Five stars, zero clue: Fighting the ‘scourge’ of fake online reviews

Five stars, zero clue: Fighting the ‘scourge’ of fake online reviews

Oobah Butler knew it was wrong to write fake online reviews for restaurants where he had never dined.

But he was 21, broke and living in his parents’ house in Feckenham, an English village 115 miles northwest of London. A faceless vendor on a website that advertised freelance work offered to pay him 10 pounds (about $15 at the time) for each review he wrote and posted on the travel site Tripadvisor.

The job was simple. He would receive an email with the restaurant’s name. Then he would log into one of the four or five profiles he had set up on Tripadvisor to avoid suspicion, look at pictures of the restaurant’s food and study the menu.

The reviews were always positive (raving was a job requirement) and “verbose,” he said.

One post said a waiter was so attentive he should get a raise. Another said something along the lines of “this place has one of the finest Greek pastries in London.”

“I wasn’t even living in London at the time,” Butler said. “I was writing from a very limited experience of curry houses and chip shops. At the time I was more versed in beans and toast.”

It has been 10 years since Butler, now 30 and actually living in London, has written false reviews, but plenty of others have stepped in where he left off.

In 2022, Yelp, another review site, said its moderators removed more than 700,000 posts that violated its policies – including many that were abusive or deceptive. In 2020, more than 26 million reviews were posted on Tripadvisor. The company said it took down nearly 1 million it deemed fraudulent, according to its 2021 transparency report.

Fake reviews have led to legal consequences. In 2018, the owner of PromoSalento, an Italian company offering to write paid reviews of hospitality businesses, was sentenced to nine months in prison after an Italian court determined that he had used a fake identity to write false reviews on Tripadvisor.

In November, Google filed a lawsuit against dozens of companies and websites, accusing them of carrying out “a large-scale scam” to mislead small businesses by selling them “fake or worthless services,” including “the option of essentially flooding a competitor’s business profile” found on Google search with fake negative reviews or ratings.

Sites like Yelp and Tripadvisor say false reviews represent a tiny percentage of the overall posts that make it online. They point to their use of technology and human investigators, which allows them to weed out bad posts so they rarely get published.

Still, as customers rely more and more on the ratings of people who say they have patronized a restaurant or a hotel, the need to update technology that separates authentic posts from false ones is only growing.

In October, representatives from Yelp, Tripadvisor, Trustpilot, Google and several other review sites met for a one-day closed-door conference in San Francisco to discuss how they could work together to tackle fake online reviews. It was the first time such a meeting had been held, said Becky Foley, the senior director of trust and safety at Tripadvisor, which organized the summit. The Federal Trade Commission, which is looking into strengthening penalties against companies that solicit and sell fake reviews, also sent a representative, Foley said.

The big business of fake review writers “is bad for all of us,” she said. “If people don’t trust reviews on Yelp, then they’re not going to trust reviews on Tripadvisor.”

Sleuths on a mission

Review sites use automated systems with built-in algorithms to scour data and detect inauthentic or problematic posts.

Neither Yelp nor Tripadvisor would provide details of how their systems work because they did not want to telegraph the knowledge to potential fraudsters.

There are some obvious examples of a questionable post. For instance, a large number of positive reviews coming from a hotel in Cancun, Mexico, might suggest that the posts are being generated by the business itself, not by people who have stayed there.

Overwhelmingly, false posts are positive, Foley said. They can come through paid writers or from patrons who feel pressured by the business to post a glowing review or are offered incentives to do so.

Noorie Malik, vice president for user operations at Yelp, said some hotels thrust smart screens in front of guests as they’re leaving and ask them to leave reviews on the spot, which could pressure them into giving unearned praise.

One hotel in Buena Park, California, offered discounts to guests who agreed to write five-star reviews, Malik said. Yelp said it learned of the discounts from one of its users.

That’s just the kind of tip a human investigator is waiting to pounce on. A computer algorithm can flag a pattern or a post, but when questionable reviews need deeper scrutiny, sites rely on specialized detectives, who say they also work proactively, looking for potential abuses.

Sometimes investigators conduct sting operations, going on websites that sell reviews and pretending to be business owners seeking to boost their ratings, Foley said.

“At any given time, I probably have three or four conversations going with different fraudsters that are out there,” said one senior investigator at Tripadvisor who has worked for the company for 15 years and was a mechanic before he started.

