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CBS4 Experiment Finds Online Reviews Raise Serious Questions

By Rick Sallinger

DENVER (CBS4) - A CBS4 investigation shows it's not always wise to be guided by reviews posted on the internet.

Online reviews help people to decide where to eat, where to stay, and which company to hire. But what CBS4 was able to do raises serious questions about the authenticity of some reviews.

CBS4 Investigator Rick Sallinger decided to conduct an experiment. First he went to the website in which people can post offers to do most any kind of task for $5 or more. The site is based in Israel with offices in the United States.

fake reviews
CBS4's Rick Sallinger (credit: CBS)

Just one of the many offers posted was from a woman stating, "I will make a testimonial or say anything you want." Another solicitation on was from a man who posted a video of himself saying he is an actor.

"Think of me as your average Joe in your average home talking about your extraordinary product," he said.

CBS4 decided hire the "average Joe" to show why maybe one should be a bit skeptical of some reviews.

First Sallinger created a fake product with the help of the CBS4 graphics department. A food truck called "Rick's 4 Food."

(credit: CBS)

The fictitious menu features "Asian street food."

(credit: CBS)

The "average Joe" CBS4 hired came through with a video testimonial that made Rick's 4 Food sound hard to resist.

"The spring rolls down at Rick's 4 Food ... (pause) … I got no words, I got no words," the man said.

(credit: CBS)

That's a very nice recommendation, except he never tried Rick's 4 Food because it doesn't even exist.

Another person who calls himself Johnny Rodney also had a video offer posted on

"I will do for you a naturally sounding video to help push your product reach your audience," Rodney said.

In this case it was for $10, but the testimonial he sent for Rick's 4 Food might make someone want to drop whatever they are doing and check it out right away.

(credit: CBS)

"It's outstanding," Rodney said in the video testimonial, adding, "And get this, it's important, my favorite, the spring rolls and Thai chicken wings."

The Better Business Bureau has been reviewing companies for over 100 years. So Sallinger asked Krista Ferndelli with the BBB, "Would it surprise you if I told you we're able to hire people to write fake reviews?"

She quickly answered, "Absolutely not -- I mean we hear about things like that and we see examples." She added, "Take each review with a grain of salt."

Ferndelli said if the grammar is bad it could have been outsourced or done by a computer program. Sometimes she said people can click on the reviewer's name and see what other reviews they have posted.

Another example of a review CBS4 received is from a woman who offered her testimonial services on

"Hi my name is Stephanie. I'm here to tell you about Rick's 4 Food Asian street food … they have the most-fresh and delicious spring rolls."

(credit: CBS)

She even offered to do her review in a bikini, but that was $10 extra.

CBS4 posted testimonials and reviews naturally with four and five stars.

How can you tell if reviews are fake? There are sites like that will analyze what's written and give their opinion. Companies like Amazon and Yelp have programs that attempt to detect and take down reviews that are not believed to be genuine.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office conducted an investigation in 2013 and reached agreement with 19 companies to pay more than $350,000 and to stop any practice involving fake reviews. The investigation determined that the companies posted phony reviews on such sites as Yelp, Google Local and CitySearch.

(credit: CBS)

Freelance writers from far away countries including the Philippines and Bangladesh were paid $1 to $10 per review. The companies involved created fake profiles and engaged in violation of multiple state laws against false advertising and engaged in illegal and deceptive business practices, according to the New York Attorney General's Office.

"There are many variables that would determine whether or not the behavior could potentially be illegal (in Colorado). It isn't really possible to speculate in general about 'fake online reviews,'" Colorado Attorney General's Office spokesperson Annie Skinner told CBS4 in an email.

CBS4 examined the Colorado Consumer Protection Act section 6-1-105 called "Deceptive trade practices." It calls "deceptive" when a person "knowingly makes a false representation as to the source, sponsorship, approval or certification of foods, services, or property." Or "knowingly makes a false representation as to affiliation, connection, or association with or certification of another."

But "average Joe" hired by CBS4 insisted that he ate our non-existent food truck.

"I got to tell you about this place I got lunch from," he said on the testimonial.

Stephanie's testimonial insisted Rick's has the most-fresh and delicious spring rolls,

"I just had some awesome food and it was so good I had to make a video about it," Rodney said.

A spokesperson for issued CBS4 the following statement:

"Fiverr is used by millions of entrepreneurs and businesses worldwide for valuable creative and digital services. Advertising is one of the services on our platform, and these testimonials were made by actors. As with any form of advertising, it's incumbent upon the advertiser to make it clear and be transparent with consumers that the content been paid for and is the work of an actor. It's disappointing that their work has been misrepresented this way; something we work to avoid by providing freelancers with best practices to avoid potentially fraudulent buyers."

CBS4's Rick Sallinger is a Peabody award winning reporter who has been with the station more than two decades doing hard news and investigative reporting. Follow him on Twitter @ricksallinger.

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