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Yelp Goes Undercover to Crack Down on Fake Reviews

Real people, fake reviews

AP

In the age of the internet, online reviews can make or break a business — which is why some businesses offer free food or other rewards in exchange for positive reviews, or even pay shady companies to generate reviews for them. A CBS News report sheds light on how Yelp is continuing the fight against fraudulent reviews: by "[creating] decoy businesses to catch fraudsters in the act."

"We might see something on Craiglist saying, 'Hey, I'm offering $20 for positive reviews on Yelp.' ... Odds are we're going to be among the first people to respond to that offer on Craigslist or Fiver or wherever else it may be," Yelp's Ian MacBean told CBS News, adding that he's seen businesses generate "hundreds" of fake reviews.

Yelp began flagging businesses with suspicious activity back in 2012, through the use of Consumer Alerts: Businesses who have attempted to buy (or offer rewards for) positive reviews are flagged, with "a clear warning on the front of the offending business' Yelp page, and link to relevant evidence," as the Yelp blog explains.

2013 study by Harvard Business School indicated that 16 percent of Yelp reviews, at least in the Boston area, were fake. Amazon is also cracking down, and has sued more than 1,000 people over the past year against people for selling fake reviews.

In the U.S., negative reviews could earn Yelpers the ire of restaurant owners, but the government wants to ensure consumers' rights to leave bad reviews are protected by law. In some countries, fake reviews aren't just bad for business — they can be problematic for the reviewer, too. In 2015, a reviewer on a Yelp-like French site was fined more than $8,000 €7,500 for his negative review of the Michelin-starred Loiseau Des Ducs in Dijon, which he left days before the restaurant had even opened.

Like many of the businesses it serves, Yelp isn't a big fan of scathing reviews either — at least, not when they come from Yelp employees. Last year, the company fired an employee who penned an open letter to CEO Jeremy Stoppelmann, alleging that she and "every single one" of her coworkers were living paycheck-to-paycheck and couldn't afford to purchase groceries.

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