July 15, 2009— -- A plastic surgery franchise has agreed to pay $300,000 in fines for engaging in a facelift of a different kind: fake consumer reviews written by employees.
Lifestyle Lift agreed to stop posting false reviews online, in a settlement with state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday. This is reportedly the first prosecution nationally of "astroturfing," the practice of creating a fake grassroots movement or illegitimate buzz around a commercial item, something that Cuomo's office called "a growing problem on the Internet," in a statement issued Tuesday.
Cuomo's investigation revealed internal emails in which employees were encouraged by company executives to take spare time during the day to write the reviews and post to message boards. "Put your wig and skirt on and tell them about the great experience you had," read one.
In some cases, the employees also created entire websites that claimed to independently review the company's procedures in order to mislead consumers.Cuomo's case was based on New York and Federal statutes designed to protect consumers. His office claimed that astroturfing constituted "deceptive commercial practices, false advertising, and fraudulent and illegal conduct," according to the statement released Tuesday.
"After researching and eventually undergoing the Lifestyle Lift, I find it fairly easy to describe: incredible!" Read one example of the illegally-posted fake consumer reviews provided by the Attorney General's Office.
"This company's attempt to generate business by duping consumers was cynical, manipulative, and illegal," said Cuomo in a prepared statement.
Lifestyle Lift, a Michigan-based company with 32 locations and nearly 100 physicians nationwide, issued a statement Tuesday saying that management at the company had changed since the illegal postings and that a new internet policy was in place.
In the settlement, Lifestyle Lift did not admit or deny any wrongdoing, according to Cuomo's office. The company in a statement said that "All 'before' and 'after' photography is of actual patients and their results. However, "some of the postings were representative of patient testimonials and comments rather than actual verbatim comments."
"We absolutely support the NY Attorney General's objective of insuring integrity in the marketplace," said attorney Allan S. Rubin, who represents the company, in the statement released Tuesday.
Lifestyle Life Fights Back
The company also claimed to be victims of "false and malicious internet attacks" and stated that it remains problematic for businesses to deal with "unfair or biased criticism" online.
The fake reviews written by Lifestyle Lift employees reported on the ease of the procedures at Lifestyle Lift. In one posting, an employee wrote, "I didn't want to look like I went twelve rounds with Rocky Balboa, taking months to completely heal… This is a new millennium, I knew there had to be newer and better (and less expensive) options available."
Joel Stonington is a 2009 Carnegie Fellow with the Brian Ross Unit and recently graduated from Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.