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Inside the war with fake consumer reviews

WHen Kay Dean turned a keen detective's eye on a review of the Toronto Dental Clinic. She soon discovered something alarming. The reviewers behind the clinic's ardent testimony also reviewed a series of ambiguoussmall businessesacross North America and Europe. Floridadry cleaners, Texas locksmiths, British electricians, etc .: A few reviewers recommended the same 14 companies. More specifically, many reviews have appeared word for word on bothFacebookand Google with different names.

Consumer Watch Dog YouTube ChannelVideoFake Review Watch, Former Federal Criminal Investigator Dean, she's sick of dental practice We found that 195 of those 202 Facebook reviews were posted in just three days in May. Previously, the clinic was years old with only a handful of reviews.

"Given what I showed you here," Dean says in the video. She said, "Can you trust this Toronto dental review? I won't."

The problem with fake positive reviews is that Dean flags on the YouTube channel. Is far beyond what was made.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to overwhelm global e-commerce, this type of fraud is one of the most important factors contributing to the loss of consumer confidence in the online market. It is emerging. According to the World Economic Forum'sreport, fake reviews last year impacted global spending on dull products and services by approximately $ 152 billion. Dean says the world of online reviews is full of fakes, like the Wild West. "It has no effect," she says. "There is no penalty. Cheating is rewarded in the current environment."

Dean sees her fake review watch after experiencing her own miserable trials five years ago. is created. She chose psychiatric practice based on the reviews she read on Google and Yelp, but she got angry and very angry at being manipulated by the reviews because she had such a very negative experience there. I was frustrated. “We're not just talking about a five-star rating,” she says. "We are telling false stories about people who pretend to be various mental illnesses and claim to have been helped by their practice."

Since then, she has been a company on her own. We are dedicated to exposing different ways to trick consumers by manipulating reviews and using the services of dubious organizations that sell fake reviews in bulk (paid reviews and). Sometimes called). farm).

In her video, Dean wears her signed glasses and hanging earrings and talks calmly to the viewer through the process of making a business decision. "My purpose is not necessarily to undermine these businesses, but I need to give an example to make it a reality so that people can see what's going on." She says. "I'm just trying to spread the word as a consumer advocate."

Cadeen, a video of her "Fake Review Watch" YouTube channel recently seen here is a former federal agent.


Dean's ongoing fight to publicize the heightened threat of fake reviews is to tackle this issue. Consistent with the new government efforts of. The British government announced a new plan forin April to quell fake reviews. Following the May proceedings, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has proposed updating relevant guidelines to accommodate the modern digital economy. Meanwhile, major review platforms such as Amazon, Google, Meta, TripAdvisor, Trustpilot, and Yelp say they are doing their best to keep fraudulent reviews away from the site. For example, Meta will make further efforts to curb fake reviews in the United States in accordance with the new policyannounced on June 20These are steps in the right direction. But experts say the fight against fake reviews can't be won without completely exploding the heat.

How we got here

The pandemic has forced a cohort of inexperienced online shoppers to increase their online purchases. These shoppers have become even more dependent on reviews, saysAdrian Palmer, Head of Marketing and Reputation at the Henry Business School at the University of Reading. “Many consumers needed to learn which indicators to use to facilitate online purchases, rather than going to stores,” he says. "Instead of picking up, touching, feeling, and smelling the product, they were trapped in a two-dimensional screen and had to use all possible tools to make decisions. Reviews were one of them. ”

Therefore, when a fake review scheme comes into play, it can benefit the companies that are adopting it, and research shows that it actually pays off. What is shown by makes sense. According to a January survey by SEO platformBrightLocal, 77% of consumers regularly review reviews at the time of purchase and 75% read positive reviews, which is the biggest business satisfaction. It states that it is a factor. Fake reviews destroy the market by limiting access to "free, fair, and relevant information," Palmer said. "If you have a market where the information you think comes from the buyer actually comes from the seller, that market won't work."

