Facebook, Google and Trustpilot can be easily infiltrated with fake reviews as unscrupulous brokers selling them for as little as £4 successfully exploit weaknesses in their systems, a Which? investigation suggests.
The consumer champion’s latest investigation involved setting up a fake business and approaching brokers to boost its pages on the three platforms using bogus five-star reviews – which revealed a sprawling network of fake reviewers on Facebook.
After easily finding a series of ‘fake review brokers’ through Google, Which? signed up to one called Xealme, which can create reviews for all three platforms. Business is clearly booming – this single broker claimed to have created nearly 16,000 reviews for a total of 570 customers, and offers its service in nearly every country in the world.
On Facebook, in just five days, Which? had amassed 19 five-star reviews from fake profiles for its made-up business ‘Gold Lion Labs’ – which claimed to offer PCR testing services. Reviews were added quickly – 11 went up in one day.
When Which? looked into the profiles of the reviewers, it found that they had all reviewed a selection of the same businesses on Facebook. In total, experts linked 168 that had been reviewed by the same 19 profiles as the fake page.
However, expanding this to include the friends of the reviewers, Which? found hundreds more pages with many reviewers in common – reviewing businesses including a mobile mechanic in west London, which had more than 600 reviews and just three negative ones, a bed shop near Leeds and a wheel repair service in Texas.
Initially Facebook removed just 18 of the 29 fake reviewer profiles Which? shared with it, and Which?’s fake business remains live on the platform at the time of writing. Facebook finally removed all 29 profiles after pressure from Which?, more than a month after the findings were first reported. The vast majority of the business pages the consumer champion shared remain live and continue to have at least a four-star rating.
Which? used the same fake review broker to amass reviews on Trustpilot. The broker told Which? that Trustpilot does not like people buying reviews for the platform, but that ‘millions of businesses still do’.
Reviews were added more slowly on Trustpilot, but within three weeks the fake business had gathered 19 five-star reviews and a 4.6 TrustScore – which is based on the average of reviews, but includes other factors such as age and number of reviews. Gold Lion Labs’ TrustScore was significantly higher than the health consultant business category average of 3.6 stars.
A review – suggested to the broker by Which? – that was written in French, and translated to ‘This is a fake company and fake reviews. Five stars!!!’, had been added twice, by two separate reviewers, within two days of each other.
Which? found that one of its fake reviewers had also given five stars to a business that had a Trustpilot flag on it for misleading behaviour. The business still had a 4.9 star TrustScore, based on 974 reviews, and 91 per cent of the five-star ratings had been left by first-time reviewers – those who had not reviewed any other businesses before or since. It is a suspicious pattern, and one which Trustpilot appears to be aware of. It begs the question why this business page is still live at the time of writing and has a TrustScore of 4.3 – although Trustpilot has now added a more severe ‘red warning’ to the page.
When it came to Google, within a week, Xealme had added 19 reviews to the Google business page for Gold Lion Labs.
Four reviewers had also reviewed a tennis racket shop in Surrey, while two others had previously only reviewed companies that were based in the US.
Which? asked a review broker, called AccFarm, how safe it was to buy reviews for Google, and it said that in eight years none of its clients had experienced any issues. AccFarm says that team members are regularly trained on how to create Google reviews – a professional team of fake reviewers.
From Which?’s investigation alone more than a thousand reviews have been removed by the three online platforms.
Trustpilot said it is considering legal cases against those selling reviews, something which Amazon has already had success with after launching, and winning, a series of legal actions against fake review brokers this year. Google also said it would consider litigation as a tool for holding fraudulent reviews to account. However, legal action alone is not enough and Which? believes all online platforms should be doing more to improve their systems to detect, remove and prevent fake reviews.
Which?’s investigation comes after the government outlined plans for a new Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill to banish fake reviews in the Queen’s Speech earlier this year – which the consumer champion wants introduced to Parliament by the new Prime Minister without delay.
These proposals would lead to the selling or advertising of fake reviews being banned and companies hosting consumer reviews on a service having to check if they are genuine. The reforms would give the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) more powers and allow it to directly fine companies that act badly up to 10 per cent of their global annual turnover and require consumers to be compensated – rather than having to go through lengthy court proceedings first.
Which? believes these important planned reforms to consumer and competition law are vital to ensure that platforms do more to protect their users from fake reviews and help the CMA to tackle poor practices. These new laws must be enacted as soon as possible to protect consumers and ensure they are not misled online.
Rocio Concha, Which? Director of Policy and Advocacy, said:
“Facebook, Google and Trustpilot are failing to do enough to shut out a fake reviews industry that has been thriving and profiting from misleading reviews for years now.
“Facebook in particular has repeatedly been slow to act in tackling fake reviews, showing a complete disregard for consumers who want to read genuine reviews.
“The government has outlined plans for a new Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill that would give the CMA stronger powers to protect consumers from an avalanche of fake reviews. The Bill must be introduced to Parliament by the new Prime Minister without delay.”