Five Star Fakes: Fake online reviews cheating businesses and consumers

Experts say digital marketplace rife with fake product and service reviews
Published: Jun. 20, 2022 at 3:46 PM EDT
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InvestigateTV - Online reviews have become an essential part of the digital shopping experience. Virtual “word of mouth” is how many gauge the caliber of new products and services. When that five-star review pops up, it’s seen as a badge of quality. But, according to industry experts, there’s a chance that online review was either bought or sold and, in many cases, completely fake.

When private businesses write their own reviews or buy fake customer reviews it’s more than just a frustration for consumers, it’s illegal.

The Federal Trade Commission’s Division of Advertising Practices monitors deceptive endorsements that cheat businesses and consumers of their purchasing experience. Fake reviews violate Section 5(a) of the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act) (15 USC §45) which prohibits “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.”

Over the last few years, the FTC said it has tried to combat the problem, but the bad actors are still out there.

Even the experts can be fooled.

Kay Dean, a former fraud investigator for the federal government, said she never thought she would be deceived by an online review.

“Five years ago, I used online reviews to find a doctor and I ended up having a bad experience,” Dean said. “And it left me really suspicious about those reviews that I had relied on.”

That experience kickstarted Dean’s involvement in uncovering fakes. In 2018, Dean launched and its accompanying YouTube channel, both designed to help consumers avoid falling victim to fake reviews.

On her site and YouTube channel, Dean has uncovered thousands of examples of fake online reviews.

A Facebook post offering cash for reviews. Kay Dean exposed this post and others like it on...
A Facebook post offering cash for reviews. Kay Dean exposed this post and others like it on her YouTube channel “FakeReviewWatch”(Kay Dean/FakeReviewWatch)

“I started doing some digging and I uncovered that the practice I went to had someone on Facebook and Facebook review exchange groups, bartering and trading, Yelp and Google reviews with other businesses,” Dean said.

She said the scope of the problem is massive and there is little to no regulation. She said in her opinion, most people don’t realize how polluted online review spaces are.

“The fraud extends across every profession you can imagine,” Dean said. “I’ve seen surgeons, psychiatrists, weddings, DJ’s, lactation consultants, piano teachers, and you name it.”

Finding the Fakes

According to the World Economic Forum, a Swiss lobbying group, fake online reviews cost businesses and consumers $152 billion a year. “When there is motivation to profit more from this kind of practice, it’s likely that sellers might engage with this practice,” UCLA researcher Sherry He said. He, along with researchers Brett Hollenbeck and David Proserpio, conducted a 2021 research project delving into the markets for fake online reviews. The researchers found that sellers post in private online groups to promote their products and pay customers to purchase them and leave positive reviews.

InvestigateTV searched multiple social media platforms and found numerous groups buying, selling and trading fake reviews.

This Facebook post asks for someone who is interested in creating “a long-term partnership”...
This Facebook post asks for someone who is interested in creating “a long-term partnership” writing fake reviews. Kay Dean said online fake reviews “extend across every profession”.(InvestigateTV)

Along with breaking federal law, the companies buying and selling reviews on these exchanges violated Facebook’s policies for fraud and deception. According to the company’s website, stolen information, goods, or services by “fake and misleading user reviews or ratings” violate its guidelines.

The social media giant has worked to curb the growing problem. In 2021, the United Kingdom’s government agency Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) met with Facebook to help combat the trading of fake and misleading reviews happening on its platforms. Since that meeting, Facebook removed over 16,000 groups.

InvestigateTV reached out to Facebook concerning its policies and safeguards against fake review groups. The investigative team also had questions about the public groups we found buying, selling, and trading reviews.

Facebook said it would investigate and explained its policies through an email but did not want to be quoted. The company did tell InvestigateTV that it uses computer algorithms to flag fake review groups. Humans are then assigned to investigate and eventually decide whether the group is pulled or the content is removed. Several days after our questions, the groups we asked about were deleted.

The fake reviews bought and sold on social media platforms could eventually end up as product and service reviews on other websites.

InvestigateTV also reached out to online retailer Amazon about the problem of fake reviews. The company said it “suspends, bans, and takes legal actions against those who violate” its policies.

Amazon said in 2021 it reported more than 16,000 abusive groups to social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In a statement, the company said those complaints resulted in groups with over 11 million members being taken down.

This person writes in a Facebook post: “need reviews for my Amazon products”. InvestigateTV...
This person writes in a Facebook post: “need reviews for my Amazon products”. InvestigateTV found similar posts on several social media sites.(InvestigateTV)

In response to questions about how they find fake reviews, Amazon said it uses a detection system to actively remove reviews that appear on their sites. In February, the company said it took legal actions against three major “fake review brokers” that were targeting Amazon customers in hope of encouraging them to leave reviews of products the customers had not purchased.