The investigators at Tripadvisor come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some were police officers or detectives who investigated fraud or child exploitation. Others worked in cybersecurity.

The two who spoke to the New York Times asked to remain anonymous and, during an online interview, kept their faces hidden out of fear they might be targeted. Some investigators have been threatened by users who were taken off the site after they were found to have written false reviews, Foley said.

The biggest requirements for the job are curiosity and tenacity, said Robert O’Neill, the senior investigations manager of trust and safety at Tripadvisor.

Successful investigators, he said, should have “this idea of not leaving well enough alone.”

Another senior investigator at Tripadvisor said he applied for the job on the advice of a friend, who thought he would be perfect as a content moderator because of his obsessive research into vacation spots and restaurants.

“My friends thought I was a spreadsheet nerd,” said the investigator, who worked as an office manager and in graphic arts before joining Tripadvisor 19 years ago.

For him, uncovering false reviews is personal.

He recalled a trip he took to London a few years ago for work. In a hurry, he rushed into a restaurant – “an unvetted food choice” – and bought a chicken hand pie that he ate on his way to a meeting. Later, he was afflicted with horrific food poisoning that ruined the next leg of his trip in the Netherlands.

“These are moments of our life that you might think of when you look back. And to have it ruined by a bad meal or a horrible hotel,” he said, his voice shaking, then trailing off. “I just feel great that I can play a part.”

The FTC, which declined to confirm sending a representative to the October summit, announced that same month that it was looking into creating a rule that would “prevent unfair or deceptive marketing utilizing reviews and endorsements.”

“This scourge persists,” said Samuel Levine, the director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the FTC, in a statement.

“Unfair or deceptive” acts or practices in commerce are prohibited under the Federal Trade Commission Act. That language could include buying or selling fake reviews, but the FTC said it was proposing a rule to define more clearly what conduct is prohibited and give the agency the power to seek civil penalties, like fines, on a first violation.

The agency has asked for public comment on the rule. Several companies, including Yelp, Google and Tripadvisor, have written testimonials in support of the effort.

‘It’s basically extortion’

Butler, the London writer, said his experience writing false posts made him “obsessed” with Tripadvisor’s review system and the power it seemed to hold over the public and restaurant owners.

Butler took his deceit to new heights in 2017, when he made up a restaurant and began writing fake reviews about it. He called it the Shed at Dulwich, a name inspired by the run-down backyard behind an apartment he rented for 800 pounds a month.

He described it as a unique dining experience that was open by appointment only and served entrees named after moods like “empathetic,” “lust” and “contemplation.” He and his friends wrote enough five-star reviews that after a few months, the Shed rose to become the top rated restaurant in London on Tripadvisor.

Butler opened the restaurant for one night, never charging the guests for packaged lasagnas and macaroni and cheese he and his friends served them.

When he revealed his ruse in a Vice article, he was bombarded with media attention. An anchor on “Good Morning Britain” called him “naughty.” An investor in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, said he would pay Butler to replicate what he did with the Shed for his own restaurant, which didn’t even exist yet.

He also heard from restaurant owners, who said his experiment underscored the problem of trying to placate customers to get high ratings.

“There is a real sense of injustice that people who work in hospitality feel toward these platforms,” Butler said.

That feeling is familiar to Chris Wiken, the owner of the Packing House, a restaurant in Milwaukee that his parents opened in 1974.

For years, he said he has dealt with negative posts from two types of people: customers who wait until they leave the restaurant to complain online and reviewers who never ate at the restaurant at all.

When he replies to their posts, he says, he has learned they are typically looking for the same thing: money or gift certificates.

“It’s basically extortion,” Wiken said.

In five years, he said he had spent thousands of dollars sending out gift cards worth $150 to $250 to get bad reviews taken down.

“What’s the alternative? They can go on and keep trashing you,” he said. “They can create new profiles and keep writing fake reviews.”

He has four-star ratings on both Yelp and Tripadvisor. But he said he would trade all his positive posts for the end of online review sites.

And despite the best efforts of sites like Yelp and Tripadvisor, and a federal push to stamp out fake reviews, the financial incentive to seek and write those posts remains strong, even if the writers know that what they are doing may be wrong.

Butler, who wrote a book about his escapades as a fake reviewer, summed it up this way: “When you’re desperate you don’t really think about it, do you?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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