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FOX43 Finds Out: Spotting fake reviews and products during COVID-19

People are shopping online more than ever before because of COVID-19 and that means people need to watch out for fake reviews before they buy a product.

PENNSYLVANIA, USA — There is an entire market where companies can buy fake reviews to boost their sales.

Because of COVID-19 businesses want our money and some are paying to get it.

Due to stay-at-home orders, a lot of us who are at home right now and we rely on reviews since it's hard to physically go to a store to buy a product.

FOX43 Finds Out how you can spot a fake review, so your money isn't wasted. 

FOX43 Finds Out

Vinny Sakore says he is always skeptical when buying things online.

He's a visiting cybersecurity professor at Messiah College and knows not all reviews are truthful. 

Just google "how to buy reviews" and you'll find a bunch of websites offering the service.

Sakore said, "Typically it's between $2-4 is when you get charged."

We found an ad on the freelancing website "Fiverr."

This person is offering "positive 5-star Yelp, Google, Facebook, TripAdvisor & Special Requests reviews"

"A lot of fake reviews do come from overseas so there is certainly terminology that is a red flag," said the cybersecurity expert.

One big red flag is poor grammar.

Now let's go back to the ad I just showed you.

The seller is offering a "full guaranteed" the review will stick.

Instead of what we would say, which is a "full guarantee."

Here's another red flag: "Words like bad. We typically don't use the term bad. It's something someone from maybe overseas would use. If you see a huge number of reviews on the same day, that's a flag too. I'll just avoid those," said Sakore.

Often you can find a search box to type in specific terms while reading reviews.

Search some cliche phrases and you'll find a lot of similar reviews.

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"If you think about it, if someone is buying reviews, the people who are selling them are not rewriting new ones every single time. They're using old code."

That's how some websites can detect fake reviews.

"They look for those terms, then they scan through them all and give it a rating."

One of the sites that review the reviews is Fakespot.com.

"I actually started the website when I got duped by buying products with fake reviews on Amazon," said Saoud Khalifah, the CEO of Fakespot.com.

He says electronics and accessories aren't always what they seem.

"So we're talking about small products, phone case overs, blue tooth headphones, robotic vacuum cleaners in certain cases," said Khalifah.

He says these products tend to have a high amount of competition, so the 5-star reviews make them stand out when people search.

It's all part of an algorithm. 

"It has become a wild west out there on the marketplaces."

He says those retail sites get flooded with fake reviews between Black Friday and Christmas.

When it comes to hospitality review sites, like Yelp or Tripadvisor, he sees the fake reviews increase leading up to the summer months. 

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"I think any website that hosts reviews has a problem with fake reviews right now, anywhere on the internet."

Every day, the people who post the reviews are getting smarter.

"Let's say you bought a book and in the middle of the book there's a gift card that says 'Hey, if you leave us a 5-star review we'll send you $50 to your PayPal account. Just email us here. Those are the more nefarious tactics that are harder to detect because it's coming from real people."

Companies like Amazon and even the Federal Trade Commission are trying to put an end to these fake reviews.

They've issued some fines, like I mentioned though these scammers are smart.

We'll tell you the signs to look for to inform the public.

However, the scammers see that too.

Then they change their ways to make the reviews look more real.

It all turns into a cat and mouse game.

For instance, 3-star reviews are typically more trustworthy until scammers figured that out now they're buying those too.

Review Skeptic and Review Index are other websites that 

Here's what some companies are doing to combat fake reviews: 

Amazon: 

We want Amazon customers to shop with confidence knowing that the reviews they read are authentic and relevant. We have clear policies for both reviewers and selling partners that prohibit abuse of our community features, and we suspend, ban, and take legal action against those who violate these policies.
 Our objective is to ensure customers see authentic and relevant reviews so they can make better informed purchasing decisions. To do this, we use powerful machine learning tools and skilled investigators to analyze over 10MM review submissions weekly, aiming to stop abusive reviews before they are ever published. In addition, we continue to monitor all existing reviews for signs of abuse and quickly take action if we find an issue. We also proactively work with social media sites to report bad actors who are cultivating abusive reviews outside our store, and we’ve sued thousands of bad actors for attempting to abuse our reviews systems. We encourage customers concerned about the authenticity of reviews left on a product to use the “Report abuse” link, available on each review, so that we can investigate and take the appropriate actions.

Tripadvisor: This site made a whole YouTube video explaining how it monitors fake reviews: The Journey of a Review: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-GicDU8QMA 

Yelp: Yelp’s mission is to connect consumers with great local businesses by giving them access to reliable and useful information. The reason millions of people come to Yelp every day is because they trust the content, and because the reviews and ratings are consistently good predictors of their own experiences with local businesses. Their trust is our top priority, which is why we take significant measures to maintain the integrity and quality of the content on our site, while leveling the playing field for hard working business owners who rightfully earn their great reputation. In fact, industry pundits, the media, and regulators have shown that Yelp is one of the most aggressive and successful at identifying and weeding out unreliable reviews.

Yelp invests in both technology and human moderation to mitigate misinformation on our platform. Our approach is driven by our automated recommendation software, reporting by Yelp’s community of business owners and users, human moderation, and Consumer Alerts. We also partner with law enforcement, or file lawsuits ourselves, in extreme cases.

  • Yelp’s recommendation software is engineered to highlight the most useful and reliable reviews by continuously evaluating dozens of signals. Reviews that may be solicited, biased or are written by users we just don’t know enough about, may not be recommended (but are still visible to consumers on a separate, easily accessible page). It is a dynamic process in which reviews can become recommended or not recommended over time as our software learns more information. Unlike other sites, our stance is quality over quantity when it comes to reviews. As a result, we currently only recommend about 71% of the reviews that have been submitted. Only recommended reviews are factored into a business's overall star rating.

  • Both consumer and business users of Yelp can report reviews that they believe violate our Terms of Service, including our Content Guidelines. Our User Support team investigates each flagged review, and if it’s found to be in violation of our policies, will remove it from the site. This includes reviews that are not based on a firsthand experience with a business, reviews that use hate speech, or reviews that reflect a clear conflict of interest. You can read more about this here.

  • As part of our broader Consumer Protection Initiative, Consumer Alerts appear for a set time period over certain business’s reviews to warn consumers of attempts we find to manipulate ratings and reviews. We will often link to evidence or a news article as well. Some examples of behaviors our team of investigators are constantly working to identify include media-fueled reviews, threatening reviewers with legal action, as well as purchasing and/or incentivizing people for reviews — these cases are sometimes uncovered through investigations by Yelp’s User Operations team and tips from our users.