Marketing professionals have been warned not to write or commission fake positive online reviews, and that doing so risks civil or even criminal action.
The warning comes as part of an open letter from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), published last week, and addressed to marketing departments, marketing agencies and their clients.
It follows an investigation in March 2016 by the CMA into a series of fake online reviews by an online marketing company on behalf of its clients.
On 4 March this year, the SEO and online marketing company Total SEO & Marketing had to undertake to cease the practice of writing fake reviews for their clients, and had to take steps to remove the fake reviews already posted online.
That was after it was found to have written over 800 fake positive reviews between 2014 and 2015 for 86 small businesses that were published across 26 different websites.
The small businesses concerned include car dealers, mechanics, landscape gardeners and other tradespeople. They are not thought to have involved hospitality businesses but the CMA's warning still has ramifications for this sector.
In its open letter, the CMA warned that businesses and anyone acting on their behalf should "not offer inducements to customers in return for writing positive reviews about their businesses" and should "not pretend to be a customer and write fake reviews about their own or other businesses' products".
It added that "while it is perfectly legal to market products through social media, blogs, videos and other online publications, it is important that this is done honestly, opening and in compliance with consumer protection law."
The CMA has produced a brief guide for businesses and marketing agencies summarising how they can comply with consumer protection law in relation to online reviews here.
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