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Are Reviews Online Fake or Real?

Updated on November 16, 2023

My suspicion maybe like your own. You read user reviews on movies, books, travel, TV shows, clothing, shoes, and even world news, and then think, is it real? Can I trust the review?

In 2019, the issue about whether reviews on Yelp and other social media platforms came to light when Dr. Mark J. Mohrmann completed a successful orthopedic procedure. The patient was elated and then went to Yelp to write a 5-star review of the doctor. The problem was exposed when Fake Review Watch, a group that checks the validity of the review, discovered that not only was the procedure not done, the patient was not even real. The only real thing was the doctor who had posted the review incognito on Yelp. The doctor did not think anything of it until this year when the NY Attorney General filed a civil lawsuit and won. Now, the doctor must pay $100,000 for the short fake review!

There is a billion-dollar fake review industry, where people and businesses pay marketers to post fake positive reviews to Google Maps, Amazon, Yelp and other platforms, and deceive millions of customers each year to promote products. These companies also employ people to click the "likes" for specific productions. Keep in mind that even affiliate marketing, which is all over, has its promoters write descriptions like, " I highly recommend this product and have used it for years", when it is not true.

The Federal Trade Commission this year proposed a new rule to stop marketers from using illicit review and endorsement practices such as using fake reviews, suppressing honest negative reviews, and paying for positive reviews, which deceive consumers. To make matters worse, the widespread emergence of generative AI, is likely to make it easier for bad actors to write fake reviews! But that is not all the FTC is doing. the FTC went after a marketer of vitamins and other supplements called The Bountiful Company (Bountiful) for abusing a feature of Amazon to deceive consumers into thinking that its newly introduced supplements had more product ratings and reviews, higher average ratings, and “#1 Best Seller” and “Amazon’s Choice” badges. The case was a first law enforcement challenging “review hijacking,” in which a marketer steals or repurposes reviews of another product. Boosting your products by hijacking another product’s ratings or reviews is a relatively new tactic, but is still plain old false advertising, and Bountiful paid dearly, $600,000! Bountiful misrepresented the reviews, the number of Amazon reviews and the average star ratings of some products. With each violation a civil penalty of up to $50,120 occurs, so the company did it several times,

Despite the FTC's few cases on this problem, it probably is a situation where it is "too little, to late" and virtually insurmountable. Almost all fake reviews are positive endorsements, like four-star and five-star reviews (keep that in mind as you read them), that the businesses write themselves (big surprise) or are created by digital marketers, whose services can be purchased online for as little as a few dollars per review. There are many affiliate marketing problems like this, also. To make it even worse for the FTC, many of the fake reviews are done in Europe, out of the jurisdiction of the USA. And with ChatGPT, the situation can be done even easier and faster!

Amazon blocked or found 200 million fake reviews to remove, this is a staggering amount meaning every person will read one. Google also found and removed 115 million! Like the others, YouTube is filled with fake reviews by the same people promoting services and products that are paid. In the doctor's case, Dr. Mohrmann had asked friends, family and employees to leave positive, five-star reviews and that his wife had written some of the reviews. Not really a shocker, but common practice. The doctor seemed to have had patients in Vietnam and India! The FTC noted that 100,000 businesses are using phony and suspicious reviews to boost their digital image that a consumer cannot detect. Scary thought that is. Even Google Maps has thousands of fake reviews and Google went after one person who had written 14,000 fake reviews!

The next time you read a 4 or-5 star review, just look at those reviews 3-star or less because those are mostly real. The odds that the 4 or 5-star review is real are quite small. Buyer beware.


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