Most of us read reviews online, and many of us rely on them. We consider the opinions of others when purchasing a product or service.
But as our I-Team surveys have discovered in the past: some reviews are fake and unreliable. And now they’ve found another reason why you can’t always trust the reviews you read.
If you’re looking for a mechanic, plumber, or dentist, you might find someone on Yelp.
A few years ago, the company launched its Elite Squad. These “yelpers” receive a badge. Yelp calls them “a trusted voice” – “real people, real reviews.”
But the I-Team has learned – that’s not always true.
We spoke to a Yelp Elite, who didn’t want to share his name, who says he wrote fake Elite reviews. He says it started when someone contacted him on Instagram, offering to pay him $20 to post a fake review for a moving company in Northern California.
“I was like, well, I don’t live there, but whatever, I will,” he said.
He said offers to post fake reviews kept pouring in, from a carpet cleaning company and an insurance agent. He says the quick money was too easy to turn down.
“I’ve done a few already, it was pretty easy, it was a quick $20, nobody said anything about it, nobody called me, so I was like, whatever , I’ll just post it,” he said.
Kay Dean says he’s not the only Yelp Elite to post fake reviews.
“I was shocked by what I saw,” she said.
Dean says she started digging into it about four years ago, after having a bad experience with a doctor she found on Yelp who had great reviews.
So Dean is now a part-time detective, make it our mission to track down fake reviews. She calls the problem huge and says fake reviews can easily fool consumers because they’re often detailed, can even include images and, of course, they can have that badge.
Dean is frustrated that Yelp isn’t aggressive enough to remove fake reviews. She says someone has to make them do this.
“I think there needs to be a change in the law, to hold tech companies accountable for whatever they authorize,” she said. “They do far too little to monitor their own platforms.”
But it doesn’t look like that’s happening anytime soon. There’s a federal bill that would hold Yelp and other companies liable for fake reviews, but only if someone can show they’ve been harmed by one.
And last fall, the Federal Trade Commission said it warned hundreds of companies of fake reviews, threatening them with heavy fines. The I-Team asked the FTC if it issued any fines, but we got no response.
“So basically the current environment is that cheating is rewarded, business ethics are eroding, and millions of honest consumers and businesses are hurting,” Dean said.
In a statement to the I-Team, Yelp said, “We are taking significant steps to maintain the integrity and quality of content on Yelp.” It said it does this using automated software, human moderation and consumer alerts. Yelp also said it “strictly prohibits offering payment for reviews.” And if he discovers that a Yelp user has been paid, he will delete his reviews and close his account.
After the I-Team began digging into Elite reviews, Yelp shut down some accounts, including the account of the man who spoke to us. Dean says consumers still need to be careful.
“I would tell consumers to be extremely careful when considering or using online reviews,” she said. “And that you’re much better off talking to real people and getting some reviews.”
If you come across reviews that you suspect are fake, report them to FTC.