The rise of fake online reviews and how to spot them

Online reviews are a travel planning staple, but many can't be trusted.

Online reviews are a travel planning staple, but many can't be trusted. Photo: Getty

We’ve all been there – trawling through online reviews while booking a hotel or restaurant and there’s one place you’ve never heard of with overwhelmingly positive recommendations.

But how much can we really trust them?

Last year, the ACCC took action against businesses such as Service Seeking, Meriton, and Aveling Homes for engaging in misleading conduct relating to customer reviews.

The New Daily found several examples of advertisements on job websites blatantly seeking a “fake review writer”.

And it doesn’t stop there, TND also investigated reviews on websites such as TripAdvisor and Amazon and found patterns which reveal some of them to appear fake.

The rise of faux reviews

Data expert Ellen Broad assessed the way online review scores are manipulated in her book Made By Humans: The AI Condition.

She noted when Hilary Clinton released her memoir, What Happened, it experienced “review bombing”.

“Within 24 hours of the book being released there were 1500 reviews on Amazon including hundreds of one-star ratings and a huge number of five-star reviews,” Ms Broad told The New Daily

“Amazon then worked very hard to moderate and fix fake reviews for that book and most one-star reviews were removed but there were still several five star reviews that were kept alongside the book,” she said.

“We think of data as objective and trustworthy but even our platforms struggle to moderate fake reviews … even glowing five-star reviews could be put in by a bunch of operatives,” she said.

The lucrative manipulators

The New Daily found job listings on freelancing websites such as Upwork and, with advertisers seeking “fake review writers”.

One advertiser was offering $500 with the job ad specifying: “I have around 50 products on my store and need someone to write fake reviews for the website”. 

An example of a job advertisements seeking fake review writers. Photo: Upwork

Another advertiser offered $20 per fake review: “Write reviews for a Facebook Business Page (Pharmacy, Medication, & Health)”. 

Consumer expert Dr Gary Mortimer said if companies were encouraged to use bogus review writers, it could lead to serious consequences.

“If brands take part in this behaviour then they face reputational risks and could lose trust from their consumers,” Dr Mortimer told The New Daily.

How to spot a fake review

The New Daily found several examples of what appeared to be fake five-star hotel reviews on TripAdvisor.

One New York hotel had several generic reviews from profiles that were created this month, which had only rated this specific hotel.

Some of the profiles had generic usernames similar to Nomad394038, Traveller3453445 or Getaway9034839 (example below).

An example of what appears to be a fake review left on TripAdvisor. Photo: TripAdvisor

Fakespot, a free site that analyses product reviews to help you determine if they’re fake, looks for questionable spelling and grammar, purchasing patterns and other telltale signs of suspicious review activity.

Here’s an example of Sennheiser headphones listed on Amazon, in which Fakespot gave an “F-grade” after deeming only 26.4 per cent of  reviews were reliable.

An example of the Fakespot tool. Photo: Fakespot 

Digital Eagles marketing agency chief executive Ryan Jenkins said his company identifies fake reviews by the frequency they’re posted. 

“Businesses will buy reviews and you’ll see about 30 to 40 of them appear all at the one time, they won’t have any for a few months but suddenly an influx of them will appear again,” Mr Jenkins told The New Daily.

He said fake reviews were always super generic and never identified specifics about a business.

“You’ll find [they] don’t identify specifics about the business such as names or specific items on a menu.

“Location is another big one if they have international accounts and they’re posting about a business in Australia then that’s a strong giveaway.

“A lot of these businesses that generate fake reviews are based in India and the Philippines,” he said.

Regulator cracks down

An ACCC spokesperson said they had taken action against businesses for misleading conduct relating to reviews.

“Under Australian Consumer Law, businesses are prohibited from engaging in misleading or deceptive conduct,” the spokesperson said. 

In December, the ACCC took action against Service Seeking, an online platform where tradespeople can quote and book jobs requested by consumers. 

The ACCC alleges the company gave businesses a chance to effectively rate and review themselves without any input from the customer. 

Data expert Ellen Broad said websites such as TripAdvisor, Amazon, eBay and had specific teams that monitored fake reviews. 

“Amazon has sued 1000 defendants for paying for reviews on their platform but they also struggle to moderate them,” Ms Broad said.

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