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Yelp seeks court's help to stop profiteering fake reviewer in North Van

User-generated consumer reviews website Yelp is suing an unknown Shaw Internet user in North Vancouver for creating fake positive reviews for profit and attempting to blackmail the website.

A British Columbia Supreme Court lawsuit filed Sept. 19 by the San Francisco-based company lists John Doe as the defendant, but claims the person uses six different Hotmail email addresses and goes by the aliases James McNulty, jon tom and bill mads.

"John Doe has entered into agreements with certain businesses having a business account on the Yelp Site, where in the businesses have agreed to remunerate John Doe in exchange for the composition and posting of positive fake reviews on the Yelp site, in order to boost the businesses ratings," reads the statement of claim, filed by lawyer Dan Burnett.

"John Doe has contacted multiple individuals in the general public and has offered to pay compensation to those individuals in exchange for the composition of fake reviews of a business in their Yelp page. People have posted the fake reviews on Yelp's website, and have received payment for the fake reviews from John Doe."

The filing said that as a result of the nuisance, "the general public will be unable to discern which Yelp reviews are genuine and which are the fake reviews."

Yelp is suing for nuisance and violation of the Competition Act's section about false and misleading advertising and is seeking damages, interest and costs, but first needs to locate the offending user.

So the company is seeking an order for Shaw to turn over the user's name and address. The lawsuit said terms of service for Yelp users include a ban on posting false and intentionally misleading content and promoting a business for commercial purposes, except in connection with a business account.

The lawsuit further alleges that John Doe attempted to blackmail the company. The court filing includes a July 12, 2013 email allegedly from Jon Tom that admitted "thousands of fake reviews from real established Yelpers for hundreds of businesses across USA and Canada" were posted for over a year.

"I have recently teamed up with a marketing guru to make an instructional video on my system to sell to her devoted VIP followers which will profit us $2-$400,000,” said the email. "I am concerned that if I do sell my knowledge of posting fake reviews that Yelp's entire system and integrity will be corrupted."

The email suggested "maybe I should turn myself into you and hand over the hundreds of clients I have worked with over the past year so you can oust them online and make an huge example to all businesses of what will happen if they buy fake reviews. That would make global headlines! What is your advise?"

Also included was a screen shot of a June 22, 2012 message from James McNulty that offered another user $10 per review posted.

"I will provide the reviews, all you have to do is post them. I have tonnes of review I need posted so you could make a lot of money! I can pay you easily. Please let me know if you are interested," said the message.

Vancouver based journalist Bob Mackin is a frequent contributor to The Tyee. Find his previous Tyee articles here.

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