A Which? investigation has shown how easy it is for unscrupulous businesses to use fake review factories to boost their company pages on Facebook without detection by the tech giant.
The consumer champion set up a fake business page on Facebook before contacting a number of websites offering fake review services – and was soon inundated with dozens of fake five-star recommendations and hundreds of page likes on the listing having purchased packages that started from as little as £6.50.
Which?’s latest findings are further evidence that the government needs to step in with new laws giving regulators the powers they need to make online platforms take greater responsibility for preventing and removing harmful content on their sites, at a time when the government is consulting on making the writing or hosting of fake reviews illegal.
Which? researchers set up a ‘Patricia’s Paintings’ page on Facebook – purportedly for a business selling personalised bespoke paintings and house painting services – and within just a few weeks 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 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 – which appeared to be located around the world – 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 a total of £16, as well as 10 glowing reviews from Famous Follower for around £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 Which?’s 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 on the Patricia’s Paintings account.
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, and it 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 last 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. One was of a woman called Naama Issachar who was detained over cannabis possession in Moscow in 2019, and another was of a Canadian model called Marooshk who has 1 million followers on Instagram.
An energy provider and call answering services company were followed by five out of the six reviewers, while four followed a business marketing firm, a face mask seller and an allergy test kit seller.
In a Which? survey of 2,000 UK adults, around two fifths (39%) of people said they had used review websites or apps over the previous 12 months to look for local trade businesses. Facebook was the most popular review website or app used – almost half (47%) of consumers had used the online platform for this purpose.
All of the tactics identified in Which?’s investigation are strictly against Facebook’s community guidelines and it is clear that the online platform needs to take strong action to tackle this issue. The Patricia’s Paintings page still remained live on Facebook at the time of writing.
Tech companies are not doing enough to protect people from fake reviews and a range of other consumer harms online.
As part of its #JustNotBuyingIt campaign, Which? is calling for the government to step in with laws giving regulators and other bodies the powers they need to make online platforms take greater responsibility for tackling harmful content on their sites.
Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) research suggests £23 billion a year of consumer spending is influenced by online reviews. To protect people from being misled, Which? is calling on the regulator to look at whether Facebook should be included within the scope of its investigation into websites that host fake or misleading reviews.
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.”
Notes to editors
Consumers can sign up to Which?’s #JustNotBuyingIt campaign at: https://campaigns.which.co.uk/
Opinium, on behalf of Which?, surveyed 2,000 UK adults between 28th May and 1st June 2021 about their use of online reviews sites / apps when looking for local trade services. Data were weighted to be nationally representative of the UK population by gender, age and region.
Which? purchased fake recommendations and page likes for the fake ‘Patricia’s Paintings’ page in May and June 2021.
The CMA has previously investigated Facebook over the trading of fake reviews: CMA intervention leads to further Facebook action on fake reviews
In June 2021, the CMA opened a formal probe into Amazon and Google: CMA to investigate Amazon and Google over fake reviews
Which? heard from one Facebook user who was left frustrated when they were enticed to make a purchase by a company’s 4.9 out of 5 star rating – a business that had been reviewed by one of the fake review profiles in Which?’s investigation.
They bought a mask from the seller based on its top rating, and were let down by its poor quality. The shopper said they would never buy anything from the company again.
The customer told Which? they had purchased around 100 face masks since the coronavirus pandemic began, but this £23 one was the most expensive and the only one they ‘couldn’t wear’ because of how uncomfortable it was.
Rights of reply
A Facebook 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.’
Fast Face Likes said: ‘Your orders were completed and both are ok. Everyone is free to leave a review on a public Facebook page. Our collaborators around the world are free to do this, [but] obviously Facebook doesn’t don’t [sic.] like it because they sell their own likes, followers and reviews via Facebook ads.’
Red Social told Which? it ‘facilitated a customer demand’ that had been created by the inherent issues with Facebook’s review system. ‘Many of our clients had fallen victim to competitors or unreasonable clients flooding their pages with negative reviews, leaving Facebook page owners with no other options but to purchase positive reviews.’ It told Which?: ‘We’ve never accepted orders which requested us to deliver negative reviews to a Facebook page. After considering the room for abuse that this service may create, we’ve made the decision to stop offering Facebook recommendations and have removed the service from our site.’
Red Social also refunded what was spent on the review package Which? purchased from them.
App Sally / Famous Follower / Gold Star Marketing / Online Boost Up / Woorke
Which? contacted these review sites 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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