New York sting finds plethora of fake online reviews

September 24, 2013 8:25:32 PM PDT
From restaurants to high end TV sets, you can find user reviews on just about everything online. The question is, can you believe the reviews? The answer is maybe.

Recently, more than a dozen businesses were fined for paying people to write positive reviews. For companies, a good online review can boost profits, and for some, that is reason enough to fake five-star feedback.

Krystal Gonzales typically turns to Internet reviews before spending money.

"It could be anything, hotels, restaurants, products that I am going to buy," Gonzales said.

But there is a downside to online reviews. A recent sting in New York found 19 businesses paying people to write good reviews; those companies were fined thousands of dollars. The sting also exposed the practice of faking reviews for profit.

"There are lots of companies out there that are paying people, whether it is someone in another country or someone on their staff who is sitting on a computer doing reviews all day," said social media expert Ashley Small.

Those fake reviews can add up to big bucks. A Harvard study found a one-star rating boost on the review site Yelp led to a 5 to 9 percent increase in sales. For that reason, Paul Espinoza with Sorel Urban Bistro says the company responds to every online review.

"Every restaurant, should we look through them and we pull them, even the bad ones, and look to see how we can improve on them," Espinoza said.

Figuring out the real reviews from the fake ones take some work. First, check the reviewer's profile. Experts say those using real names and pictures are probably not hiding anything. On Yelp, you can see reviewer's average rating. Next, look for balance.

"If you start to see overly positive, nothing but positive, no kind of balanced reviews, then that's a red flag for sure,"said Small.

We asked the Texas attorney general about the practice of paying for good reviews. The agency says they are not currently investigating the issue.

If you spot a review that looks fake, you can flag it to the website administrator.

Find Jeff on Facebook at ABC13JeffEhling or on Twitter at @jeffehlingabc13


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