Fake Reviews Are Fastest Growing Black Market in US, Says Federal Trade Commission

A black market industry of brokering fake reviews is at epidemic levels in the United States with one watchdog group estimating at least 40 percent of testimonials posted on such media platforms as Facebook are phony.
Fake Reviews Are Fastest Growing Black Market in US, Says Federal Trade Commission
Kay Dean, a former federal criminal investigator, wants Facebook and other online platforms held accountable for the escalating fake review black market. (Courtesy of Fake Review Watch)
Alice Giordano

Fake reviews, for everything from doctors to pool contractors, are one of the fast-growing black markets in the United States with anti-disinformation giants like Facebook being accused of hypocrisy when it comes to fixing the problem.

Fueling the controversy are allegations of similar double standards against the very government agency charged with enforcing laws against the illegal practice.

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)—in what the agency characterized as an aggressive campaign aimed at fake reviews and another booming business of removing real negative reviews for a fee—introduced a series of new regulations to put an end to the rampant and growing practice.

Shoppers peruse a display of cherries at a Costco warehouse in Sheridan, Colo., on July 11, 2023. (David Zalubowski/AP Photo)
Shoppers peruse a display of cherries at a Costco warehouse in Sheridan, Colo., on July 11, 2023. (David Zalubowski/AP Photo)

“Our proposed rule on fake reviews shows that we’re using all available means to attack deceptive advertising in the digital age,” said Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in announcing the proposed regulations last week.

“The rule would trigger civil penalties for violators and should help level the playing field for honest companies.”

However, buried in the 100-page proposed policy changes that the FTC released on July 31, is the agency’s agreement to exempt giant review platforms like Facebook, Yelp, Amazon, Instagram, and Google from penalties or liability for fake reviews.

“The provision does not apply to businesses, like third-party review platforms, that disseminate consumer reviews that are not of their products, services, or businesses. Neither does it apply to any reviews that a platform simply publishes and that it did not purchase.” the FTC wrote on page 52 of its policy change proposal.

Kay Dean, founder of Fake Review Watch and an international expert on fake reviews, told The Epoch Times that is like letting the drug cartels off while charging the corner drug dealer.

“Tech companies such as Facebook seem so concerned about disinformation today, but fake reviews are a form of disinformation that affects millions,” said Mrs. Dean, a former federal criminal investigator.

“I’ve found plenty of fake reviews on Facebook itself. They seem unconcerned about review fraud on their platform.”

Mrs. Dean herself became involved in investigating fake testimonials after being wrongfully guided to a doctor based on good reviews.

Facebook, also known as Meta, did not respond to inquiries about the issue from The Epoch Times.

It has suspended several accounts including those of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. for spreading what they have called disinformation over medical issues relating to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Substantial Evidence

Mrs. Dean, whose organization conducts in-depth investigations into fake product and service reviews, provided The Epoch Times with substantial evidence that Facebook is openly being used as a platform to trade, buy and sell fake reviews, and has done nothing about it.

Fake Review Watch provided The Epoch Times with a spreadsheet showing a group of reviewers posting reviews, sometimes on the same day, of the same dentist in Kyle, Texas; the same handyman company in New York; the same Georgia real estate company, the same locksmith in San Francisco; the same LA personal injury lawyer; the same drug testing supply company in Boynton Beach, Florida; and even the same air conditioning installation company in the UK.

Fake Review Watch discovered that one of the reviewers was even using the image of a real Beverly Hills doctor under a different name on his Facebook profile.

According to a news segment that aired on a Las Vegas TV station by a series of fake reviews it detected on Facebook for a number of area businesses including a lawn care company and pool builder, the social media giant issued a statement emphasizing that it takes “robust steps to prevent” fake reviews.

“Fraudulent and deceptive activity is not allowed on our platforms, including offering or trading fake reviews,” Facebook told KTNV Channel 13. That was in February 2022.

The reviews are still posted on Facebook.

Mrs. Dean, who posts videos about her findings on YouTube, said she has confronted Facebook about public groups where reviewers offer to post fake reviews on platforms including Google, Yelp, Amazon, TripAdvisor, and Trust Pilot.

