'Millions' of Fake Online Reviews Fool Consumers, Originate Overseas - NBC Bay Area

'Millions' of Fake Online Reviews Fool Consumers, Originate Overseas

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    'Millions' of Fake Online Reviews Fool Consumers, Originate Overseas

    A San Francisco man's photo appears in online reviews for companies that he has never even heard of, much less patronized. His experience is a warning about millions of phony online reviews. Consumer Investigator Chris Chmura reports. (Published Friday, Nov. 17, 2017)

    Scott Hubbard’s career at NASA revolved around space exploration and reaching for the stars.

     “I’ve been involved in looking for life elsewhere in the universe for almost 45 years,” he said.

    In the stars above, he sees a constellation of curiosity. But in the stars he sees with online reviews, he found a black hole of deception.

     “My first reaction was to be angry,” he explained. “Because this is, sort of, a form of identity theft.”

    Here’s why: A 15-year-old NASA photo of Hubbard appears under the name ‘Elbert Hubbard’ in many online reviews. There are five-star ratings for several artificial turf grass sellers in Florida. A glowing testimonial from Elbert Hubbard gives five stars to a used car dealer in Plainville, Connecticut.

    There’s one hang-up.

    “I have never bought a single car in Plainville Connecticut,” Hubbard said.

    Same for the turf grass.

    “I have never bought any artificial turf,” Hubbard said.

    Scott says the reviews are bogus.

    So, who posted them? We asked the companies. They said they have no idea.

    “You should have your guard up,” said Internet Consultant Jason Brown.

    Brown tracks fake online reviews. He says there are millions of them that mix real people and real photos with fake names and fake feedback. Brown lists them on his website, reviewfraud.org.

    “There are just countless businesses all across the United States that are falsifying reviews,” he said.

    Brown is right. Yelp estimates 25% of reviews on its site are bogus or biased.

    Honest or not, there’s money to be made with rave reviews. Harvard found when a restaurant‘s online rating increases just one star, revenue jumps 5 to 9 percent. Brown believes some businesses lie to get that boost. They might pay a shady ‘marketing’ or ‘reputation’ company to post five-star fiction.

    “A few companies are doing it here in the United States, but the majority of it is coming from overseas,” he explained.

    So, who’s policing online reviews? The government is, to an extent.

    In March, some California car dealers paid $3.6 million to settle a Federal Trade Commission case that included accusations they posted fake reviews on Facebook.

    Facebook says it is “Continuously updating [ITS] systems that help detect fake accounts.” Google says it uses “automated systems” BUT IT TENDS “not to share details behind [ITS] processes.”

    The phony Google account with Scott’s photo is still active. The Connecticut car dealer review was pulled down. But, a new review just went up, awarding five stars to a painting company in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

    That company refused to answer our questions.

    Brown is calling on Google must do more to protect consumers.

     “It’s easy for Google,” he said. “They can easily see these patterns. And identify if all the reviews are coming from the same location.”

    As for Professor Hubbard, who teaches space flight at Stanford, he has learned his lesson about online reviews. He says all of us can.

    It’s not rocket science.

    “I think this experience will make us dig just a little bit deeper,” he said.

    Here’s how Brown suggests spotting red flags in online reviews. First, open the user’s profile and scrutinize it. If all their reviews are vague -- yet 100% positive -- take those posts with a grain of salt.

    I see lots of reviews from brand new users, and only one local review, question if they really know your neighborhood.

    Finally, Brown says disregard that user whose profile shows they only review one kind of company, but in different cities. Brown says that person is probably paid to improve an industry’s image by posting fake reviews.