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Review Fraud: More Than Just Fake Positive Reviews

Would you buy something or make a reservation somewhere without any reviews? A new kitchen appliance? A restaurant for a birthday celebration? Accommodation for a family holiday? I know I wouldn’t. Beautiful looking properties can entice me on popular holiday rental platforms with their ‘Luxurious Spanish villa with private pool, sun-drenched terraces and live-in personal chef', but I won’t even give them a second glance if they don't have any reviews. A bit harsh perhaps - the first review has to come from someone after all - but I’m afraid I’m just not prepared to be that person.


This tells me that reviews are vital to both consumers (i.e. me) and businesses alike (i.e. companies who want my business). And the statistics back this up - BrightLocal’s 2023 Local Consumer Review Survey revealed 98% of people read online reviews for local businesses, with 87% of consumers saying they wouldn't consider a business with an average rating lower than three stars.


A tough ask for businesses starting out, with no reviews, up against review-rich competitors, trying to gain some market share. However, with the right offering and strong customer service, they can persevere and make an honest name for themselves.



What happens, however, if you’re a bad actor whose only motivation is to make as much money as quickly as possible? You understand the power of reviews and the influence they have on consumers and, consequently, your business. So, what options do you have? Well, a multitude of unscrupulous tactics if you’re looking to engage in review fraud!


The many guises of review manipulation

Let’s have a look at the many forms of review abuse that could be harming your customers and putting your business’s reputation at risk:

  • Fake positive reviews: Speaks for itself, a business writes some glowing fake reviews to boost their rating and potentially increase their search ranking algorithmically. However, there's another type of fake positive review which can negatively impact competitors. Fake reviews are prohibited in the EU, under scrutiny in the UK and being looked at by the Federal Trade Commission in the US. And they also breach online platform guidelines. So, a marketplace/platform that hosts blatantly fake positive reviews could be penalized. Bad actors looking to denigrate competitors’ reputations online can employ such a tactic, putting them at risk of being unfairly flagged for infringing platform policies.

  • Fake negative reviews: Motivated by the same goal as before - causing harm to competitors’ businesses - bad actors use fake negative reviews to dissuade consumers from going with a competitor. Simple but effective.

  • Paid for reviews: Fraudsters can illegally buy fake reviews from companies who specialize in selling them, to boost their star rating, with the goal of increasing their sales volume and ranking. These companies are sometimes referred to as “review sellers” or “review brokers” and can even present themselves to business owners as a legitimate way of “managing reviews”. Their actions and those of the businesses who use them are illegal in most territories and certainly against legitimate platforms’ terms and conditions. This is a growing threat and can affect platforms of all sizes. They vary in sophistication but some can even take advantage of AI tools for generating content, which is increasingly becoming harder for humans to spot.

  • Incentivized reviews: Some businesses don’t think there’s anything wrong with encouraging customers to write reviews by offering them an incentive - a discount, coupon or even a free product. However, under the EU Omnibus Directive, incentivized reviews must be flagged as such to be transparent with consumers, if allowed at all under the platform’s guidelines.

  • Friends, family & favorite customers: This refers to businesses asking their family, friends and favorite friendly customers to write positive reviews for their company. It’s quite common, seems harmless, but if you’ve never actually been a customer to be able to accurately rate their business, the reviews are fake and misleading potential consumers.

  • Brushing scams: For more detailed information on brushing, please see my recent article on the subject, but in a nutshell brushing refers to sellers setting up accounts in a stranger’s name, and then sending their products to an unsuspecting recipient who hasn’t ordered them. They then use this account they’ve set up to write fake ‘verified reviews’ in a bid to improve their seller ratings.

  • Review gating: When businesses choose to only show positive reviews, they’re handpicking their reviews to paint the best picture, known as review gating. Ironically, however, a business with overly positive reviews and no negative reviews can be viewed by consumers as less credible than those with a mix of the two. Negative reviews and businesses’ responses to them can give consumers a good indication of what their experience could be like.

What happens when consumers can’t trust the reviews to be true?

According to BrightLocal’s survey, over the past two years consumer trust in reviews has decreased - with just 46% of respondents trusting consumer reviews as much as recommendations from family/friends, down by 3% from the previous year.


The value of reviews relies on them being honest and genuine. They’re inaccurate, misleading and potentially harmful to consumers otherwise. And you might think consumers could spot the fakes from the genuine reviews but studies show that humans aren’t great at detecting lies, only managing 57% accuracy levels. So, it’s important that businesses do the detection for them.


What can be done to increase consumer trust?

Firstly, being open with consumers about your reviews process and tools to combat fake reviews will help increase their trust. Employing fake review detection technology that uses sophisticated techniques, such as Machine Learning and Behavioral Analytics, can identify all manner of suspicious activity. It's an essential tool in tackling review fraud. Using this technology to continually monitor review activity on your platform can alert you to businesses or users connected by common risk signals. Ultimately, this will help you stop review fraud

before it damages consumer trust and your reputation.


Your response to fake review behavior will depend on your specific circumstances and tolerance for risk. For some businesses, it might necessitate automatic removal, for others it could mean flagging the review as suspicious and reminding the perpetrator about the platform’s guidelines.


Interestingly, in a survey we carried out last year, three-quarters of respondents stated that finding and flagging fake reviews was more important to them than automatic removal. They wanted platforms to be open with them and transparent about their reviews process so they could choose to make their own, better informed, decision. Consumers rely on reviews for guidance and recommendations, but they ultimately want to feel the decision is theirs.


Education versus enforcement

Lastly, it's worth bearing in mind that not all seemingly bad actors are master criminals. Some business owners genuinely don't see a problem asking family/friends for reviews or don't think they're doing anything wrong in offering free products in exchange for reviews. In such cases, simply identifying and educating those owners about the value of genuine reviews and the importance of adhering to platform guidelines may be the most appropriate response. Other cases may, however, require more direct approaches. These enforcement actions can vary, from subtly adding friction, such as additional steps and checks, into a bad actor's user journey, to banning accounts and sending cease & desist letters. It's up to each platform to determine the best mix of enforcement actions that encourage good behaviour, dissuade bad actors and create a safe environment making it harder for bona fide fraudsters to abuse the reviews system and mislead your consumers.


CONCLUSION

In conclusion, fake reviews go way beyond businesses writing their own positive reviews - there’s a whole world of immoral opportunities for fraudsters to abuse the reviews process. So, if you would like to learn how Pasabi can help you tackle the challenge and improve your platform trust and safety, you might like to get in touch or book a demo.



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