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Scott Lewis: Fake Online Reviews Can Mislead Shoppers And Affect Businesses' Bottom Line

By Scott Lewis, private investigator

When you're shopping for a holiday gift, looking for a good plumber, a nice place to have dinner or a good hotel, do you pay attention to those online reviews? A lot of people do.  After all, most of us put more stock in what regular people have to say about a product or service than we do in company advertising.

The reviews can be helpful, but you have to take them with a grain of salt because there's strong evidence a significant number of online reviews are fake.

How does this happen?

It can be a company posting phony positive reviews to boost its own business, or a company posting negative reviews about a competitor to sabotage them.

It happens all the time.

And online reviews can make a big difference on a company's bottom line.   A 2011 study found that a one star increase in a restaurant's rating on one popular review site could increase revenue by 5 to 9 percent.  Another study found a one star rating increase on hotel review sites can push up hotel room rates by 11 percent.

That's a strong incentive to cheat.

In some cases, companies bring out hired guns to put up fake reviews.  For a fee, so-called reputation management companies will create good reviews for a company and post them on popular online review sites or post reviews slamming their competitors.

Dwight Zahringer knows how the game is played.  He's been involved in online development and internet marketing since the mid 1990's.  He says he's worked both sides of the fence in reputation management.

"We don't partake in the negative practice anymore.  We haven't for a couple years, but I've been blown away by some of the things that I've been able to do," Zahringer told me.

While most online review sites have software designed to spot and block phony reviews Zahringer says you can beat those systems and post a fake review if you know what you're doing.

"It's really just crafting.  It's just honing your skill in getting it past the particular filters so that it feels and tries to read correctly."

In New York State recently, the Attorney General launched a year-long undercover investigation to crack down on individual businesses and reputation management firms that were posting fake reviews.  His office did an elaborate sting.  They posed as a fictitious Yogurt shop and discovered that they could hire reputation management firms that would create fake online posts for prices ranging from $1 to $10 per post.  Some of these firms were outsourcing the work to people in cheap-labor foreign countries.

By the time the undercover operation was done, the Attorney General had doled out $350 thousand dollars in fines ranging from $2500 to $100,000. The companies also agreed to stop writing fake reviews.

Attorney General, Eric T. Schneiderman said in a press release that the posting of fake online reviews, a process known as astroturfing, is the modern day version of false advertising.

"Consumers rely on reviews from their peers to make daily purchasing decisions on anything from food and clothing to recreation and sightseeing. This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution," Schneiderman said.

And it's not just consumers who need to be wary, many businesses have been victimized by fake internet reviews too.

Gary Marowske is the President of Warren-based Flame Furnace, a company that's been in business for 65 years.

"We're not a fly-by-night company.  We're not a shabby company by any means.  Do we screw up?  Yes we screw up.  But we take care of it," Marowske told me.

Marowske says he got a bad review at an online site that totally tanked his company's rating, and the review, from a customer who didn't use his service, was unfair.

"This gentleman never bought anything from us. We never did business with him and he went on line and wrote us a nasty review, calling us crooks and cheats which personally really bothers me because my name's on the door," Marowske said.

Marowske thought his rating on the site was unfairly low.  And when he reached out to them to try to resolve the issue he says a company representative suggested that he buy advertising on their site.

"She said, you know, advertising doesn't affect it, but if you spend two thousand dollars a month, I'll be able to investigate it."

Craig Geatches, the owner of locally-based A & J Sewer and Drain, had a similar experience with another online review site.

He says he got an unfair negative review on a site that he is not a member of.  When he tried to respond, he says he was told that he would have to join the site at a cost of several hundred dollars and pay a monthly fee if he wanted to respond to the negative posting.

"I feel they extort you from the aspect of if you don't join their particular company, you don't have the ability to respond in a fair manner." Geatches said.

Dwight Zahringer now finds the prevalence of fake and unfair reviews so distasteful that he has founded a Detroit-based online company called designed to get real reviews from real customers.

Marowske and Geatches have both signed up with TruReview.  They see it as a more honest, open system for customer reviews.

Here's how it works:

A business, such as A & J Sewer and Drain, signs up with and pays a 20 dollar-a-month fee.  When a customer calls and books an appointment, TruReview sends the customer an email giving them the name of the person coming to their home, his picture, his qualifications and some of his recent customer reviews.  After the appointment, the customer gets an email, asking them to rate their experience.  The review is then posted under testimonials on A & J's web site.

"It's easy enough that a four-year-old could do it.  It's three steps," Zahringer said.

If the customer has a problem, the company can go on their web site and create a dialogue with the customer and try to resolve the problem.

"There's always three sides to the story, you know, our side, their side and the one in the middle that's probably more accurate.  But they're able to see all that and hear both sides and they can make a determination for themselves," Marowske said.

Zahringer admits that even his site is not one-hundred-percent foolproof.  A company could have a family member or friend book an appointment and write a positive review when no actual work has been done.  But he says false reviews are much less likely on his site.

Am I suggesting that you, as a consumer, stop using these big name online review sites?  Absolutely not. But you might want to be a little skeptical and read them with a critical eye.

The web site Consumerist has some suggestions on how to spot fakes.

  • Watch out for posts that have zero caveats and are full of empty adjectives and pure glowing praise with no down sides.
  • Be leery of posts that were all left within a short period of time of each other.
  • Posts that mainly tally off product features are suspect.  Real users talk more about performance, reliability and overall value.

Here is a link to the Consumerist web site with more suggestions from their readers on how to spot fake reviews:

Veteran TV investigative reporter Scott Lewis is now in private practice.  Scott Lewis Private Investigations is a premier, full service agency serving the state of Michigan.  If you need private investigation services, contact Scott at 1-855-411-Lewis (5394), email him at or check out his website at


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