Fake reviews - how to spot them and how one notorious TripAdvisor fraudster landed in jail

2018-10-01 12:00 - Marisa Crous
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(PHOTO: iStock)

Walking down the restaurant-filled streets of many tourist destinations you'll see eatery upon eatery proudly sporting TripAdvisor or other online review sites like Zomato or Yelp's stamps of approval. 

"Excellent!"

"Best food in Corfu!"

"Unmatched hospitality"

But can these reviews always be trusted? 

READ: Are these 25 super popular tourist attractions really worth the hype? 

Last year The Telegraph published an article that reported on a push from consumer protection agencies to combat faux reviews online. Many consumers use reviews as a digital form of 'word of mouth', looking to platforms such as AirBnb, Amazon and TripAdvisor to guide their bookings, spending and itinerary planning. 

It even mentioned a case taken to the Australian Federal Court brought against a property services company who attempted to block guests it thought would leave a bad review on TripAdvisor from receiving the email inviting their feedback.

Buying and selling fake reviews

Recently, a landmark ruling in Italy sentenced a notorious review fraudster to 9 months in jail and to pay over €8 000 (about R130 767 @16.36 / €) in damages.

The fraudster was the unnamed owner of the business known as Promo Salento. He was accused of selling faux positive review packages to hotels and restaurants in Italy, charging up to €100 (R1 635) for 10 reviews, and even more for larger packages. 

Tripadvisor has a whole team dedicated to investigating such fraudulent behaviour, ensuring the likelihood of seeing a fake review on their site is as minuscule as possible. (See their fake review detection process here.)

SEE: Coast along SA's shores the West Coast way 

But it's not just about fake positive reviews, as many businesses are suffering under spammers, competitors and chronic complainers whose main aim is to destroy reputations, notes the Digital Marketing Institute - who also have a lot of great tips for businesses on how to deal with fake reviewers. 

Trusting social media influencer reviews

What about trusting celebrities and social media influencers who "Just love!" this or that restaurant, hotel or airline? Can we trust these reviews as legitimate if they're being paid for it? Influencers who approach their careers as a business tend to stamp their social and blog posts with "Sponsored" or ad tags like "#campaign, #collaboration or #paidfor; in these cases you know that a) they are being paid to say favourable things and b) that their following has been dubbed as "legitimate" by brands and companies.

But it's important to delve a bit deeper before trusting just anyone's opinion on social media. Even if they have 100K folllowers. 

For example, the founder of Travel Noire, Zim Ugochukwu has a following of over 41K on Instagram. Interaction on her posts, followers commenting and liking, is very active. This usually indicates an organic follower build-up. Unless you drill down and find that these followers are, in fact, paid-for bots. Not the case with Zim. 

But many influencers buy their following, which means they are hired by brands to review products and experienced based on their massive numbers, which are actually all bots and fakes. Paid-for bots who don't interact, but only exist as an empty follower. Marketing Profs notes that for a certain price you can buy a certain amount of followers. And when it comes to whose opinion, review or recommendation we should trust or not trust, we need to consider the integrity of the influencer or Instagram business we are following. Many blindly follow those with big Insta numbers, but looking at the actual accounts following these influencers might tell another story. 

Bots might have one or two posts (usually pretty generic content), tiny followings, but follow many accounts. Be wary of these bots and the influencers paying for their likes and follows. 

Earlier this year The New York Times reported that a new wave of "legitimate looking" accounts are swooping Instagram and Twitter, particularly. Where bots use personal info like bios and pics from actual people to make these fake accounts look authentic.

Luckily, more and more developments in detection software is on the rise, like Dovetale which uses "50 metrics to analyze the Instagram followers of popular accounts, including the language in the bios, the rate at which they hit “like” and “follow,” and their country of origin. (An influencer with a high number of followers from Turkey, Brazil and China, for instance, can raise red flags for Dovetale, which has frequently seen fake followers come from those countries.)" to curb fake accounts; hence protecting consumers from reviewers with zero integrity.

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