Online Reviews Are the Wild West, and There’s No Sheriff

Kathryn Dean
Jun 27, 2020 · 7 min read

I am a victim of online review fraud, but this cowgirl is fighting back.

Three years ago, I received a letter threatening legal action over a factual Yelp review I wrote of a California psychiatric practice. I figured they were just trying to bully me, and I refused to remove my review. After months of further harassment, I sued the psychiatric practice in small claims court as a matter of principle for inflicting emotional distress. I won, but that turned out to be the beginning, not the end, of my battle. I am a former federal fraud investigator, and following up on my suspicions I uncovered something else: the psychiatric practice was faking the very Yelp reviews that convinced me to go there in the first place. I don’t mean just fake five star ratings, I mean fake stories from people who feigned mental illness and claimed they were helped by this practice. What’s more, my data indicated that Yelp must have been aware of the fraud. That initiated my odyssey into the lawless territory of fake reviews, and I discovered the utter pollution of consumer review sites, often facilitated via the Facebook sewer pipe.

Every day millions of consumers use online reviews to help them make decisions ranging from the mundane — where to eat — to the critical — what surgeon to see for a delicate procedure or which lawyer to trust. A 2016 Pew study found that 82 percent of adults used online reviews when buying something for the first time, and two thirds of those who regularly used online reviews believed them to be generally accurate. A 2018 survey by the online marketing firm BrightLocal reported that 91 percent of adults under age 35 trusted online reviews as much as personal recommendations.

Bad idea, pardner.

For more than two years I have been combing through online review sites, particularly Yelp and Google, documenting thousands of fake reviews by hundreds of businesses. Almost everything I have found originates on Facebook. Scores of Facebook groups exist for no other purpose than to facilitate review buying, selling, and trading. The extent of business-to-business fraudulent review trading alone is shocking. Businesses ghostwrite their own reviews and swap them with one another to post. For example, that California psychiatric practice traded fake reviews with an eyelash studio and a tattoo parlor. A Wisconsin home inspector swapped reviews with a California lactation consultant. A taekwondo studio in Washington exchanged reviews with eye surgery centers in Michigan and Turkey. A barber in New York traded reviews with a tax preparer in California, a maid service in Illinois, and an auto detailing service in Hawaii. And in December 2018 alone, one Los Angeles dermatologist was on Facebook trading for at least 23 fake reviews of her practice.

Review trading is just one source of fraud. Review sellers, many based abroad, also abound in these Facebook groups. They maintain dozens or even hundreds of fake profiles and sell fake reviews in bulk. Online marketers also lurk in these groups and recruit businesses to form organized networks for buying and trading reviews. I’ve found doctors using such services, like the Manhattan orthopedist who uses fake positive reviews to overcome negative real reviews and the Los Angeles surgeon who is faking reviews to bury the real one from the wife of one of his patients who died allegedly as a result of his botched hernia surgery.

The scope and scale of fraud is hard to spot when only looking at individual businesses or individual reviewers, but if you plot them on even a basic spreadsheet the patterns emerge. Based on their Yelp reviews, three individuals from far flung parts of the country all used that same surgeon in LA, the same real estate manager in Arizona, the same cleaning service in Tennessee, the same limo driver in Florida, the same lawyer in New Jersey, and that same orthopedist in New York. What are the odds?

Less than me winning a gunfight at the OK Corral. The only thing those three reviewers have in common is that they are members of Facebook review exchange groups trading for fake reviews of their own businesses.

The Facebook groups in which all of this fraud is organized are easy to recognize. “All Type Review Exchange” and “Google & Yelp Reviews” are just two examples of many, each with hundreds or even thousands of members. Business owners and review sellers join these groups and post comments such as, “Hi would anyone like to do a free yelp exchange? I can do free yelp, google, Bbb and trip advisor,” and “Who needs strong Yelp reviews? I have 20+ Elite friends in CA. And 300+ real Yelpers ready!”

