The New York Times reports that New York regulators will today announce a new initiative that aims to crackdown on fake reviews online. They’ve already reached settlement agreements with a number of companies and issued fines of around $350,000 to companies purchasing and providing fake reviews, many of which are submitted to services such as Google, Yahoo, and Yelp. Fake reviews have always been an issue for Google Play and just about every mobile app marketplace, so perhaps regulators will soon extend their investigation to mobile app stores as well.

“What we’ve found is even worse than old-fashioned false advertising,” said Eric T. Schneiderman, the New York attorney general. “When you look at a billboard, you can tell it’s a paid advertisement — but on Yelp or Citysearch, you assume you’re reading authentic consumer opinions, making this practice even more deceiving.”

Regulators found that US Coachways, one of the companies included in the investigation, had hired freelance writers to write fake reviews on Yelp and other services:

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“We get bashed online,” Mr. Telmany wrote, accurately, to his employees on Nov. 20, 2011. “We are loosing [sic] money from this.”… His response was not to fix the problems that customers were citing, like buses never showing up, but to begin a full-fledged effort to get fake reviews. Mr. Telmany hired freelance writers, mandated that his employees write favorable reviews and even pitched in himself. He posted a five-star review on Yelp that began, “US Coachways does a great job!”

Neither Mr. Telmany nor a spokesman for US Coachways could be reached for comment on Sunday. The company agreed to pay $75,000 in fines and stop writing fake reviews.

As noted in the report, a lawyer for Yelp, which has had its fair share of cases involving fake reviews in its mobile apps, noted the initiative shows fake online reviews are finally a “legitimate target of law enforcement.”

The investigation is currently only limited to companies in New York, but could soon become a focus for law enforcement in other locations.

Yesterday an app on Google Play posing as an official BBM for Android client, alongside many other fakes, requested that users rate the app 5 stars before using it.

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