting the quality of Yelp's offerings. If this firm is putting up fake reviews, you know there are 100s more people doing the same thing.

      Perhaps it's negligible in microcosm, but there is harm being done to Yelp here no?

       

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    out_of_the_blue, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 1:13pm

    Not clear at all! Distrust SOLE source: interested party!

    Sure, it'd be risky for Yelp to fake the fake reviews, BUT as there's not likely to be evidence available proving the negative as the law firm must now attempt, nor any way to prove someone at Yelp did the faking, then the ease of creating false evidence that exists only on a computer would be VERY tempting to someone who felt injured; if not executives, then perhaps a Yelp sysadmin just thought it'd be a good prank! So I first need the "evidence" absolutely nailed down from independent sources, or presumption of innocence prevails. (Mike just assumes Yelp is entirely honest.)

    And a Techdirt axiom is: IP address isn't identity.

    Oh, and unless they've a physically signed paper and consideration was exchanged, website Terms Of Service mean exactly nothing. It's sheer baloney that bozos can bind persons to contracts with a little bit of text just because it's wrapped in HTML.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 1:18pm

      Re: Not clear at all! Distrust SOLE source: interested party!

      As usual, you've got it all wrong. Yelp is faking faking faking faking the fake fake reviews so that the faking fake law firm can faking fake the fake lawsuit and the fake counter-lawsuit.

      It all makes sense if you just think about it!

       

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        out_of_the_blue, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 1:25pm

        Re: Re: Not clear at all! Distrust SOLE source: interested party!

        @ "As usual, you've got it all wrong. Yelp is faking faking faking faking the fake fake reviews so that the faking fake law firm can faking fake the fake lawsuit and the fake counter-lawsuit."


        Even if all your repeated text were logically consistent, you are manifestly sheerly prejudiced against the law firm and apparently me.

        For (self-referencing) example and as absolute proof, the above text evidencing your prejudice is now on your own computer! And so you must now prove the negative or it's absolute fact. Enjoy.

         

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      Lazere, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 2:23pm

      Re: Not clear at all! Distrust SOLE source: interested party!

       

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      jackn, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 2:31pm

      Re: Not clear at all! Distrust SOLE source: interested party!

      Watch it, ootb.

      Not everyone knows how stupid you are.

      If you keep posting like this, the word will get around and in no time; everyone will know what an idiot you are.

       

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      Anonymous Coward, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 2:35pm

      Re: Not clear at all! Distrust SOLE source: interested party!

      Did you read the same article that I did? It seemed to me that Mike was only interested in the legal principles behind the lawsuit and whether those could even hold water. It didn't seem to me that he really delved into the strength of the evidence too much. He was simply asking that IF the law actually did it, would the legal principles hold up?

      Also, while it's true that IP doesn't necessarily equal identity, you can be a whole lot more confident when it's a business. Most businesses have at least one static IP and tight security around that IP. If somebody not authorized by them is able to use their network to do things, they have a lot more issues than just Yelp suing them (with possible access to court documents and all). Methinks they probably shouldn't try that defense in court.

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 1:32pm

    Anyone in California know if this might run afoul of their State Bar's rules on advertising legal services? As far as I'm aware, most states have strict rules describing how lawyers are allowed to advertise.

     

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    TriZz (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 1:43pm

    I think it'd be easy for Yelp to claim harm to their business because of the fake reviews. Assuming someone goes to this law firm because they have such glowing (and fake) reviews...gets royally screwed over, that person is not going to trust Yelp any longer as a means of finding services.

     

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    MikeC (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 1:48pm

    Decreasing Yelp Value both perceived & monetary

    Yelp in the business of collecting and consolidating reviews of businesses. Yelp provides value and creates income by providing a central repository that is searchable.

    If a business is posting fake reviews not only are they violating TOS and guilty of false advertising (since they are promoting their own company), they are materially decreasing Yelp's value in their central business activity. At a minimum an organized process to fake reviews should have incur a civil liability for a legal response in Yelp's point of view. Not sure how much it's actually worth but it's a solid argument in Yelp's favor.

     

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      Jim Harper (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 2:18pm

      Re: Decreasing Yelp Value both perceived & monetary

      Spot on. In the main, the suit is for breach of contract, and the contract (ToS) says that you can't do things that undermine the value of the site for others.

      Less spot-on is MikeM's take: "I'm just not convinced that means it violates the law." A contract is private law, and, while a court will decide officially if it does, it seems pretty apparent that the fake posts violate that law. (MikeM's take is appropriately equivocal to the extent it deals with statutes regulating advertising.)

       

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        Mike Masnick (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 3:32pm

        Re: Re: Decreasing Yelp Value both perceived & monetary

        Spot on. In the main, the suit is for breach of contract, and the contract (ToS) says that you can't do things that undermine the value of the site for others.

        Are you comfortable saying that a TOS is the equivalent of a signed contract? I realize some courts have said that, but I'm a bit uncomfortable saying that when no one reads them and there's no actual signature involved.

        Less spot-on is MikeM's take: "I'm just not convinced that means it violates the law." A contract is private law, and, while a court will decide officially if it does, it seems pretty apparent that the fake posts violate that law. (MikeM's take is appropriately equivocal to the extent it deals with statutes regulating advertising.)

        Again, I'm less comfortable with jumping to the point of saying that a TOS is no different than a standard contract, and I'm also slightly troubled by the idea that people can be brought to court for merely violating a TOS.

