Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued a Seattle-area plastic surgery provider and its owner for using a bevy of illegal tactics to uphold the company’s online image.
The lawsuit, filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, alleges Allure Esthetic and its owner Dr. Javad Sajan used unlawful non-disclosure agreements (NDA) to prevent bad reviews, bribed patients to remove negative reviews, and published fake positive reviews.
According to the lawsuit, Allure required patients to sign NDAs from 2017 to 2019. Evidence in the lawsuit against Allure shows the NDAs required patients to “not say anything” that would “damage the reputation” of Allure. Reviews under 4-stars were considered negative, the suit noted, and more than 10,000 patients signed the NDAs.
Patients were allegedly required to waive privacy rights so the company could respond to negative reviews with personal health information, a violation of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, according to the lawsuit.
Allure also incentivized patients with cash and free services or products for taking down their negative reviews, the lawsuit alleges. Any patient that accepted those bribes was forced to sign a second NDA that included a potential $250,000 lawsuit if the patient continued to post negative reviews, according to the suit.
Allure also used a virtual private network (VPN) to post fake reviews online, according to the suit. The VPN was allegedly used to conceal the IP addresses of the reviewers to avoid the reviews being flagged as fake.
“Threatening and bribing customers to prevent them from sharing the truth about their experience isn’t just wrong — it’s illegal,” Ferguson said in a press release Thursday. “Patients rely on reviews to determine if a healthcare provider is right for them, and using legal threats and bribes to manipulate those reviews is deceptive and harms Washingtonians.”
The suit comes as the tech industry aims to crack down on the growing problem of fake product reviews. Amazon filed its first lawsuit over fake reviews in 2015 and continues to take legal action against sites that allegedly facilitate fake product reviews for merchants. Google has also been flooded with fake reviews, hurting small businesses who rely on the search engine as a way to reach customers.
Ferguson’s office says online reviews are increasingly influential in a consumer’s decision to go with a certain product or service, citing a 2020 survey which found that more than 70% of patients use online reviews as the first step to finding a new doctor.
“When it comes to one’s medical care — or really any service or business that one thinks about doing business with — folks go online and look at reviews,” Ferguson said during a press conference Thursday. “That’s what people do.”
Ferguson also alleges that Allure doctored “before and after” images of patients online to manipulate marketing materials, and kept cash rebates owed to patients.
Ferguson said his office investigated Allure for about a year in response to complaints, and interviewed about 40 former employees and about 10 patients.
Allure operates under several names including Allure Esthetic, Gallery of Cosmetic Surgery, Seattle Plastic Surgery, Alderwood Surgical Center, and Northwest Face & Body. Allure has Washington offices in Seattle, Lynnwood and Kirkland, according to the lawsuit.
The company didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment via email.
Washington AG sues Seattle plastic surgery provider over fake online reviews by GeekWire on Scribd