In summary

District attorneys, the State Bar and the Medical Board should protect Californians, but they seem uninterested in deterring fraud against consumers.

By Kathryn Dean, Special to CalMatters

Kathryn Dean is creator of Fake Review Watch on YouTube and member of the Alliance to Counter Crime Online, fakereviewwatch@gmail.com.

Review websites are riddled with fake reviews foisted upon consumers by the tech companies who take advantage of federal legislation that holds them unaccountable for user generated content. 

But that’s not the only problem for California consumers. The state agencies that are supposed to be protecting us, instead turn a blind eye to this fraud, even fraud perpetrated by the medical community.

The Reveal program on National Public Radio recently aired a story featuring my investigation into online review fraud. 

Three years ago, I received an attorney’s letter threatening legal action over a factual Yelp review I wrote on a Santa Clara County psychiatric practice. I refused to succumb to the bullying, and after further harassment I sued the practice in small claims court as a matter of principle for inflicting emotional distress. 

I won, but that was just the beginning of my odyssey. I am a former federal fraud investigator, and following up on my suspicions I uncovered something else: This psychiatric practice was faking the very Yelp reviews that convinced me to go there in the first place. 

I also discovered that the practice was posting fake awards on its website and social media. Finally, a year later, I confirmed that the original letter from the psychiatric practice’s lawyer was a forgery, and that someone had misrepresented himself as the attorney in follow-on emails. I hold written proof from the real attorney himself that he never signed the letter, never sent any emails and knew nothing about my case.

As I gathered my information, I took it to the Santa Clara County District Attorney, the California Medical Board, and the State Bar. The D.A.’s office was initially interested, and why not? My case file included multiple fake Yelp and Google reviews traded for by the psychiatric practice with other businesses, all arranged on Facebook. I had the names of the other businesses and people involved, dates of the trades and the corresponding reviews. Yelp even inadvertently confirmed my information by later removing many of the same reviews for violating their terms of service. 

The D.A. could have turned this into a larger, multi-jurisdictional case targeting multiple businesses that were fraudulently deceiving consumers.

While my own investigation into fake reviews has expanded over the past two years, our California consumer protection agencies have done nothing. The psychiatric practice retains stellar Yelp and Google ratings, and apparently continues its fraudulent ways. 

I was recently contacted by a woman complaining that this same practice had defrauded her of more than $3,000 on her credit card. She notified the D.A. and was told to take it to her local police department. The Medical Board never acted on my complaint; in fact, the board won’t even post my court judgment on its website to warn consumers because, according to the board, judgments must be against individual doctors, not medical corporations, to rate a warning. 

And the State Bar? It closed the case, citing insufficient evidence, despite having a written statement from one of their own members that he had not signed a letter purportedly signed by him.

The problem of medical practices faking reviews is more prevalent than you think. I’ve found more than 50 in California, and I’m a lone investigator. Incidentally, I’ve also found 26 dentists and 45 attorneys in California faking reviews. 

The primary mission of our district attorneys, the State Bar, and the Medical Board is to protect the citizens of this state, but they seem uninterested in deterring fraud against consumers, even by a psychiatric practice that fakes reviews, fakes awards and fakes being a lawyer. It’s time for our agencies to step up and protect patients, and indeed all consumers, against practitioners of fake review fraud.

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