Then there’s the recent, “Let’s make the best out of quarantine time? Google review exchange?” While Facebook’s community standards clearly prohibit any post that “engages in, promotes, encourages, facilitates, or admits . . . fake user reviews,” enforcement is lacking. Facebook did nothing when I reported a few of these groups to them.

Fake review sellers abound on Facebook in review exchange groups.
Faking reviews is ridiculously easy on Google. Just get on Facebook!

Facebook may be the sewer pipe for polluting the online review world, but there are plenty of other scoundrels. Yelp, for example, claims to empower and protect consumers, stating, “Consumers deserve to know when someone is trying to mislead them.” That may be good PR, but fake reviews permeate Yelp. Furthermore, I can cite hundreds of cases in which Yelp has removed some of a business’s reviews — reviews which are demonstrably fake — without indicating to consumers that the business is engaged in fraud and without diminishing its high rating.

The corruption of Google with fraudulent reviews is even worse. Faking reviews is ridiculously easy on Google, and when Google occasionally dumps a few fake reviews, they are quickly replaced with new ones. Multiple other sites are also being gamed, including Tripadvisor, Buildzoom, Houzz, Vitals, Trustpilot, and even the Better Business Bureau. I know of realtors who trade Yelp reviews in return for Zillow reviews. Facebook even contaminates itself with fake reviews — a fake Facebook “recommendation” is often thrown in as part of a transaction. The problem is enormous; according to Jonathan Pollard, a business litigation attorney in Fort Lauderdale, fake reviews “control literally billions of dollars’ worth of business.”

These sites have little incentive to clean up their acts because they take advertising dollars from the very businesses fraudulently reviewed on their sites. This is a huge conflict of interest, making Yelp, Google, and others complicit in the defrauding of consumers. But there is no real risk involved in hosting fake reviews because the hosts face almost no regulatory scrutiny. Although most of these firms have policies that prohibit posting fake reviews, they face no punishment for not enforcing them because under the provisions of section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996, the platforms are not responsible for content posted by users. The lax environment fostered by tech companies encourages businesses to cheat to compete, and thousands have caught on that faking reviews is a cheap, effective, and relatively risk free means of self — albeit false — promotion.

What can be done in this online Wild West? First, we need the “sheriffs”, state and county attorneys, to step up and prosecute businesses that are faking reviews. In 2013 the New York Attorney General prosecuted 19 companies for faking reviews, calling the practice “the 21st century’s version of false advertising.” But such enforcement is rare. I provided a treasure trove of information to my local district attorney two years ago. I’m still waiting for action.

Nationally, the Federal Trade Commission has broad authority under 15 U.S.C. 45 which prohibits “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.” In a 2019 case against Sunday Riley Modern Skincare, however, even though the FTC found the company had violated the law by flagrantly faking reviews for two years, the penalty was a wave of the finger and an order to desist. Commissioners Rohit Chopra and Rebecca Kelly Slaughter wrote a blistering dissent, arguing “Fake reviews distort our markets by rewarding bad actors and harming honest companies. The problem is growing, and the Federal Trade Commission should attack it.”

But real, sustained change will require legislation. How much longer will Congress let tech companies protect frauds and criminals at the expense of honest businesses and Americans? This problem distorts the market, especially for small businesses, and jeopardizes the well-being of both citizens and the economy. I call on Congress to reform CDA section 230 to hold internet firms that facilitate online review fraud or negligently host it accountable. Until that happens, these platforms will prey on the credulous, bolster the unscrupulous, and corrupt the marketplace.

Given the lobbying power and deep pockets of Big Tech, it could be awhile before that happens. In the meantime, consumers should ignore online reviews altogether. Don’t assume review sites effectively control the quality and authenticity of their content — they don’t. Don’t believe them when they say they are there to empower and protect you. They’re not. Despite their yarns about helping consumers, they are really only interested in enriching themselves and ensuring that they remain insulated from responsibility. They are in the business of making a killing; don’t be their next victim.