Paid review firms are emerging around the world and on review platforms. Serving companies that are paying to falsely raise their reputation. Brian Hoyt, Head of Global Communications and Industry at TripAdvisor, said:

A highly organized, predominantly offshore fake review network frequently uses sites such as Facebook, Craigslist, and Reddit to promote fraud and sell to businesses. .. Dean says social media is driving a "tremendous amount" of review scams.

"A group that seeks or encourages fake reviews violates our policy and is properly investigated and implemented," said a Meta spokeswoman.

Other companies provide incentive reviews, force employees to write fake reviews, or influence reviews to give a false impression. , Putting the problem in their hands. Dean says review scams cover every profession you can imagine. “I personally met doctors, lawyers, dentists, contractors, wedding DJs, piano teachers, and breastfeeding consultants,” she says. "And I'm a single investigator who uses only the eyeballs and spreadsheets, not automated tools."

Associate Professor of IT and Management at Carnegie Mellon UniversityBeibei Listates that situations with fake reviews are especially at risk if consumer safety is ensured. “If you go to a doctor who has a lot of fake reviews and you don't recognize it, it can affect your health,” she says. "This is definitely a riskier scenario than going to a restaurant for a bad-meal supper in the worst case."

This is one of FTC's main problems with online marketing. It is a problem that I consider to be one. “Almost every day, thousands of fake reviews are generated,” says Richard Clerand, FTC's Assistant Director of Advertising Operations. "This really infects the entire commercial space of the Internet."

What the review platform is doing

February 2021, UK consumer advocacy groupThis.has published a survey on how fake reviews of products available on the Amazon Marketplace were sold in large numbers online. It turns out that a company founded solely to flood Amazon's seller's product list with false praise is fueling a huge global industry with coordinated online reviews. For example, the German company AMZ Tigers reportedly advertised a bulk package of up to 1,000 reviews at a price close to $ 10,000. Amazon tried to crack down on fraudulent sellers later that year and stopped several well-known sellers for using banned techniques to get reviews.

Amazon's spokesperson has a "clear policy" that prohibits abuse of reviews, and has taken steps to suspend, ban, and take action against those who violate those policies. It states. “Amazon receives over 30 million reviews each week and uses a combination of machine learning technology and skilled investigators to analyze each review before it's published,” said a spokeswoman. “Each review provides dozens of information to detect suspicious activity. You can cross-reference this information to identify fraudulent patterns and potential abuses.”

In 2019, TripAdvisor became the first global review platform to launch a transparency report outlining steps to combat fraud. The latestreportreleased in 2021 found that 943,205 of the 26 million reviews submitted to the site in 2020 were fraudulent (about 3.6%). It states that it was done. Of these fake review submissions, Tripadvisor states that 67.1% prevented it from appearing on the platform.

According to Hoyt, travel booking sites manage user-created content by complementing the skills of a team of investigators with fraud detection technology.This technology maps hundreds of individual online pieces of information to track factors such as the origin of reviews and potential connections to other sites. review. Reviews must be recent, non-profit, direct, respectful and unbiased in order to meet TripAdvisor criteria. "This is a race for perfection, because not everyone in this field is really perfect, but we are always trying to stay one step ahead of the scammers," he says.

According to TripAdvisor's Transparency Report, more than 120 paid review firms around the world have been shut down in recent years. "We've really succeeded in chasing these companies that pop up like mole-slap ads." Hey, if you pay $ 20 or something a month, you'll get x, y, or z reviews. We will boost our business, "says Whit.

With its own transparency report, Trustpilot, an online review community that connects businesses and consumers, received 2.7 million fake reviews last year from about 50 million reviews (about 5.8%). It states that it has deleted the review. Anoop Joshi, Trustpilot's Vice President of Legal and Platform Consistency, said the platform's automated system analyzes factors such as text content, IP addresses, VPN usage, email addresses, and behavioral patterns to determine the authenticity of a review. It states that. "We reviewed the reviews sent to the UK-based business, and 10 minutes later we reviewed the reviews [from the same reviewer] for the US-based business. This is a disadvantage. It shows that there may be some behavior, "he says.

