Consumers often seek online reviews of a business on platforms such as Yelp, CitySearch, Yahoo and Google Plus Pages before purchasing products or services. This includes patients seeking online reviews of a physician or other licensed professional before seeking treatment. Unfortunately, a practice known as “Astroturfing” has developed where businesses attempt to create an impression of widespread support for their services or products, where little such support exists. This practice is now occurring in the health care industry.
On December 2, 2016, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced a $100,000 settlement with the urgent care medical service provider MedRite, LLC, d/b/a Medrite Urgent Care (“Medrite”). According to the announcement, Medrite paid thousands of dollars to internet advertising companies and freelance writers for positive reviews on consumer opinion websites. However, Medrite never required that reviewers visit a Medrite facility or experience Medrite’s services, and Medrite never disclosed that the reviewers were paid for the review.
The announcement cites New York Executive Law §63 (12) and the General Business Law §349 and 350 which prohibit misrepresentation and deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any business. The announcement further cites the FTC “Guidelines on the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising” (16 CFR Part 255) which state that it is a deceptive practice to solicit endorsement support for a product or service without disclosing material connections between the endorser and the advertiser sponsor. Medrite never disclosed that the reviewers were paid by the review. Under the settlement, Medrite is prohibited from falsely saying that someone promoting its services is an independent party and it cannot pay an endorser unless the payment is disclosed.