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Fake reviews on Facebook boosting ‘unscrupulous businesses’

Written by: Emma Lunn
An investigation by Which? found that dodgy firms are using fake review factories to boost their company pages on Facebook.

Which? set up a fake business page on Facebook before contacting a number of websites offering fake review services. These sites offer packages of five-star recommendations and page likes for as little as £6.50.

Which? says its latest findings are further evidence that the government needs to step in with new laws which force online platforms take greater responsibility for preventing and removing harmful content on their sites.

Which? researchers set up a ‘Patricia’s Paintings’ page on Facebook, purportedly for a business selling personalised bespoke paintings and house painting services. Within a few weeks it had successfully purchased 93 fake reviews and 500 page likes from multiple online platform review sellers.

The seven companies that offered fake review services were easily found through Google by searching terms such as ‘buy Facebook Business recommendations’.

App Sally, Famous Follower, Fast Face Likes, Gold Star Marketing, Online Boost Up, Red Social and Woorke all agreed to artificially boost the company page in return for money.

Review packages Which? bought included 10 recommendations from Gold Star Marketing for £99, a collection of 500 page likes and 10 recommendations from Fast Face Likes for £16, and 10 positive reviews from Famous Follower for £6.50.

The phoney recommendations ranged from top-notch reports of Patricia’s Paintings’ ‘efficient team’ who arrived promptly and did the work ‘very fast’, to another reviewer who said their walls are ‘very old’ but after Patricia’s Paintings got to work, it made them ‘look new.’

Others posted emojis like hearts or thumbs up on Patricia’s Paintings’ fake business page. Most reviews were made up by the sites themselves, but others asked Which? to draft its own false praise.

The sites also told Patricia’s Paintings how easily they avoided their activities being detected by Facebook. Red Social said it had worked on thousands of Facebook recommendation campaigns and Goldstar Marketing said it had received 10,000 orders from ‘small and large’ business owners worldwide for its review packages.

Some of the sites outlined the methods they use to avoid being caught out by Facebook. AppSally promised to ‘drip feed’ the recommendations Which? purchased when it came to publishing because it would ‘help avoid getting [the reviews] removed by Facebook’ for suspicious activity.

Others wanted the activity to remain strictly under the radar. Online Boost Up sent Which? PayPal instructions to pay for the reviews, emphasising it must not mention the company’s name when sending the money. It also made an attempt to charge Which? more than was originally quoted.

Which? also analysed the profiles of some of those leaving fake reviews on Patricia’s Paintings and found suspicious activity that suggested they were also providing fake glowing reviews to other businesses.

Two reviewers had followed and liked businesses across the globe within the past 18 months despite the travel restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. One had reviewed businesses in the US, Canada, UK, Romania, Qatar and Australia.

The majority (76%) of the profiles reviewing Which?’s fake business were male. Almost all (97%) were from Bangladesh, 2.2% were from the US, and 0.2% from both Portugal and Oman respectively.

Which? also found the profile and cover photos of five of the six profiles it looked at more closely were stock images or taken from other sources, such as newspaper articles, suggesting that the profiles were fake.

All of the tactics identified in Which?’s investigation are strictly against Facebook’s community guidelines. The consumer champion says it is clear that the online platform needs to take strong action to tackle this issue.

As part of its #JustNotBuyingIt campaign, Which? is calling for the government to give regulators and other bodies the powers they need to make online platforms take greater responsibility for tackling harmful content on their sites.

Rocio Concha, Which? director of policy and advocacy, said: “Our investigations continue to expose how easy it is for the fake reviews industry to infiltrate online platforms like Facebook and avoid detection, despite the incredibly sophisticated technology these companies have at their disposal.

“This is increasingly worrying as people continue to rely on these sites to find local businesses and it raises big questions about whether consumers can trust the reviews they see online.

“The CMA should strongly consider whether Facebook should be brought into scope of its investigation into websites that host fake or misleading reviews. However, Which?’s #JustNotBuyingIt campaign is also demanding that strong new laws are introduced by the government to force tech giants to protect people online.”

A study by Which? in May 2020 found that made-up endorsements make consumers more than twice as likely to be misled into choosing poor-quality products.

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