Malicious online attacks can be devastating to you and your business—and review platforms like Amazon, Yelp, and Tripadvisor are no exception. Learning how to spot fake reviews and remove them is increasingly essential to protecting your business’s reputation online.
Business owners can follow these six tips to effectively spot fake reviews:
- Consult your business records to see if the reviewer appears to be a real customer;
- Research the user account that published the review;
- Identify if the reviewer’s account username is suspicious;
- Look at the timing of the review;
- Analyze the review’s language; and
- Look for signs that the review was a professional hit job.
At Minc Law, we have proven experience helping countless clients deal with negative and fake reviews from a wide variety of consumer review platforms. Our experience equips us to handle the fake online business reviews that are affecting you or your business—and we know which tactics work, and which do not.
This article discusses the effect fake customer reviews have on businesses. We then provide tools businesses can use to spot fake reviews—both negative and positive—and deal with them before they inflict lasting damage to your online reputation.
The Problem of Fake Online Reviews
It is difficult to discuss the best solutions for identifying and dealing with fake reviews if you do not understand:
- Why they happen in the first place;
- The legal protections in place for platforms that incentivize this behavior; and
- How easily fake reviews can cause significant damage to you or your business.
Fake reviews can be posted for several purposes. An unscrupulous business owner who wants to improve their company’s reputation might create positive reviews about their own business under several fake usernames.
Or, they may create several fake negative reviews about their competitor(s)–or pay a third party to create these fake reviews for them.
Other times, fake reviews are posted by individuals who have separate agendas besides boosting their business’s competitive advantage. Perhaps a disgruntled employee or malicious individual with a personal grudge against the business owner takes revenge by writing several fake one-star reviews designed to lower the business’s average rating.
There are several scenarios in which an individual or group may decide to create fake negative or positive reviews about a business. In the end, fake reviews are published to manipulate the online reputation of a business or entity, either for good or for bad.
How Do Review Platform Policies Allow Fake Online Reviews to Occur & Spread With Ease?
On review platforms, the ability to use anonymous aliases and usernames instead of people’s real names is one of the biggest reasons fake reviews are so prevalent.
Most major online platforms allow reviewers to create their accounts through whatever fictitious usernames they desire, including “John Doe,” “Self-Verified Patient,” “A Google User,” or even “Anonymous.”
Some review websites require users to enter some personal information (name, address, phone number, etc.) when creating their account. But even in those circumstances, generally, only email addresses are verified.
Other than rules that allow only a single email address per account registration on a platform or spot checks by platforms showing the same IP address suspiciously logging into multiple user accounts, there are generally no other formal mechanisms that prevent a single user from creating multiple accounts on the same platform.
Given this relatively simple registration process, a single person can easily cause havoc by creating dozens of fake user accounts in a matter of minutes. They can then use these accounts to publish dozens of fake online reviews under different usernames creating the appearance of many irate customers, without any ‘gatekeeper’ to stop such abuse before the reviews are published live on the web.
Minc Law Fake Review Tip: Many review platforms only require an email address to register an account—and malicious users can create an email for the sole purpose of registering an account. If you or your business are the targets of fake anonymous reviews, we recommend reading our comprehensive blog post 22 Free Tools & Tips to Identify an Anonymous Online Defamer.
Robust Legal Protections Make Online Review Platforms Less Likely to Take Down Fake Online Reviews
It is not that there is no platform or gatekeeper capable of adding layers of much-needed protection for businesses on review websites. Rather, it is that the only capable gatekeeper is not very interested in performing that role.
For example, many review websites refuse to engage in basic quality checks of content that is published by their users. In our experience, only an extreme minority of websites will delay publication after a review is uploaded to ensure compliance with their Terms of Service. Normally, the moment a reviewer uploads a review to the website, it goes live on the internet for all to see. Although platforms maintain full editorial control over what appears live, most are not very receptive to requests that they exercise that control to remove suspicious reviews because of the cost burdens to do so.
This trend is also prevalent when reviews are reported and reviewed for abuse. Reporting fields for reasons to report abuse are narrow and fixed. Further, even when it is possible to submit more custom explanations and evidence that should raise red flags and/or establish a clear case of abuse, it can be extremely difficult to convince platforms like Google, Yelp, or any other consumer review website to remove reviews published by a third-party user.
Many platforms also take aggressive and principled legal stances against releasing information regarding the identity of the culprit(s) voluntarily, unless they are forced to do so. Generally, unless legal action is pursued, you will not be provided with any clues to the identity of the culprit–which is often necessary to your case–beyond the publicly viewable user account information.