         

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          Anonymous Coward, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 9:57pm

          Re: Re: Re: Decreasing Yelp Value both perceived & monetary

          Yeah, I'm not comfortable with "contracts" where there can be no possible negotiation and one or both sides are not even aware that there IS a contract. "You agree by using this site"? No, I don't agree just because you say I agree.

          If there's good news here, it's that Yelp is suing a law firm, who will hopefully know which arguments to make.

          If there's bad news, it's that the law firm was apparently doing things which make it a rather unsympathetic defendant.

           

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    Blaine (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 2:40pm

    Instead of going to the courts

    I would leave the reviews up and highlight them with some type of visible flag indicating they are most likely fake reviews.

    Attach a link to a summary of the evidence, no ip's or email addresses of course, but a summary like the one in this article.

    Think of it as more speech to combat bad speech. Don't 'censor' the reviews. Let the reader decide.

     

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    Lisa Westveld (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 2:43pm

    Yelp has a very good reason. If they win or lose, it doesn't matter. This company is now out in the open for creating fake identities which hurts their reputation and all kinds of forums and blogs (like Techdirt) can report about the bad behaviour of this company.
    It also sets an example for other companies telling them Yelp might name and shame them too.
    And of course the value of Yelp would decrease if they did nothing... They make a business out of true reviews so overflooding it with fake ones is bad for business. Especially such clueless ones...

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 3:23pm

    This should be good.

    Payback's a bitch!

     

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    John H, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 7:17pm

    Yelp is heading down a dark path

    In my spare time, I work with various local businesses who deal with Yelp. Most local businesses don't know much about SEO, setting up web site or store - or really anything at all about online business. They face all kinds of challenges online.

    Then there is Yelp. The story from small business is pretty much the same with everyone regarding Yelp: DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE. Ignore their calls, avoid them, don't have a conversation.

    If you do have conversation - you better be ready to purchase a 'program' - otherwise - you will suddenly see previously 'filtered' reviews become 'unfiltered'. Or visible reviews become 'filtered.' Whether these reviews are legitimate or not is not the point - it's that they magically show up when you turn Yelp down on businesses to 'help' your restaurant/bar/whatever. Ask anyone in the restaurant business and they will tell you this. Super common.

    Yelp benefits from angry reviewers and even fake reviews. The more reviews the better - it does not matter if they are fake - either way they are ammunition.

    Yelp is headed for trouble with the FTC. The legal issues brought up here pale in comparison to the larger issue of defining whether Yelp is an 'advertiser' or an 'information tool'. If the FTC deems Yelp an advertiser - then Yelp will be held responsible for reviews. If they are their business as a review site is DONE. They will subject to every imaginable lawsuit. Just Google 'Yelp' and 'extortion' to see the massive amount of anecdotal evidence.

    Yelp's sales team is playing with fire trying to meet the quarterly guidance to the Street. Stay away from this thing if you are an investor. And if you are a small business - don't talk to them at all.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 8:48pm

      Re: Yelp is heading down a dark path

      It's weird that despite these repeated claims and massive amount of anecdotal evidence that no one ever seems to produce any actual evidence.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Sep 10th, 2013 @ 6:49am

        Re: Re: Yelp is heading down a dark path

        no one ever seems to produce any actual evidence.

        That is called "discovery".

        Now Businesses typically can not have a principle sue, the suit has to be done by a lawyer.

        Feel free to track down a restaurant run by a lawyer who will be pissed off enough to go down the lawsuit path and get back with us all.

         

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      jackn, Sep 10th, 2013 @ 5:16am

      Re: Yelp is heading down a dark path

      you're comment is a little incoherent.

      the FTC? I think the law firm is more in the dark here.

       

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    Martin W., Sep 10th, 2013 @ 11:26am

    Yelp is the most despicable for profit extortionist organization on the internet

    Screw You Yelp!! Yelp is the most despicable for profit extortionist organization on the internet; the bullying tactics employed against the McMillan Group is typical of their bullying tactics against all small businesses. They are a for profit business that destroys livelihoods and sleep at night like its all good. They will make bad reviews front and center for businesses and hide their positive reviews until a business gives in to their advertising program then make it all better by showing their positive reviews to avoid any future damage. They are the Mafia of the internet!! Just Google “Yelp Extortion” and read for your self the crumbs these Yelp people truly are!!

     

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    Gene Cavanaugh (profile), Sep 10th, 2013 @ 1:19pm

    Yelp suit

    If they can't stop this sort of thing, you won't be able to trust their reviews.

    I sincerely hope they prevail.

     

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    Ryan Frank, Sep 10th, 2013 @ 9:57pm

    Review filter

    In a breach of contract case, the plaintiff has to prove damages. The non-breaching party also has a duty to mitigate damages.

    Yelp supposedly has an advanced filter. If the fake reviews are filtered, what damage is caused to yelp?

    I wonder if they are suing other small businesses who made fake reviews, which seems different than selling reviews.

     

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    Roger McManus, Sep 11th, 2013 @ 2:56pm

    Amending 47 : 230 to stop some Yelp (et al) damage

    Lots of small business owners who feel Yelp might be “manipulating the data” to boost advertising sales are aggregating their information and suspicions in an effort to change the law protecting Yelp (et al) in the various lawsuits they have won. Go to http://www.NationalAssociationOfSmallBusinessOwners.org and add your name to the list. Lots of stories posted on this site -- now including this one.

     

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    Sampson Greenovich, Oct 29th, 2013 @ 10:24am

    Roofing

    Roofing company in Garland TX has its hands in some of the most important industries.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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