False Impressions: Online Customer Reviews Exposed (cont.)

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UNDER REVIEW. Yelp says it rejects 25 percent of customer reviews that are submitted to the social-media review website.

UNDER REVIEW. Yelp says it rejects 25 percent of customer reviews that are submitted to the social-media review website.

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Computer algorithms that are designed to catch fake reviews must be refined continually to stay ahead of the latest techniques that bogus reviewers use, Luca says. From our perspective, such conditions further confirm that at least some fake reviews continue to make their way through even the best of filters.

Yelp rejects 25 percent of customer reviews that are submitted as part of an effort to prevent fake customer reviews, says Darnell Holloway of Yelp. Yelp’s computer-verification system also screens for rants and raves that appear in reviews, such as when the review has language that’s over the top rather than analytical. For instance, Yelp wants to avoid reviews of, say, a restaurant, that scream “I loved it!” or “Worst place ever!” Yelp deems such language to be “unhelpful” in reviews, because it doesn’t provide specific information about why the reviewer liked or disliked the business, Holloway says.

Yelp also tries to identify reviews that are submitted by people who don’t post reviews regularly on Yelp and, therefore, aren’t considered to be active members of the Yelp customer-review community. For example, reviews that are submitted by a person who never submitted a review before likely are posted under a group of reviews that are classified as “not currently recommended.” The link to such reviews appears at the bottom of a business’s Yelp page. In other words, Yelp won’t draw attention to such reviews but posts them nonetheless. Holloway says that if the reviewer of a “not recommended” review begins to post frequently about multiple businesses, it’s an indication that the person’s reviews are authentic. As a result, the person’s reviews that are “not recommended” could be switched to appear with other verified reviews, Holloway says. Neither the fraudulent nor the “not recommended” customer reviews are factored into a business’ star rating.

When we asked Holloway whether Yelp’s vetting approach guarantees that no fake reviews will be posted on its website, he didn’t give us a direct answer. Holloway says Yelp wants to publish the “most useful and reliable reviews” but wouldn’t say whether such reviews could be fake.

“There’s a little bit of an arms race between a place like Yelp and people [who] are trying to leave fake reviews,” Luca says. “Because Yelp continues to refine their filter and add new things to it, they come up with fancier technologies to catch fake reviews. On the other hand, people who are intent on leaving fake reviews are becoming more educated on knowing how to do it.”

ON YOUR OWN. Unfortunately, we believe that the best way to protect yourself from getting stung by a fake customer review is to avoid using customer reviews altogether. Although FTC has jurisdiction over online customer reviews, the agency never will be able to investigate all potentially fake reviews, because FTC doesn’t have enough resources, particularly when so many other types of Internet scams exist, Engle says. “You just can’t stamp it out completely,” Engle says of fake customer reviews.

At press time, we found no evidence to indicate that any state besides New York even investigated fake customer reviews. In September 2013, a spokesperson for California Attorney General Kamala Harris told the San Francisco Chronicle that the office was looking into the problem of bogus customer reviews. Jeff Rabkin, who is California’s special assistant attorney general for law and technology, told the newspaper that fake customer reviews represent “an old-time fraud emerging in a new marketplace.” However, at press time, nobody from Harris’ office responded to the four phone messages that Consumers Digest left to learn whether California launched an investigation. We only can hope that California is more responsive to consumers who encounter problems with fake reviews than Harris’ staff was with us.

It’s difficult not to conclude that consumers largely are on their own when it comes to determining the authenticity of online customer reviews, and that’s precisely why you can’t rely on them. We know fake customer reviews exist, and we know that customer-review websites and government agencies can’t catch all of the phony reviews that are posted. So if, as experts insist, consumers can’t tell real reviews from fake reviews, the entire concept of customer reviews amounts to a gamble for anyone who relies on them.

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