Can You Sue a Review Platform For Fake Online Reviews?
It is an understandable initial reaction to a negative review to wish to sue the review website directly—but that instinct is wrong. Consumer review websites are generally protected under The Communications Decency Act (CDA), a federally enacted Internet law. Protected websites include:
- Google Reviews,
But for a few very narrow exceptions, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides these consumer review websites with an absolute shield of immunity.
Video: What is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act?
The bottom line is that the website is not likely to play ‘referee’ on any review which claims to reflect an actual marketplace interaction because of the robust legal protections afforded to them under Section 230. Instead, the website will direct you to take up the matter in court with the user directly.
The law is supposed to encourage companies to remove harmful and fake content; however, it actually appears to have the opposite effect. Companies do respond to the most egregious violations of decency and abuse, but when it comes to everything else, they do not make any effort–since they are not incentivized to do so (or penalized for doing nothing.
The end result is that these platforms default to leaving defamatory and fake reviews alone, prioritizing higher content and site engagement over protecting victims and targets.
Online Review Websites Are Bombarded With Removal Requests
To be fair, it is important to keep in mind that online review websites are routinely bombarded with removal requests and the flagging of reviews for abuse. Actively and effectively policing platforms does require a significant investment in manpower. However, since there is virtually no exposure to legal liability for not engaging in better quality controls when it comes to defamatory reviews and content, platforms often view these safeguards as not worth the effort or expense.
Typically, a court order to remove content–directed at the user who published the review–is required for an online review website to take your removal request seriously. But even with such a court order, the website is not required to facilitate the removal itself due to the protections it is afforded by the Communications Decency Act.
To alleviate removal request overload, many online platforms have implemented artificial intelligence and other spam-detecting technologies to better identify and filter abusive content. For example, Facebook transitioned from relying on contract workers to machine learning to spot fake accounts, spam, and abusive content. This led to 99.7% of fake accounts and spam being blocked and/or removed before flagging for human review.
Are Fake Reviews Illegal?
Fake positive reviews are certainly illegal, according to Section 5 of the FTC Act 15 U.S. Code § 45. This statute classifies falsified promotional reviews to be deceptive advertising meant to mislead a customer into purchasing a product.
On the other hand, fake negative reviews are usually not illegal, but they can be defamatory. Generally, defamation is a civil matter rather than a criminal one—meaning you can sue those who have spread false statements about you. In some states or situations, defamation, also commonly referred to as defamation of character, can be considered a crime as well. Although it is very uncommon.
For further reading explaining if libel is a crime, make sure to check out our article by attorney Andrew Stebbins explaining criminal defamation laws.
How do Easily-Manipulated Rating Scales for Online Reviews Help Incentivize Fake Reviews?
Most online review websites and platforms base their ratings on a one- to five-star rating scale. A one-star rating is usually the lowest possible rating, while five stars is the highest.
Businesses seek out an unblemished five-star rating, or as close to it as possible because even a slight change in star ratings can have a significant impact on profits.
In fact, according to a 2012 study conducted by two prominent U.C. Berkeley professors and economists, “an extra half-star rating (on Yelp) causes restaurants to sell out… 49% more frequently.”
The 2012 study also found that a mere 0.02-point drop in a Yelp average star rating can have a potentially catastrophic effect on a business. Consider two hypothetical restaurants, one with a 3.76-star rating and one with a 3.74-star rating on Yelp. The review platform automatically rounds the 3.76-star rating up to 4 stars, while the 3.74-star rating is rounded down to 3.5 stars.
One tactic we have seen competitors use to negatively impact a business is creating fake reviews to lower its average star rating. They know if an average star rating is low enough, most consumers will not even bother to read the actual reviews or conduct any other research. Potential customers will simply move on and shop elsewhere.
The power of fake reviews to damage a business’s bottom line (combined with the lack of consequences for creating a fake review) makes the weaponization of these platforms far too easy. Review platforms are now a prime target for those who wish to scam businesses or wreak as much havoc as possible through fake reviews.
How to Spot Fake Reviews
Businesses and professionals who pay careful attention to their online presence often have a very good sense of reviews that are and are not true. If there is any cause for concern in either form, substance, or timing of the review, there likely is legitimate cause for suspicion.
When it comes to spotting fake online reviews, there is no clear blueprint or roadmap to definitively identify them; they come in various forms and patterns. The best advice is to trust your gut.
In our experience, the top overall tell is generally that the review does not look or feel right. Regardless of if the review is positive or negative, a suspicious review does not sound like a genuine customer interaction.
Below, we provide a few tips for identifying both negative and positive reviews.
