The New York Attorney General’s office recently levied $350,000 in penalties against 19 companies for astroturfing and false endorsements. Dubbed “Operation Clean Turf,” the year long investigation into the reputation management industry found that companies had flooded the Internet with fake consumer reviews on websites including Yelp, Google, and CitySearch. Throughout the investigation, the Attorney General’s office found that many companies, including those in the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) industry, used techniques to hide their identities, such as creating fake profiles on review websites and paying copywriters from around the world for $1 to $10 per review.

Astoturfing, defined as the practice of masking the sponsors of a message to give the appearance of it coming from a distinterested participant, is intended to give credibility to a business or product. Astoturfing is illegal under many state laws as well as federal law. For instance, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) back in 2009 had published regulations for endorsements and testimonials, including that they must be true and not misleading, and the reviewer must disclose any consideration provided in exchange for the review.

The takeaway? Don’t write fake reviews, don’t ask others to write fake reviews for you, and prohibit your employees from posting fake reviews. It’s okay to ask your customers to write reviews for you, but do not offer them anything for doing so. If you work with an advertising or SEO firm, include in your contract a requirement that they follow all applicable laws, and will defend and indemnify you for any violations on their part.  Finally, and because The FTC Guides “have always defined ‘endorsements’ by focusing on the message consumers take from the speech at issue,” you may also want to avoid blindly accepting Linkedin endorsements if they may be false or misleading, and refrain from buying Twitter followers to appear as if you have a larger following.

Click here for the full press release.