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Who Can You Trust on the Internet?

7 ways to detect phony touts when shopping or making reservations

By Caroline Mayer

Ronald Reagan liked to say “Trust but Verify” when talking about Russia and arms control. That’s now become my mantra — and should be yours — when reading online reviews, counting Facebook likes or measuring Twitter followers to size up a firm’s reputation before buying a product, booking a hotel room, or making a restaurant reservation.

Sadly, a growing number of the reviews and endorsements are fake, often trumped up by public-relations campaigns to boost a company’s image.

Case in point: In March 2014, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) settled charges with ADT for misusing three safety experts to promote its Pulse home-monitoring system. According to the FTC, ADT failed to disclose that they were paid more than $300,000 to promote Pulse online on radio and TV shows.

(MORE: Best and Worst Customer Service)
Why Some Online Reviews Are Suspect

Chances are, you’ve become increasingly reliant on online reviews and social media ratings to make purchasing decisions. I know I have.

A recent study by the British search engine optimization firm shows that 88 percent of U.S. consumers not only regularly read reviews to determine “whether a local business is a good business,” but also trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations.

Gartner, a technology research firm, says businesses see online reviews as a gold mine because they translate into greater trust and, in turn, more business. “At a restaurant, a half-star improvement in a rating has been shown to increase bookings by 30 percent,” Jenny Sussin, principal research analyst at Gartner, told me.

So it’s no surprise that many firms have figured out how to manipulate these reviews. Sussin co-wrote a 2012 report that said as many as 6 percent of ratings and reviews were fake or deceptive and predicted 15 percent might be this year. “I believe we’re there,” she told me.

(MORE: Perils of Posting Reviews Online)

Subtle Manipulation You Wouldn’t Spot

Often, the manipulation is so subtle you’d probably never spot it. 

A common practice: Companies dangle incentives such as gift cards or free products so customers will write positive reviews or become faithful Facebook fans or Twitter followers. Another favorite tactic — entering you into a sweepstakes if you post a positive review or show it some love on Facebook or Twitter.

Beware of ebullient bloggers, too. Some businesses give bloggers free products, vacations and discounts on future services to encourage their writing positive reviews. And many times, bloggers don’t disclose these freebies (although the FTC and state attorneys general say they should).
Worse still, many companies have no compunction in simply paying for positive reviews, fans and followers. They now shell out “anywhere from $1 to $200 for a good review,” says Sussin. The biggest offenders, she says, are in the retail, hospitality and publishing businesses.

(MORE: Become a Smarter Consumer and Save)

Paying for Positive Reviews

Paying for reviews has become “such a common practice, that most companies don’t feel they are doing anything wrong,” says Sussin.

Just do a quick search on the Internet and you’ll find a host of ads soliciting pay-for-positive reviews. I saw one on Craig’s List, for example, that offered freelance writers $5 a pop for each of the positive, 5-star reviews they’d give a particular iTunes app.

The freelancing website had this solicitation from a blogger: “I will advertise for YOU on my daily blog for $5.” If you visit her blog, you’ll see several products promoted daily, but no mention that she’s being paid to post about them. Many other bloggers post similar ads on Fiverr. I queried Fiverr about these solicitations but haven’t heard back.

Here’s what Fiverr’s co-founder and CEO Micha Kaufman told digital marketing expert Troy Janisch on a few years ago, though: “It is not really that different from commercials where an actor, often looking like an average Joe, recommends something to you, right? And also, sometimes it’s not really that different than asking your friends in your social networks to come and vote for you as a favor…. But I agree that it’s a tricky subject and I’m aware of it.”

Why Regulators Can’t Stop the Problem

Law enforcement officials believe it’s deceptive when companies pay for reviews or to promote a service without disclosing this to consumers.
Last year, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman took action against 19 firms that flooded such popular sites as Yelp and  Google Local with fake reviews. They used their own employees to write fake reviews and paid freelancers around the world $1 to $10 per review. The firms agreed to discontinue their review manipulations and paid fines ranging from $2,500 to $100,000.


“Paid reviews should be marked as paid reviews,” Mary Engle, FTC’s associate director for advertising practices, told me. She added: “There are a lot out there. We don’t have the capacity to scour the Internet” to catch them all.

7 Tips to Ferret Out Phonies

That’s why it’s up to us to be ever vigilant. “You need to bring a skeptical eye,” Engle said.

How do you do that? Here are seven tips:

1. Visit several different sites to read reviews about a product, restaurant or hotel. The variety should give you a wider range of opinions and help you avoid being snookered at one site where many fake reviews may have been posted.

2. Read at least five reviews at each site you visit. And not just the top or bottom ratings. Look for overall trends, discounting both extremes — the over-the-top, glowing reviews as well as the raging rants.

And keep an eye out for excessive use of superlatives. A 2011 Cornell University study found that fake reviews have more superlatives and adverbs and less punctuation than genuine reviews.

3. Look for personal details from the reviewer. Usually, the more detailed, the more likely the review is from a “real” person. But be skeptical of any review that’s so detailed it includes company terminology or facts only an employee of the company would know.
4. Check out the reviewers themselves. See what other reviews they’ve posted online. Be on guard for a reviewer with scores of touts for similar products with almost identical wording. That may be a tipoff that the reviews are mass-generated and fake.

5. Beware of an avalanche of reviews posted the same day. If there’s suddenly a huge increase in reviews, it could mean they’re being drummed up by a PR campaign.

6. Seek help. Cornell launched the clever site to help spot fake hotel reviews.  Paste a questionable review you see in its site and run it through Review Skeptic’s algorithm to see whether it’s likely to be real or fake.

7. Complain to law-enforcement officials if you think you’ve spotted a phony review. Contact your state attorney general or file a complaint with the FTC.

As Engle noted, regulators’ resources are limited, so consumer tips are critical in helping them spot and stop fake reviews.

In short: verify, then trust.

Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post, covering such issues as product safety, scams, and credit cards. Mayer has received several awards, including the Betty Furness Consumer Media Service Award. She has written for Consumer Reports, CBS MoneyWatch, Ladies Home Journal, Kaiser Health News and others. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer Read More
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