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Some say there's a price for positive Yelp reviews. For the first time, an elite Yelp user takes NBC4 inside the review process she calls "shocking." Hetty Chang reports for the NBC4 News at 11 p.m. on Nov. 18, 2013.
When it comes to everyday decisions, like where to eat or what services to trust, millions of consumers have come to depend on what's become the "go-to" guide for recommendations - Yelp.com.
But the popular review-driven website now finds itself in the middle of a class-action lawsuit, in which attorneys for the plaintiffs allege contributors should have been paid for the reviews they wrote.
In that lawsuit, attorneys also allege that Yelp controls its reviews to pander to its advertisers.
NBC4 spoke with a SoCal dentist, Gary Hollander, who said he could attest to such practices.
"This is a forum for anybody to write in," said Hollander, who says getting people into his dental practice got much tougher in the midst of the recession when he started getting several negative reviews on Yelp.
"I wrote to Yelp figuring that they could knock it off," he said. "Instead, I got an email back stating (that) they can't interfere with factual disputes."
The tone quickly changed, according to Hollander and his wife Mary, when a month later, Yelp called him back asking him if he wanted to buy an advertisement.
"My husband said 'I don't like the negative reviews, what will happen with those if I pay the $350?' and they said 'no problem we can remove these negative reviews,' and they did," said Mary Hollander.
Gary Hollander claims he called Yelp back a few weeks later to inform the company he decided not to advertise.
"My husband said to me 'the negative reviews are back,'" said Mary Hollander. "Since he didn't pay the $350. That's extortion!"
Attorneys allege in the lawsuit that Yelp "placate(s) advertisers who might get upset by negative reviews.
Lily Jeung is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. For years, she told us she was considered an "elite" reviewer.
"I had about 5,000 'friends' on Yelp," said Jeung. "I had written well over a thousand reviews."
But Jeung's entire profile and all her reviews are now nowhere to be found because they were deleted by Yelp.
"If you wrote a positive review for a business that was on the list of business they were trying to get to advertise they would filter the review," explained Jeung. "If you were to write a negative review about a business that was giving them a lot of money -- they would delete your account as well."
"When they deleted my account, they sent me an email," she said.
In the email, Yelp stated it was Jeung who wrote reviews for businesses that tried to pay for positive reviews, a claim, which Jeung denies.
"I felt shocked!" she said.
Yelp sent NBC4 a statement that reads in part:
"There has never been any amount of money a business can pay Yelp to manipulate reviews. Our automated review filter does not punish those who do not advertise."
A spokesperson for Yelp believes the lawsuit is a result of backlash by some of the plaintiffs who the company says had their accounts removed for improper conduct.
Jeung doesn't believe it, and says she is speaking out because she believes Yelp has gotten away with too much for too long.
"I see how hard it is to make it - to have a small business," said Jeung. "But having someone, some big corporate entity come in, and try to get you to pay all this money in order to stay afloat?"