Yelp recommends whatautomated software identifiesand what the platform considers to be the most trusted review. According to Yelp, of the approximately 19.6 million reviews posted on the site in 2021, approximately 4.3 million were not recommended by the software. Deprecated reviews will continue to appear at the bottom of Yelp's business page.

"Yelp is investing in both technology and human moderation to mitigate false information on the platform," said a Yelp spokeswoman. "Our approach is driven by ourauto-recommended software, reported by a community of Yelp business owners and users,human moderation, and {110. } Consumer Alert”

The Consumer Alert Program alerts consumers to violations of Yelp policy by displaying a warning on the page of a company flagged for suspicious review behavior. increase.

In a March blog post, in 2021, Google detected suspicious review activity and abuse attempts using a combination of machine learning and human operators. He said he would protect more than 100,000 companies. According to the company, their machine learning models are trained to focus on specific words and phrases, look at the types of content the account has provided in the past, and detect suspicious review patterns.

"Google'spolicyclearly shows that reviews should be based on real-world experience. If you find a policy violation, go to Content Removal. We will respond quickly to account suspensions and even proceedings, "said Google. "We continue to work closely with government officials to further share how our technology and review teams work to help users find relevant and useful information on Google.

The next step in the fight against fake reviews

Despite these steps, fake reviews have proven to be a particularly annoying problem. In particular, rising inflation has contributed to the deterioration of the economic environment.

Dean argues that research shows that major review platforms often do not adequately monitor consumers and honest businesses. She states that more needs to be done to warn consumers that the company has acted deceptively when removing fake reviews. "It's not in their business interest to show public evidence of widespread fraud on their platform," she says.

Currently, legislators and regulatory agencies are trying to take the lead, hoping to empower companies, review platforms and step up enforcement efforts.

In the UK, with government reforms in April, it's "clearly illegal" for businesses to pay someone to write or host fake reviews of products and services. Will be. Take reasonable steps to ensure that they are genuine. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), a UK competition monitoring agency, also has the authority to fine misleading consumers up to 10% of global sales.

In May, FTC announced that it is proposing changes to its approval guide to strengthen its review rules and better reflect what is happening in today's market. “The guidelines haven't been updated since 2009,” says Cleland. “A lot has happened in the last decade. With the rise of influencer marketing and the dominance of digital retail sales, I feel it's time to tackle current marketing trends.”

This announcement Just months after theFTC settled a complaint against FashionNovain January and claimed that fashion retailers blocked displaying negative reviews on their websites. I did. This is the first time FTC has challenged the company on suspicion of curbing reviews.

These new guidelines are intended to serve as a warning to companies trying to bend the rules. Meanwhile, there are increasing calls for overhauls ofSection 230, which protects digital platforms from user-submitted content proceedings. Dean says this kind of legislative reform will force the self-police to do more with the review platform itself. “These platforms have a free pass under current law,” she says.

Raise Ante

The range of malicious underworlds of review scams demands more than sporadic retaliation.

Fake Review Due to the nature of the industry, Cleland states that it is difficult to implement the measures taken against it. "The main challenge is that much of this review mediation activity takes place outside the United States," he said of a paid review firm. "Many of the targets we have identified are somewhere in Europe or Asia, and it's difficult to deal with them."

He said, "Nothing but computers and coffee shops. "I don't need it," he added, so finding a smaller fake review broker can be difficult.

For Li, one solution to this is to put more responsibility on the review platform. “For now, the cost of getting caught is very low,” she says. "Therefore, these efforts can have two levels of disappointment. One is to put pressure on the platform from a legislative point of view. The other is that the platform itself has an information transparency policy. It means that it needs to be enacted and put pressure on fake reviewers. For example, "Doing this publicly embarrasses consumers."

Dean says fake. I agree that the review platform needs to "increase in-game skins" to prevent its reviews from being hijacked. "I wish I could discover the shocking amount of scams I have on my own, using only publicly available information," she says. “They certainly should do more,” she says.

Megan McCluskey (megan