ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Lots of people look to the opinions of others online before visiting a new business, hiring someone to do work on your home, or even on your teeth. Online reputations can help make or break a business.
But how do you know who to believe? Which online reviews are from real customers? Were some rave reviews written by a friend or relative of the owner? Was someone paid to leave a fake five-star review?
Jason Brown has made it his mission to find out. “There’s so much money to be made for having a positive reputation, and there’s no deterrent to stop people from doing it,” Brown told KRQE News 13.
The California-based consumer advocate created Reviewfraud.org nearly three years ago; a website dedicated to exposing businesses with what he identifies as fake Google, Facebook, or Yelp reviews.
“I look for little patterns and clusters, so if I see seven reviewers are reviewing 12 of the same businesses in different states, it’s usually like my red flag,” Brown explained.
Brown said he found hundreds of fake five-star reviews for businesses across the country, including more than 30 businesses in New Mexico.
Sandia Heights Dental Care on Academy made the list. A five-star Google review for the dentist office was written by Jane Crim, but a reverse image search of Crim’s profile photo shows it’s a stock image for ‘girl.’
A Mallory Debey with the same profile photo wrote a rave review for a brand of CBD oil sold online.
Santa Fe Attorney Stephen Aarons also made Brown’s list. Five-star reviewer Julius Bush on Google uses a mug shot of convicted Bay Area kidnapper Matthew Muller, who’s currently serving a 40-year sentence. Muller clearly didn’t write the review.
KRQE News 13 called the businesses to see if they knew about the suspicious reviews. Aarons sent an email saying he never represented a Julius Bush, but that clients may use a bogus name to protect their identity.
Aarons provided the name of a man who may have written the review, but that man told KRQE he didn’t write any reviews.
Aarons also has what Brown has deemed to be suspicious five-star reviews for his services on Yelp.
For example, two Yelp reviewers for Aarons, one in the UK and the other in New York, wrote the same exact phrase in their review, stating, “being informed and getting copies of all case-related paperwork was essential to know what was going on and where we were in the case.”
It appears Aarons also wrote himself a few five-star reviews that Yelp removed for violating its terms of service.
“That conflict of interest is a big one,” explained Howie Kaibel, Senior Community Director for Yelp Albuquerque. Part of Yelp’s terms of service includes not writing reviews for your own business.
Aarons told KRQE News 13 off-camera that he went on Yelp to try and update his address when his law office moved locations in Santa Fe. He said he did not intend to rate himself.
Sandia Heights Dental sent KRQE News 13 a letter stating they never purchased any fake reviews and weren’t aware of the fake review by Jane Crim until we brought it to their attention. The dentist office says it immediately took action to get the suspicious review removed by Google, and insist their other reviews are indeed from legitimate customers.
Since Google reviews are linked to actual email addresses, Brown said legitimate reviewers likely wouldn’t use stock photos for their accounts.
Online reputation is key for business
Brown explained there are third party marketing companies that businesses can hire to help boost their online presence, which can sometimes lead to bogus reviews. “There’s a whole industry revolving around people that are willing to buy and sell and trade online reviews,” he explained.
Both the attorney and dentist office hired a third party marketing company to boost their online presence in the past, but both businesses insist they are unaware of any potential attempts by those companies to solicit or post illegitimate reviews. Brown said it would be nearly impossible to find out who specifically is behind the suspicious reviews.
“Eighty-four-percent of people start their search for any sort of service online. So for businesses to have an online presence and a good one at that, is very very important.”Matthew Mora, Marketing Coordinator for the Better Business Bureau
Matthew Mora, Marketing Coordinator for the Better Business Bureau, said reviews or complaints sent to the BBB are highly vetted. “We look at whether or not it’s been put on the Black Hat IP address list, geolocation, phone number, sometimes we even call the consumer,” he added.
Mora agrees the reviews by Jane Crim and Julius Bush are suspicious. But what can sites like Google and Yelp do about fake reviews?
Google states in their Terms of Service, “We may review content to determine whether it is illegal or violates our policies, and we may remove or refuse to display content that we reasonably believe violates our policies or the law. But that does not necessarily mean that we review content, so please don’t assume that we do.”
Kaibel said Yelp uses recommendation software and a team of moderators to filter through suspicious reviews.
“What we’re doing is bringing the most trusted, reliable content to the front of the page, so those are the recommended reviews,” Kaibel explained. Yelp only recommends about 71 percent of its submitted reviews.
“If we’ve deemed that the Terms of Service have been violated, we will usually remove the review or at least place it in the not recommended section,” Kaibel added.
Violations include reviews from people who did not have first-hand experience with the business, or customers who have received free or discounted services from the business in question.
So, what are the repercussions for writing a fake review?
Just this year, the Federal Trade Commission won a $12.8 million judgment against a company that hired a third-party to post fake five-star reviews on Amazon for its weight-loss supplements.
“They produced documents which confirmed that they actually had been buying fake reviews, but it’s not always easy for us to spot or for consumers to spot,” said Michael Ostheimer, Senior Attorney for the FTC Division of Advertising Practices.
It’s the first case the FTC has brought against someone for buying fake reviews and placing them on a third party website.
“Cure Encapsulations not only bought fake reviews, but they also made deceptive claims,” Ostheimer explained. He said the company claimed its product would literally block fat from forming and cause rapid weight loss, including as much as two pounds per week.
The $12.8 million judgment will be suspended upon payment of $50,000 to the Commission and the payment of certain unpaid income tax obligations. According to an FTC press release, if the defendants are later found to have misrepresented their financial condition to the FTC, the full amount of the judgment is due.
The judgment also includes terms that require the company has reliable scientific evidence for any claims made about their product.
Still, policing the problem on the web poses challenges, and fake reviews still litter the internet.
“It’s just you know buyer beware, unfortunately in this day and age because there’s too much money at stake,” Brown added.
If people aren’t honest about it, Brown said it’s nearly impossible to find out who is behind fake reviews, since some people may be writing them from overseas.
To keep from getting fooled by fake reviews, you can always check out the reviewer’s profile online. Mora and Brown suggest consumers lookout for people posting the same reviews for similar businesses in different states, and always check multiple review sites.