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Astroturfing has become a major issue in the past few years. No, we aren’t talking about the practice of installing fake grass, we are talking about the practice of companies writing fake reviews that appear to be favorable reviews written by consumers. With the rampant use of social media and service platforms, search engines, and the internet as advisor on products or companies, many businesses have begun creating fake accounts, followers, or reviews to drive business to their company. The department has discovered some licensees who used their employees or even hired third-party contractors to write fake reviews favorable to the company. Many of these fake reviews were posted on several websites with different consumer names and transaction dates in an effort to increase the company’s online presence.

A fake review is false advertising, and an unfair or deceptive act or practice. Engaging, directly or indirectly, in any unfair or deceptive act or practice toward any person is a violation of the department’s acts (RCW 18.44.301(2); RCW 19.146.0201(2); RCW 19.230.340(2); RCW 31.04.027(1)(b); RCW 31.45.105(1)(b)). Such activity may expose the company to an enforcement action by the department, and may also trigger liability under the Washington Consumer Protection Act (CPA), chapter 19.86 RCW. Most of the department’s acts have a provision that make a violation of that act a violation of the CPA. The CPA would also likely define this activity as an unfair and deceptive act or practice, and an unfair method of competition.

Lastly, this practice may cause the company to run afoul of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC is in the process of updating its regulation, 16 C.F.R. Part 255, concerning the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising. The regulation addresses the application of 15 U.S.C. § 45, the prohibition of deceptive practices and unfair methods of competition, to the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising. At least two FTC commissioners have stated the FTC needs to toughen up their regulation to require penalties that will impact the violator but also serve as a deterrent to other potential violators. The FTC has recently announced a request for public comment on this regulation.