HOUSTON - We all rely on online reviews when choosing restaurants, products, or services. But a consumer watchdog says we're often being duped because many of these reviews are fake.
The restaurant Daily Gather suddenly started getting bombed with fake, negative Google reviews, followed by emails demanding money to make them stop.
"They continue to post those one-star reports a day. And yesterday or two days ago, got another email saying hey we need to resolve this," said restaurant owner Trent Patterson.
Online reviews can make or break a business.
"Especially for a restaurant in our first six months, it can be the life or death of making it or not," said Patterson.
Former federal investigator Kay Dean started Fake Review Watch after she says she discovered many fake reviews on sites like Google, Yelp, and others for restaurants and businesses, often from people based in other cities, and posting suspicious reviews, such as for several dentists in one day.
"My research shows they are saturated with fake reviews, far more so than the public knows," said Dean.
Dean says Pope Dental in McAllen, Texas has been getting hit by fake negative reviews.
"Here’s her one-star review of Dr. Pope. By the way, note her photo. It appears to be a stock photo. Here it is on Pinterest," said Dean in her YouTube video Network of Google Profiles Faking Reviews for Dentists.
Dean says Mason Park Dental in Katy, Texas, and Dentist Tree of the Heights in Houston have received dozens of fake, positive Google reviews.
"Taco Chala in Nashville was on our spreadsheet. So was the Lupo Group in New Jersey. Here’s her review of Mason Park Dental for kids, with a comment from the practice, and her review of the Dentist Tree Houston location," Dean points out in her video.
Mason Park Dental tells us they have now fired their marketing firm, saying it was paying for fake reviews without their knowledge. They declined to name the marketing firm.
An office manager for Dentist Tree of the Heights told us by phone their reviews are from real customers. We asked about customers in Nashville and New Jersey. We haven't received an answer yet.
Some reviews for Mason Park Dental and Dentist Tree of the Heights have now been removed.
Dean says review sites don't do enough to validate reviews.
"Right now they enjoy a complete pass because of outdated legislation. They’re not held liable for user-generated content, such as fake reviews," said Dean.
Last fall, the Federal Trade Commission warned platforms they could be fined for fake reviews. We asked if it has issued any fines, but did not hear back.
Amazon has sued 10,000 Facebook Group administrators for allegedly recruiting people to leave fake reviews in exchange for money or products. Amazon plans to use information gleamed from the legal proceedings to remove fraudulent reviews on its site connected to the groups, and identify repeat offenders.
Patterson says Daily Gather didn't respond to the blackmail. Instead, he says his real customers have been flouncing the fakes with real reviews.
"They’ve done so in droves over the last four or five days, so it’s helped to silence the fake reviews," said Patterson.
USPIRG offers tips on how to identify fake reviews.
We asked Google, Yelp and Facebook what they're doing to stop fake reviews. Details they provided are below:
"Our team is investigating this situation, removing policy-violating content and putting protections in place to prevent further abuse. We have clear policies that prohibit fake and fraudulent contributed content, and our automated systems and trained operators work around clock to monitor Maps for suspicious behavior. To help keep the information on Maps reliable, in 2021 we blocked or removed more than 95 million policy-violating reviews, and more than 1 million reviews that were reported directly to us."
Google says that it has teams of operators and analysts, and automated systems that use hundreds of cues to detect abusive behavior, such as a shift of review patterns on a business and implausible behavior patterns by reviewers.
"Yelp’s mission is to connect consumers with great local businesses by giving them access to reliable and useful information. Consumer trust is our top priority, which is why we take significant measures to maintain the integrity and quality of the content on Yelp, while leveling the playing field for all businesses. Our approach is driven by our automated recommendation software, reporting by Yelp’s community of business owners and users, human moderation, and Consumer Alerts. In fact, economists, industry experts, the media, and regulators have shown that Yelp is one of the most aggressive and successful at identifying and weeding out unreliable reviews. In extreme cases, we also partner with law enforcement, or file lawsuits ourselves."
General Counsel for Yelp writes in a blog post:
"Yelp takes a multi-pronged approach to thwarting compensated reviews, which includes our automated recommendation software, Consumer Alerts program and coordinated investigations into both content on Yelp and other online platforms. When warranted, we will even pass information about businesses engaged in deceptive review schemes to consumer protection agencies at the state and federal level or even file lawsuits ourselves to crack down on shady attempts to foster misleading reviews on our platform."
A Yelp spokesperson points out that Yelp has noted on its Mason Park Dental review page that 57% of the reviews are not recommended.
"Groups that solicit or encourage fake reviews violate our policies and are removed. We are working with Amazon on this matter and will continue to partner across the industry to address spam and fake reviews."
A Meta spokesperson also says they have introduced tools that allow us to remove violating content using advances in technology including artificial intelligence, machine learning and computer vision. We do this by analyzing specific examples of bad content that have been reported and removed to identify patterns of behaviors.