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.

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  1. icon
    Mike Masnick (profile), 9 Sep 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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