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The East Bay Express has published an investigatory piece that accuses salespeople at Yelp.com with promising to remove negative reviews if business owners invest hundreds of dollars a month in “advertising.” The tactics were so heavy-handed that one owner compared them to the dealings of organized crime.

Here are the money quotes:

Many business owners, like John, feel so threatened by Yelp’s power to harm their business that they declined to be interviewed unless their identities were concealed. (John is not the restaurant owner’s real name.) Several business owners likened Yelp to the Mafia, and one said she feared its retaliation. “Every time I had a sales person call me and I said, ‘Sorry, it doesn’t make sense for me to do this,’ … then all of a sudden reviews start disappearing.” To these mom-and-pop business owners, Yelp’s sales tactics are coercive, unethical, and, possibly, illegal.

“That’s the biggest scam in the Bay Area,” John said. “It totally felt like a blackmail deal. I think they’re doing anything to make a sale.”

For the record, Yelp denies all the allegations. Discuss amongst yourselves.

Image by Flickr user ewen and donabel