Facilitation of Fraud: Anonymous Online Review Sites

The New Protection Racket

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If you are like most Americans, you are being more frugal with your dollars. This is one of the reasons that the economy is rising, as people are taking more stock in how their dollars are spent. One of the ways that many people do this is through looking at an online review. According to 39 Celsius, a web marketing company, nearly 82% of Americans check the reviews for a product, location, or establishment before they decide to buy.

In the digital age, this just makes sense! However, when we start to dig into the world of the digital online review and comment section, we see that everything is not how it seems, and many companies are strong-armed into paying for reviews to be removed. According to Inc., one of the leading digital business magazines, there is a major problem with companies buying positive reviews on a variety of websites to make themselves look better.

Online Review: Bought and Paid For

The scary part is that if you look at the date in the link, this problem has been going on since 2013 or earlier. Fast forward to the modern-day and we are seeing that upwards of 15-25%  of reviews online are “bought and paid for” good reviews. To make matters worse, companies that have entered into the muddy ethical waters of fake reviews do not stop at good reviews for their own companies.

The new trend in unscrupulous business is to pay people to leave negative reviews for your competitors to increase your search engine optimization (SEO). Companies are now trolling their competition to keep customers from heading their way. One of the worst elements of this is that a boutique business has sprung up where companies will “seed and stalk” negative reviews for your competitors. This means that they will leave negative reviews, then notify you of the negative reviews for use in your own marketing campaign!

There are two approaches that companies are using to deal with this problem. Some reputable companies like Amazon and Expedia are cracking down on fake reviewers. Expedia will only accept reviews from people who book the hotel on their site. Amazon is placing “verified purchase” on the reviews of people who actually bought the product from Amazon. In 2019, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) got involved with the process, taking on the case of the first “fake review on Amazon.

The other approach is basically a legalized protection racket. Sites such as Angie’s List and Yelp! have been accused of this. The impetus of this story was a local contractor who spoke to me at an event, She said, “We had reviews on Angie’s list from customers whom we never worked for. When we called about having them taken down, we were told that ‘content control’ was a premium service.”

She went on, “They said that if we became a ‘certified contractor’ they would help us resolve the dispute and guarantee us a review of ‘A’ or ‘B’.” Angie’s List notes on their website, “If we successfully help resolve an issue…the old review is removed.” Yelp! is less direct, but several commentators have noticed that paying business on Yelp! tend to have higher scores across the board.

Courting the Mob

The question then becomes, “How is this any different from the protection rackets of the 1920s?” Mafiosos would create a situation where people’s business would be defaced and sometimes destroyed if the owner did not pay for their service of reputation management. Likewise, online review sites that do not verify the results of the reviews are doing the same thing.

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Review sites created an environment where people can pay to have good and bad reviews posted. They allowed these environments to flourish in anonymity. Then when it reached a crescendo of chaos, they swoop in and say “If you pay we will protect you.” The only difference is that the sites do not have to pay the mugs who are doing the destruction.

We have seen some evolution in dealing with this problem. As noted above, Amazon and Expedia are making sure that people have purchased the product or service before allowing them to review. Companies, such as Review Tube, are ensuring that the “anonymity bias” of sites such as Yelp! and Angie’s List are minimized as customers leave a video review of the location.

Alton Baird, the Director of National Partnerships at Review Tube, said, “People tend to be more honest when they are filming themselves with a review. When it is anonymous, you can say anything because you will never be called upon to back it up. The advent of video reviews is taking us one step towards making the internet a safer place because hiding behind your screen and a fake name is not an option on Review Tube.”

What Can We Do?

Overall, we need to ensure that we do something about the “pay for reviews” system that is plaguing our country. With millions of reviews being left daily in the United States, and 15-20% of those reviews being fake, there are millions of fake reviews each week stifling the market (especially local business). Aggressively promoting video reviews, both on your site and through partners, is a way to protect yourself.

Who are customers going to believe, the person who cowers behind Guest363538 or the person who gets on camera, shows what they are talking about and uses their real name so the world knows what businesses they support? Note: During Research on this article, I was propositioned several times on several different websites to either write fake reviews or have fake reviews written for my business. I was offered between $1-100 to write reviews and was going to be charged between $5 and $300 for good/bad review packets.

Christopher W Smithmyer
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