First Penalty for Astroturfing

July 15, 2009

Cosmetic-surgery company Lifestyle Lift has agreed to pay $300,000 in penalties and costs to New York to settle a case over the publishing of fake reviews on the Internet, according to the New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. Under the deal, the company will also stop publishing anonymous positive reviews to Internet message boards and other Web sites. The Attorney General’s office said the case is believed to be the first addressing ‘astroturfing’ on the Internet – in which employees pose as independent consumers to post positive reviews about their own company online. The activity is known as ‘astroturfing’ because the practice fabricates grass roots support.

Lifestyle Lift employees published positive reviews and comments about the company to trick Web-browsing consumers into believing that satisfied customers were posting their own stories. These tactics constitute deceptive commercial practices, false advertising, and fraudulent and illegal conduct under New York and federal consumer protection law.

 Astroturfing would be against the law in the UK. The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 include a prohibition against trading unfairly, and protect consumers against aggressive or misleading marketing.

The New York Attorney-general described the attempt to generate business by duping consumers as ‘cynical, manipulative, and illegal’.

Lifestyle Lift’s president believed that negative Internet postings had significantly hurt the company’s reputation and thought the success of the company hinged on controlling messages posted online. Company employees were directed to create accounts with various Internet message boards and pose as satisfied customers of Lifestyle Lift. Employees also attacked legitimate message board posters who criticized Lifestyle Lift and tried to get those posts removed from message boards.

Internal emails discovered by Attorney General Cuomo’s investigation show that Lifestyle Lift employees were given specific instructions to engage in this illegal activity. One e-mail to employees said: ‘Friday is going to be a slow day – I need you to devote the day to doing more postings on the web as a satisfied client.’ Another internal email directed a Lifestyle Lift employee to ‘Put your wig and skirt on and tell them about the great experience you had.’
In addition to posting on various Internet message board services, Lifestyle Lift also registered and created stand-alone Web sites, such as, designed to appear as if they were created by independent and satisfied customers of Lifestyle Lift. The sites offered positive narratives about the Lifestyle Lift experience. Some of these sites purported to offer forums for users to add their own comments about Lifestyle Lift. In reality, however, Lifestyle Lift either provided all the “user comments” themselves, or closely monitored and edited third-party comments to skew the discussion in favor of Lifestyle Lift. Examples of these narratives can be downloaded at