Facebook, Google and Trustpilot can be easily infiltrated with fake reviews as unscrupulous brokers selling them for as little as £4 successfully exploit weaknesses in their systems, a Which? investigation suggests.
The consumer champion’s latest investigation involved setting up a fake business and approaching brokers to boost its pages on the three platforms using bogus five-star reviews – which revealed a sprawling network of fake reviewers on Facebook.
After easily finding a series of ‘fake review brokers’ through Google, Which? signed up to one called Xealme, which can create reviews for all three platforms. Business is clearly booming – this single broker claimed to have created nearly 16,000 reviews for a total of 570 customers, and offers its service in nearly every country in the world.
On Facebook, in just five days, Which? had amassed 19 five-star reviews from fake profiles for its made-up business ‘Gold Lion Labs’ – which claimed to offer PCR testing services. Reviews were added quickly – 11 went up in one day.
When Which? looked into the profiles of the reviewers, it found that they had all reviewed a selection of the same businesses on Facebook. In total, experts linked 168 that had been reviewed by the same 19 profiles as the fake page.
However, expanding this to include the friends of the reviewers, Which? found hundreds more pages with many reviewers in common – reviewing businesses including a mobile mechanic in west London, which had more than 600 reviews and just three negative ones, a bed shop near Leeds and a wheel repair service in Texas.
Initially Facebook removed just 18 of the 29 fake reviewer profiles Which? shared with it, and Which?’s fake business remains live on the platform at the time of writing. Facebook finally removed all 29 profiles after pressure from Which?, more than a month after the findings were first reported. The vast majority of the business pages the consumer champion shared remain live and continue to have at least a four-star rating.
Which? used the same fake review broker to amass reviews on Trustpilot. The broker told Which? that Trustpilot does not like people buying reviews for the platform, but that ‘millions of businesses still do’.
Reviews were added more slowly on Trustpilot, but within three weeks the fake business had gathered 19 five-star reviews and a 4.6 TrustScore – which is based on the average of reviews, but includes other factors such as age and number of reviews. Gold Lion Labs’ TrustScore was significantly higher than the health consultant business category average of 3.6 stars.
A review – suggested to the broker by Which? – that was written in French, and translated to ‘This is a fake company and fake reviews. Five stars!!!’, had been added twice, by two separate reviewers, within two days of each other.
Which? found that one of its fake reviewers had also given five stars to a business that had a Trustpilot flag on it for misleading behaviour. The business still had a 4.9 star TrustScore, based on 974 reviews, and 91 per cent of the five-star ratings had been left by first-time reviewers – those who had not reviewed any other businesses before or since. It is a suspicious pattern, and one which Trustpilot appears to be aware of. It begs the question why this business page is still live at the time of writing and has a TrustScore of 4.3 – although Trustpilot has now added a more severe ‘red warning’ to the page.
When it came to Google, within a week, Xealme had added 19 reviews to the Google business page for Gold Lion Labs.
Four reviewers had also reviewed a tennis racket shop in Surrey, while two others had previously only reviewed companies that were based in the US.
Which? asked a review broker, called AccFarm, how safe it was to buy reviews for Google, and it said that in eight years none of its clients had experienced any issues. AccFarm says that team members are regularly trained on how to create Google reviews – a professional team of fake reviewers.
From Which?’s investigation alone more than a thousand reviews have been removed by the three online platforms.
Trustpilot said it is considering legal cases against those selling reviews, something which Amazon has already had success with after launching, and winning, a series of legal actions against fake review brokers this year. Google also said it would consider litigation as a tool for holding fraudulent reviews to account. However, legal action alone is not enough and Which? believes all online platforms should be doing more to improve their systems to detect, remove and prevent fake reviews.
Which?’s investigation comes after the government outlined plans for a new Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill to banish fake reviews in the Queen’s Speech earlier this year – which the consumer champion wants introduced to Parliament by the new Prime Minister without delay.
These proposals would lead to the selling or advertising of fake reviews being banned and companies hosting consumer reviews on a service having to check if they are genuine. The reforms would give the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) more powers and allow it to directly fine companies that act badly up to 10 per cent of their global annual turnover and require consumers to be compensated – rather than having to go through lengthy court proceedings first.
Which? believes these important planned reforms to consumer and competition law are vital to ensure that platforms do more to protect their users from fake reviews and help the CMA to tackle poor practices. These new laws must be enacted as soon as possible to protect consumers and ensure they are not misled online.
Rocio Concha, Which? Director of Policy and Advocacy, said:
“Facebook, Google and Trustpilot are failing to do enough to shut out a fake reviews industry that has been thriving and profiting from misleading reviews for years now.
