Cosmetic-surgery company Lifestyle Lift has agreed to pay $300,000 in penalties and costs to the State of New York to settle a case over the publishing of fake reviews on the Internet, according to NY Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

Under the deal, the company will also stop publishing anonymous positive reviews to Internet message boards and other Web sites. The attorney general’s office said the case is believed to be the first in the country addressing "astroturfing" on the Internet, in which employees pose as independent consumers to post positive reviews about their own company online.

Lifestyle Lift employees published positive reviews and comments about the company to trick Web-browsing consumers into believing that satisfied customers were posting their own stories, according to Cuomo’s office. These tactics
constitute deceptive commercial practices, false advertising, and fraudulent and illegal conduct under New York and federal consumer protection law.

“This company’s attempt to generate business by duping consumers was cynical, manipulative, and illegal,” said Cuomo.

The office said Lifestyle Lift has more than 40 locations in the US, including several in New York. The attorney general’s office said the company’s president allegedly believed negative Internet postings had hurt the company’s reputation and wanted to control messages posted about it online.

Internal e-mails discovered by the attorney general’s investigation allegedly show Lifestyle Lift employees were given specific instructions to engage in astroturfing.

The attorney general’s office also alleges the company created stand-alone Web sites that were designed to appear as if they were created by independent, satisfied customers of the company.

Lifestyle Lift couldn’t be reached for comment.

[Source: Associated Press/Office of the New York Attorney General]