One product review site to avoid at all cost

The editorial staff at CompareCamp and sister site FinancesOnline, whose colorful infographics have been featured on prominent media outlets such as BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post and Wired, appear to have a distinguished journalistic pedigree. The product review and personal finance sites' listed authors claim to have written for a range of blue-chip media firms, including The Washington Post, Philadelphia Enquirer, Charlotte Observer and others.

That would be impressive -- if it were true. The entire seven-person staff at CompareCamp -- which provides product reviews on buzzy topics ranging from technology and ritzy homes to mountain bikes and fast-food -- appears to have fictitious biographies, while their personal photos consist of stock or stolen images.

The site and FinancesOnline are linked to Ruby Media Corporation, an advertising and public relations firm based in Poland. It isn't clear how CompareCamp is being funded since it has no advertisements. FinancesOnline, which lists the same authors as CompareCamp, features lifestyle and personal finance features that have been picked up by numerous publications.

comparecamp.png

Ruby Media Corporation claims to have several U.S. Fortune 500 companies as clients, including Citigroup (C), Best Buy (BBY) and Avon (AVP), apparently in an effort to appear legitimate. Efforts to reach someone at Ruby and its chief executive, Sebastian Snopek, were unsuccessful.

Though lying on the Internet is hardly unique, the systematic approach employed in this case is unusual. Not only do the contributors on the site seem phony, but the company behind it might not be genuine, either. Kristin Ruby, owner of Ruby Media Group, a similarly named public relations and social media firm based in New York, said the Polish company "stole" her online identity.

"It's very strange," said Ruby, a noted social media expert who has been in business for five years. Her firm, which offers a range of PR, research and other services, is contemplating legal action against the namesake company for trademark infringement.

Representatives from BuzzFeed, Huffington Post and Wired did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The deceptions at the site unraveled partly through some crowdsourced sleuthing by media blogger Jim Romenesko and his readers. Romenesko noted the close physical resemblance between supposed CompareCamp writer Robin Renford and Columbia University professor Chris Blattman.

Contacted by CBS MoneyWatch, Blattman was trying to keep a low profile. "I feel the best thing to do is to ignore it," he said.

The apparent deceptions weren't hard to unravel. Another CompareCamp author, Alex Hillsberg, claims in his bio on the site to have a master's degree in economics and a bachelor of arts in journalism studies from the University of Denver. But Paul McCarty, the school's assistant registrar, said he could find no records of any student having matriculated under that name.

Another CompareCamp writer, Martin Glover, claims he worked as "finance editor" at the Charlotte Observer and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Observer executive editor Rick Thames said that Glover never worked for the paper, nor is there any record of him working at the Inquirer.

Among his credentials Glover also lists having earned a master's in economics from the University of South Carolina's Darla Moore School of Business, along with awards from the Society of Business Editors and Writers -- claims that CBS MoneyWatch wasn't able to verify.

CompareCamp contributor Emily Bead claims to hold a masters degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism. Dean of students Melanie Huff told CBS MoneyWatch that she could find no record of a student by that name having attended or graduated from the Journalism School.

"With female students there is always the possibility of having attended with a different last name, but given that [Bead's] Google+ page doesn't reflect connections with anyone affiliated with the school, it seems unlikely that this is the case here," Huff wrote in an email.

The Washington Post also could find no record that CompareCamp writer Julia Trello ever worked at the paper as either a freelancer or a staff writer, despite her claims to have written for the Post. Duke University also wasn't able to verify Trello's claim of having a degree from the school.

In his bio, CompareCamp writer David Adelman cited his "years of experience reporting on startups, digital brand campaigns and marketing trends for such publications as The New Yorker." But a New Yorker spokesperson told CBS MoneyWatch that Adelman has never written for the magazine.

The upshot? On the Internet as in life, let the buyer beware.

  • Jonathan Berr On Twitter»

    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.