There are an estimated 10,000 fake review groups operating worldwide on Facebook with some selling reviews for as little as 50 cents a review.

On the Facebook group entitled Buy And Sell Google Map Review, one reviewer boasts that he has 500 members available to write reviews.

When The Epoch Times contacted him about his costs, he responded by asking “how many reviews do you need?”

Samples of Fake Reviews

The reviewers even post samples of fake reviews they have written and boast about their ability to provide phone authentication by using Whatsapp.

The group BBB Reviews Club, which offers fake reviews for businesses to post on the Better Business Bureau, describes itself as the “ideal club for business owners and entrepreneurs who want their company to receive 5-star reviews.”

Mrs. Dean’s organization reported similar discoveries it made on Google, but the search engine giant she said never responded or removed the reviews.

In what she considers one of the more transparent cases of fake reviews is a Flint, Michigan, neurosurgeon with five-star ratings from alleged patients with unrealistically similar shopping habits.

“Google would have us believe that 10 of his patients all use the same beauty salon in Kansas, like the same European toy seller. Nine use the same pest control business in Lyon, France, and six apparently see the same endodontist in Phoenix, Arizona,” said Mrs. Dean.

The Epoch Times reached out to both Google and the Michigan neurosurgeon. Neither responded.

Fakespot, which designs fake-review detection software, estimates that at least 40 percent of all reviews posted online are fake.

While it’s already illegal to write fake reviews, the FTC proposes to combat the problem by outlawing businesses from purchasing reviews, paying to have real bad reviews removed or blocked, and levying heavy fines against businesses caught engaging in such practices.

It also proposes to crack down on review trading, fake celebrity endorsements, competitor-based fake reviews, fake customer testimonials, as well as incentivized reviews—a practice of a business offering a future discount in exchange for a good review.

The agency did not respond to inquiries from The Epoch Times specifically about its exemption of platforms like Facebook from its campaign to end the spread of disinformation to consumers by fake reviews.

While Mrs. Dean says the FTC proposals are a “step in the right direction,” she feels the only way to address the problem is through federal legislation and the main target should be the big tech platforms like Facebook.

“With no accountability for third-party platforms, the massive problem of fake online reviews will never be solved,” said Mrs. Dean who recently posted a YouTube video entitled “Hello FTC?”

Actions Taken

The FTC has made progress with its cracking down on duping consumers.

Earlier this year Fashion NOVA agreed to pay $4.3 million in a settlement with the FTC after getting caught blocking negative reviews posted by customers.

According to an FTC report on the issue, third-party platforms have also made progress in cracking down on fake reviews.

Yelp said it uses a software program to flag questionable reviews.

Trustpilot said out of the 46.7 million reviews posted on its website in 2021, it removed 2.7 million deemed to be fake reviews.

TripAdvisor reported that it flagged and removed about 936,000 of the 26 million reviews posted on its website in 2021.

Facebook did not submit a report to the FTC.

Amazon, the only platform to respond to The Epoch Times, said it removed more than 200 million fake reviews in just 2020 alone and that it dedicates 12,000 workers to monitor its daily reviews.

It said it has also taken legal action against fake review brokers including a lawsuit it filed last year against thousands of Facebook groups that broker fake product reviews.

In a statement to The Epoch Times, Amazon said because of the monetary incentive to post fraudulent reviews, completely combating them has become a “complex challenge.”

Other online review platforms often plagued by fake reviews include Walmart.com and eBay.

Even Airbnb has fake reviews due to the practice of some hosts paying friends to book and then post reviews of their listings.

In its drive to crack down on fake reviews, the FTC is also asking for the public’s input. It has set a deadline of Sept. 30 for anyone who wants to chime in on the issue.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of reviews posted on Trustpilot’s website. The Epoch Times regrets the error.
Alice Giordano is a freelance reporter for The Epoch Times. She is a former news correspondent for The Boston Globe, Associated Press, and the New England bureau of The New York Times.
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