False Impressions: Online Customer Reviews Exposed

It’s impossible for consumers to distinguish phony reviews from real ones, because marketing companies take elaborate steps to deceive websites and you.

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The next time that you consider booking a vacation, dining at a restaurant or making a household purchase, you might be tempted to check out customer reviews that include firsthand experiences that are posted on various websites.

However, significant flaws exist with such reviews: Some of them are phony, and it’s impossible for you to determine which customer reviews are real and which aren’t, experts tell Consumers Digest. As much as 15 percent of customer reviews in 2014 are fraudulent and unreliable, according to a study by market-research company Gartner.

A 2013 sting by state investigators in New York revealed that phony customer reviews often are the covert work of marketing companies. The companies are hired by businesses to fill the Internet with fake reviews that are designed to steer consumers off course when they seek advice about a product or a service. Federal Trade Commission says fraudulent customer reviews are false advertising and, therefore, illegal, but the agency has limited resources to prevent such reviews from being published.

“The problem is, if it gets too rampant, consumers just aren’t going to trust [customer] reviews at all,” Mary Engle of FTC says.

We believe that such a lack of trust already is well-deserved, because we found plenty of evidence to suggest that fake customer reviews are a problem that might never be solved. Although independent experts believe that the majority of customer reviews are genuine, the mere presence of fraudulent customer reviews taints the entire well.

FAKE TAKE. In September 2013, New York admonished 19 companies that published fake customer reviews, and the companies agreed to pay $350,000 as part of a settlement. State investigators revealed that the companies hired writers from as far away as the Philippines and paid them up to $10 for each phony customer review that was posted on behalf of a company. For instance, bus-charter company US Coachways wrote its own bogus reviews, hired freelance writers to do the same, and urged employees to pose as customers and write positive reviews about the company, New York investigators found.

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We believe that the revelations of the New York investigation represent a microcosm of what happens across the country and throughout the Internet, based on our interviews with seven independent customer-review experts. It’s unclear what percentage of businesses attempt to publish fake reviews or whether the businesses that publish fake reviews primarily hire third-party companies or do their own dirty work, experts say.

The New York investigation focused on fake customer reviews that it found on social-media review websites. However, it’s clear to us that all websites that provide customer reviews, including retail, manufacturing and service platforms, are vulnerable to having fake customer reviews posted, because it’s too easy for someone to pose as a customer.

New York investigators found online advertisements that sought writers to generate fake reviews and followed up such solicitations. For example, they found a nightclub that solicited writers who could post customer reviews for at least 3 months and not have the reviews flagged as fraudulent by website review-verification systems. The nightclub said it would supply the language that should be used for each customer review.

Furthermore, to seal the deal, New York investigators posed online as a yogurt shop in Brooklyn and solicited fraudulent reviews from so-called reputation-management companies in New York. “Some of the companies proceeded to explain how they could write fake reviews for us and explained in great detail how they would do that,” says Clark Russell, who is an assistant attorney general who is in charge of New York’s Internet bureau.

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