Why You Cannot Trust Online Reviews – And How To Read Them Safely

You want to hire a tech troubleshooter or maybe something as straightforward as a mover. So you do what we have all come to do in the last decade: Sift through online reviews.

Stop right there. You may be putting your wallet in danger. You may even be putting your security at risk.

That is because evidence mounts that considerable effort is getting put into filing mass quantities of fake Internet reviews that are designed to misinform consumers.

Know that there are proven ways that will probably keep you safe – more on them below – but for now focus on the real dangers involved in a blizzard of fake reviews. What if that computer repair technician is a known malware installer who will return your “fixed” computer with a toxic backdoor added – but he has peppered review sites with so many fake positives that the negatives are drowned out?

Very similar is known to have actually happened. Security blogger Brian Krebs has documented how one company – Full Service Movers – has created many “review” sites where, surprise, it is well reviewed. That is despite what Krebs called “a company that appears to have a history of ripping people off and disappearing with their stuff.” The company itself was recently shut down by the US Department of Transportation for safety lapses.

It gets worse. You may not be looking for a mover but who doesn’t shop at Amazon? Do you read the reviews to help shape buying decisions? Amazon has now sued over 1000 vendors on gig economy site Fiverr who promised to deliver favorable reviews of products on Amazon for $5. Earlier in the year Amazon sued several other sites for doing likewise, including the boldly named buyamazonreviews.com.

Think about that. Are you buying that router based on real reviews? Or shills?

A couple years ago automotive review site Edmunds sued a company called Humankind Design that apparently had set up some 2200 fake accounts on Edmunds, with the apparent aim of influencing reviews and rankings of car dealerships. Edmunds settled the suit for an undisclosed amount. “This is undoubtedly a victory not just for the millions of online users who rely on dealership reviews and ratings from fellow car shoppers, but also for the thousands of honest dealers who embrace authentic customer feedback,” said Edmunds.com president Seth Berkowitz. “We will continue to hand-screen every review submitted to our site, and we will not hesitate to push back against anyone who tries to compromise the terms of our user agreements.”

Outright fakery is one way to game review sites, Bribing legitimate customers is another, that – said multiple sources – is shockingly common on powerhouse hotel review site TripAdvisor and also on Yelp, a site primarily known for restaurant reviews. Both TripAdvisor and Yelp are known to employ sophisticated algorithms to hunt down and prune faked reviews but nobody thinks the machine intelligence is foolproof.

There is no denying: there are deep troubles with online reviews.

It is easy to fake reviews. Yelp is believed to have had epidemic problems. One study, out of Harvard, said that 20% of those reviews are fakes.

Here’s the paradox: crowd-sourced intel about places and vendors is a sure path to smarter consumer decision-making, but it also just is too easy to game. A vendor in a developing country – India, say – is in the fast lane to a middle class lifestyle if he/she can get a couple dozen $5 review gigs daily.

Now you see how grave this problem is?

Here is the question: How to stay safe – but still benefit from crowd-sourced review sites?

Advice from experts is throw out reviews at the extreme – either too favorable or too negative. The truth, in most cases, is in the mid ground.

Look for patterns in the comments, both positive and negative. Patterns help to reveal the truth because when many people highlight essentially the same thing, there just may be accuracy in the observation.

Click on the user names of some reviewers and read other comments they have posted. Are they all positive? All about a random collection of merchandise? You may be reading the work of a paid shill.

Above all: stay skeptical. Valuable as crowd-sourced review sites can be, we can no longer ignore their dark side because bad actors have figured out how to rig the outcomes.

So use them – but use them skeptically, cautiously, and ever alert to the possibility that criminals may be feeding you lies.

Leave a Comment