In a May press release, Amazon said the same three companies would no longer be allowed to broker fake reviews, and as a result, nearly 350,000 people posting fake reviews were “no longer incentivized to do so on Amazon.”

InvestigateTV also examined the policies concerning fake reviews from three major review-driven businesses: Yelp, TripAdvisor and Google Reviews.

In a statement, Yelp said it regularly flags groups, posts or individuals who participate in online review exchange groups. In 2021, the company said it made more than 1,000 reports to other online platforms to warn them of nearly 950 suspicious groups, posts or individuals. Yelp also said it reported companies that engaged in these practices to the FTC.

TripAdvisor said in 2020 it rejected 1.3 million reviews before they were ever published.

In a statement, the company wrote “while we believe in the right to write about one’s travel experience, we block millions of reviews from ever appearing on our site that do not meet our guidelines.”

Google did not respond to InvestigateTV’s email.

Fighting the Fakes

The Federal Trade Commission’s Division of Advertising Practices says knowing the exact percentage of fake reviews in the online marketplace is difficult.

“There are various statistics out there in terms of how many fake reviews there are, but I think it’s probably an unknowable number,” said Rich Cleland, the assistant director of the division.

Currently, the FTC does not track the number of complaints filed for fake online reviews but is aware that some reviews are written by people who have been paid to write them.

A Facebook post where the user asks for people to buy and review a watch. Once the consumer...
A Facebook post where the user asks for people to buy and review a watch. Once the consumer writes a review, the post indicates they will give a full refund.(InvestigateTV)

Cleland said it can be a challenge to shut down these accounts despite knowing they exist.

“One of the reasons that it is challenging is that many of the worst actors, the review farms that are turning out these millions of reviews, they’re not located in the United States,” Cleland said. “And it’s difficult to shut these places without international cooperation.”

In October of 2021, the commission sent out a reminder to 700 companies – including “top consumer products companies, leading retailers and retail platforms, major ad agencies and other names you know” notifying them of fines that could arise if fake online reviews were found to deceive the public.

According to Cleland, companies could be subject to up to $46,000 per violation. As of June 2022, no companies have been penalized.

The FTC also recently published new guidelines for companies’ platforms and marketers who rely on online reviews. The guidelines included treating “positive and negative reviews equally” and the need for “reasonable processes in place to spot fake or deceptive reviews”.

Filtering the Fakes

As government agencies and major online retailers fight five-star fakes, one expert built what he said is an online transparency tool for consumers.

Saoud Khalifah, CEO of FakeSpot, created an online web extension and app after becoming a victim of fake online reviews in 2015. He said he was looking for an athletic endurance supplement on Amazon, trusted the five-star rating system and decided to purchase the item.

His expectations fell short once the product arrived.

“I got the product in person, it looked like someone made it in a garage,” Khalifah said. “The tape was falling off the packaging and the pills themselves looked like someone put in woodchips from a woodworking shop.”

Khalifah said it was the last time he ordered a product without checking if the reviews were written by a paid actor.

“Fake reviews can be very dangerous, so in some instances, they could be pushing a product that is a counterfeit product that has very toxic chemicals,” Khalifah said.

The FakeSpot app works by using an “A-F” grading system to rate if the product’s reviews are honest and legitimate.

A side-by-side comparison of the grading system users see on the FakeSpot app. The grades...
A side-by-side comparison of the grading system users see on the FakeSpot app. The grades range from “A-F".(InvestigateTV)

“We don’t care about selling tires, we don’t care about selling fake stuff,” Khalifah said. “We just want to protect consumers online.”

The company shared with InvestigateTV that it monetizes by product recommendations offered to users through its platform. Khalifah also told us FakeSpot does not harvest users’ data.

Flagging the Fakes

If you find a fake review, experts said report it to the FTC and the platform you are using.

Rich Cleland and Kay Dean also shared tips consumers can practice using:

  • Think twice if you see a product/service with only five-star reviews
  • If you see reviews that are posted within hours/days of each other’s, be skeptical.
  • Read both the positive and negative reviews
  • May attention to language, if it mentions a free product, has poor grammar or sounds like an advertisement it likely is.

Finally, Dean suggested taking a disconnected approach with online reviews and instead consider close family and friends’ reviews.

“Don’t rely on reviews or opinions of complete strangers that you’ve never even met, because they might not even be a real person at all,” Dean said.

To see complete written statements from Amazon, Yelp and Tripadvisor see below.