“Facebook in particular has repeatedly been slow to act in tackling fake reviews, showing a complete disregard for consumers who want to read genuine reviews.
“The government has outlined plans for a new Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill that would give the CMA stronger powers to protect consumers from an avalanche of fake reviews. The Bill must be introduced to Parliament by the new Prime Minister without delay.”
Notes to editors
Which?’s investigation was conducted in May and June 2022.
Extra detail from the investigation
Which? used Google image search to track down the real people whose images had been stolen for use on the fake Facebook profiles. One of the real people behind the images – an estate agent from Massachusetts – confirmed that the pictures, including his wife and four young children, had been used without his knowledge. Which? also uncovered profile pictures stolen from a climate change youth activist, as well as a pilot with a following of 230,000 on Instagram and a YouTuber with 2.31 million subscribers.
A client of a London-based solicitors contacted Which? after they had paid more than £1,000 to the firm for help with a work visa. After receiving terrible service, the client left negative reviews on Google and Facebook, and requested a refund. The firm initially offered a goodwill payment of £300, but only if the negative review was removed. Multiple reviewers reported being threatened with the same clause for refunds. Many cited serious personal consequences, including one who said her husband had missed the birth of their baby because the firm took so long to process his visa application. Another claimed to have lost £4,000 dealing with them.
Which? dug deeper and found a string of suspicious activity that suggested the firm had used a review broker to bolster its Google listing, including more than 10 reviewers who had all left five-star reviews for a business in France. There was also suspicious activity on its Facebook listing.
Tips to help consumers spot fake reviews
Reviews on online platforms are often automatically sorted by ‘most helpful’. But helpful votes can be bought and used to move positive reviews up or bury negative ones. It can be more informative to sort reviews by ‘most recent’.
If a business has a high number of five-star reviews, ask yourself how likely it is that so many people would leave glowing reviews or have had faultless service. Fake review brokers deal in five-star reviews, so look at reviews with four stars and below, too.
Check other sources
Some sectors have complaint-handling bodies and publish customer disputes. Try searching the database of concluded investigations, for example through the Ombudsman service for that sector or industry body.
Read the negatives
One negative review might not tell a story, but a pattern might. If customers often complain about a particular element of a business, such as bad customer service or slow response times, then this could be a warning sign.
Check the reviewer
Most sites let you click on a username to see what else the person has reviewed. If they’ve left lots of five-star reviews, reviewed businesses across the world or only ever reviewed that one business, keep looking for more reliable sources.
Rights of reply
A Meta spokesperson said: “We’re investigating the accounts brought to our attention. We have dedicated extensive time and resources to tackling this issue and will continue to do so. Fraudulent and deceptive activity is not allowed on our platforms, including offering or trading fake reviews. Our safety and security teams are continuously working to help prevent these practices.”
A Meta spokesperson later added:
“We’ve requested further authentication from the accounts brought to our attention.”
A Google spokesperson said: “We invest significantly in building technologies and instituting practices that help people find reliable information on Google. Our policies clearly state reviews must be based on real experiences, and when we find policy violations, we take swift action ranging from content removal to account suspension and even litigation.
“We use a combination of human operators and industry-leading technology to closely monitor 24/7 for fraudulent content, and we encourage users and business owners to flag suspicious activity to us, which helps us keep the information on Maps accurate and reliable.
“While a vast majority of our reviews are authentic, our work to stay a step ahead of scammers is never done, and in this case our teams are continuing to investigate, removing content and blocking accounts associated with malicious activity.”
“The issue of fake reviews is constantly evolving, but Trustpilot is continually working to ensure we are taking appropriate action against attempts to manipulate reviews on our site — including where those reviews are written by review sellers.
“In the last 18 months, we have introduced new technology that allows us to understand complex patterns of potential misuse and to track this back to identify review sellers and buyers. This has enabled us to launch legal action against companies that are buying fake reviews, and work with other social media platforms to remove review sellers. Additionally, we now offer an additional option for consumers to verify their identity on Trustpilot. We intend to do even more in these areas in the future.
“Several of the businesses linked to the Which? investigation were already subject to Trustpilot’s enforcement processes before Which? flagged them to us, after fraudulent activity was identified by our fraud detection software. We continue to monitor the businesses’ activity on Trustpilot and will not hesitate to take stronger action where necessary, should they continue to abuse our platform.”
Xealme and AccFarm
Which? reached out to both of these companies for comment but had not heard back by the time of publication.
Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. Our research gets to the heart of consumer issues, our advice is impartial, and our rigorous product tests lead to expert recommendations. We’re the independent consumer voice that influences politicians and lawmakers, investigates, holds businesses to account and makes change happen. As an organisation we’re not for profit and all for making consumers more powerful.
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