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Fake reviews are commonplace online. Can repression put an end to it?

After Dr. Mark J. Mohrmann successfully performed an orthopedic procedure in 2019, his patient took to Yelp, the review website, to share his appreciation.

“Dr. Mark made me feel like I was in good hands,” the patient wrote in a five-star review.

Only, the writer was not a real patient and there were no procedures. His review was fake – part of an effort to boost Dr. Mohrmann’s company’s online ratings using fake positive reviews, according to an analysis by Fake Review Watch, an industry watchdog. Last month, Dr. Mohrmann agreed to pay a $100,000 fine to settle with the New York attorney general for misleading the public with false reviews.

Dr. Mohrmann’s fake reviews are just one example of the multibillion-dollar fake review industry, in which individuals and businesses pay marketers to post fake, positive reviews on Google Maps, Amazon, Yelp and other platforms, and deceive millions of customers every year.

Fake reviews are as old as the Internet itself, and they are illegal and banned by online platforms. But fake review businesses still continued to thrive.

Now, for the first time, a wave of regulation and actions by tech companies are coming together in a more concerted effort to reverse the trend.

This summer, the Federal Trade Commission proposed a sweeping rule that would punish businesses that buy or sell fake reviews, among other restrictions. In October, several online platforms, including Amazon and Expedia, announced a coalition that would share information and resources between companies to combat review fraud. And late last month, New York Attorney General Letitia James issued her own statewide warning, saying in a statement that fake reviews were “unlawful and unacceptable.”

Experts have warned, however, that the problem of fake reviews could be so huge that it becomes insurmountable, and note that fake reviews have survived previous crackdowns.

Jason Brown, founder of Review Fraud, a consumer advocacy website that has exposed companies using fake reviews, said the platforms had not done enough to handle the problem, but he acknowledged that consumer concern regulators and businesses were growing.

“Everyone is feeling the heat and the pressure,” he said. “Time will tell us.”

Almost all fake reviews are positive mentions, like four- and five-star reviews, that businesses write themselves or are created by digital marketers, whose services can be purchased online for just a few dollars per review. Many deceptive marketers are based overseas, limiting the FTC’s power to police the problem. And artificial intelligence tools, like ChatGPT, threaten to boost the industry by making it easier to write fake reviews, the agency warned.

Fake reviews are so common that almost every online buyer has probably encountered one. Amazon said it blocked more than 200 million allegedly fake reviews last year, and Google said it removed 115 million reviews violating Maps rules in 2022, a 20% increase from the year. former.

In its proposed rule, the FTC did not issue new rules against the tech giants, pointing to a federal law that protects companies from liability for content posted on their platforms. The agency has instead focused on investigating and punishing businesses that buy or sell online reviews, in some cases fining them $50,000 or more.

“The rule will not apply to the architects of the entire corrupt system: the review platforms and technology companies that profit from online reviews, whether real or fake,” said Kay Dean, a former criminal investigator federal who runs Fake Review Watch.

Ms Dean began her efforts after fake online reviews misled her to a psychiatric office. On her YouTube channel, she carefully documents hundreds of companies that use fake or suspicious reviews, from moving companies to doctors’ offices.

Its investigations often rely on identifying appraisers who rate unconnected businesses across the country – a sure sign of fraud. She discovered that 19 of Dr. Mohrmann’s supposed patients had also left glowing reviews on Google Maps for the same moving company in Las Vegas, and that 18 others had apparently used the same locksmith in Texas.

In an emailed statement relayed by his attorney, Dr. Mohrmann said that “health care professionals are focused on patient care and are sometimes unaware of the steps companies hired to manage reputations take by online or search engine optimization. The New York Attorney General’s Office said Dr. Mohrmann had “asked his friends, family and employees to leave positive five-star reviews” and that his wife wrote some of those reviews.

Watchdogs like Ms Dean have blamed Google and other big platforms for the resilience of the problem. These websites tend to rely on customers to self-monitor fake reviews and typically do not reveal when a business has engaged in suspicious behavior, allowing scammers to continue posting fraudulent reviews after old ones have been removed. .

The Transparency Company, an industry watchdog that develops software to analyze and detect fake reviews, has identified more than 100,000 businesses using fake and suspicious reviews to improve their digital image, often in ways invisible to an unsuspecting customer .

“One of the reasons I choose to detect fake Google reviews over Amazon and others is the harm to consumers,” said Curtis Boyd, founder of Transparency Company. “A bad $10 kitchen knife or a cheap Bluetooth headset is not going to ruin a household. Choosing the wrong doctor, lawyer or contractor can ruin your life.

An analysis by Transparency Company found that half of the reviews on Dr Mohrmann’s Google Maps profile are “highly suspect”, with many accounts linked to India, Vietnam and Britain. Dr. Mohrmann maintains a 4.5 star rating on Google Maps, compared to just 2.5 stars on Yelp. (The last Google review identified as suspicious was published a year ago.)

Dr. Mohrmann’s attorney said they “work closely with the New York Attorney General’s Office and others to weed out inauthentic reviews.”

Google Maps has become one of the largest review platforms in the world. The company filed its own lawsuit in June against someone else who posted more than 14,000 fake reviews, according to court records.

“When we find bad actors trying to mislead people, we take swift action ranging from removing content to account suspension and even litigation,” said Ian Leader, director of product management at Google Maps, in an emailed statement.

Amazon appeared to preempt the FTC’s new regulations in June, announcing a plan to stop fake reviews. In a blog post, the company acknowledged that “an illicit industry of ‘fake review brokers’ has emerged,” promising crackdowns. The company added additional funds to investigate fake review systems and said it would exchange information with competing companies.

In October, Amazon partnered with other major review portals like Expedia to form the Coalition for Trusted Reviews, a collaboration intended to create common standards for monitoring reviews and allowing businesses to exchange ratings on how fraudulent actors operate. But the coalition has yet to outline how it would achieve these goals or how much time and money it would take.

“It would take hundreds of hours from the product teams of all the major brands, and a lot of resources,” Mr. Boyd said. “That’s why I’m skeptical.”

Amazon also placed blame on regulators, writing that the problem “requires government agencies with appropriate enforcement authority and funding to pursue these fake review brokers.”

In a statement, an Amazon spokeswoman said that while the company was fighting fake reviews, the “tactics of fake review brokers have also evolved” to evade detection, but that the company ” would suspend, prohibit and initiate legal proceedings” against them. who violated its policies.

Experts who study the fake review industry said industry coalitions are often an attempt to avoid tougher regulations from lawmakers. The European Union has moved more quickly to hold companies accountable for content posted on their platforms, passing the Digital Services Act last year, which can hold companies legally responsible for fraudulent content.

“Would this be an amazing coalition that would have a real impact on the market? Yes,” Mr. Boyd said. “Would it be lip service to ‘how awesome we all are’? Yes, it could be. This is normally the case.

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