1. Consult Your Business Records
Maintaining detailed business and administrative records is not only useful for compliance with internal and external regulations. When you discover a suspicious online review, use your customer database, transaction history, and complaint files for verification.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Does the username match or closely resemble the name of any legitimate customer?
- Did any transaction close to the one the reviewer describes actually happen?
- Does the negative experience relayed in the review reflect that of any customer complaint you have on file?
If not, the review may very well be fake.
2. Research the User Account From Which the Review Was Published
To discern as much information as possible, click on the user account’s profile. From there, you are generally able to see how many contributions that user has made to the platform.
Keep an eye out for the following red flags:
- Accounts that were created on the same day as the review; and/or
- Accounts that have minimal or no activity outside of the review of your business.
While it does not mean the review is definitively fake, the posting of a single, negative review from a newly created account is certainly a common modus operandi (M.O.) employed by those who weaponize online reviews.
3. Identify Suspicious Account Usernames
One tactic fake reviewers use is to anonymize the name of the alleged customer in a repeatable way, such as “Mike P.” or “Danny F.”
Or a fake reviewer may post under a sarcastic username or moniker. For example, the designation of usernames such as “Jack Kanoff,” “Ben Dover,” “Seymore Butts,” and other names with a comical play on words seems to be a temptation fake online reviewers have trouble resisting.
Sarcastic and questionable usernames may also be accompanied by a “humorous image” or stock photo. Conducting a reverse image search on Google is an effective way to identify the source from where a profile’s picture or avatar was copied.
To conduct a reverse image search on Google:
- Upload a picture to Google Images,
- Drag and drop a picture in Google Images, or
- Search Google Images with a URL.
4. Look at the Timing of the Reviews
If your business has a fairly steady five-star rating and suddenly starts receiving a spat of one-star reviews, that sudden change may be cause for concern. If a negative review is published in any regular interval (daily, weekly, monthly, etc.), that development would also be worthy of suspicion.
And if the reviews are published during the hours of the day when the bulk of your customers would normally be sleeping, such timing should give you some serious misgivings.
5. Analyze the Language of the Reviews
Next, check the wording of the review for signs of inauthenticity. Fake negative online reviews tend to:
- Inaccurately describe your services or products (other than general statements of dissatisfaction);
- Directly or indirectly promote a competitor;
- Contain inflammatory rhetoric; and/or
- Use improper grammar.
If the review is positive, identifying a fake one is done by viewing it from the opposite perspective. The goal of a fake positive review is to talk up the brand and convince readers to buy from that company, regardless of reality.
In the case of a positive review, the business likely hired a professional to give a glowing review of an alleged customer experience. Look for telltale signs of a professional poster, such as:
- Did the user post multiple positive reviews in a short period of time for similar products or the same company?
- Is the language exceptionally humorous or sarcastic?
- Is it a well-written, entertaining read?
If so, the review may not be an honest one from a legitimate customer.
6. Professional Review Hit Jobs
In a small number of cases that our firm has handled, we have discovered that some fake online reviews are attacks perpetrated by a professional review “hitman” or agencies, hired by a competitor.
These hit jobs are often outsourced to people and agencies outside of the United States. One obvious indicator of a review hit job is that the reviews are often vague and may be written in broken English with grammatical errors that are not merely typos.
We have even had cases where we discovered shady Facebook groups or groups on other social networks that act as “review exchanges.” Members of these groups (many of whom are presumably unethical online reputation management professionals) agree to post positive reviews for each other’s clients. They also sometimes agree to post negative reviews for clients’ competitors.
How to Spot Fake Reviews Using Online Tools
There are a few tools available on the market that let users copy and paste a product page’s URL into their platform. Then, these tools use an algorithm to grade the reliability of information and reviews on that page. We list a few of the most popular tools below.
*We at Minc Law have not tried or reviewed any of the below services. The following should not be viewed as an endorsement. However, based on our research we have found the below online tools to be some of the most popular for spotting online reviews.*
Fakespot is one of the most popular review analyzers on the market. It lets users test the reliability of product pages on sites like Amazon, eBay, Shopify, and Walmart. The tool is available as a Chrome extension, a mobile app, and a desktop webpage.
TheReviewIndex comes in Chrome and Firefox extensions. It is a simple tool that runs a spam test on a product page URL for potentially fake reviews, giving a Pass or Fail grade as a result.
ReviewMeta is an analyzer that filters out reviews on an Amazon product page that it views as unreliable or suspicious. Users can adjust the tool’s grading algorithm to their liking.
ReviewMeta also aggregates its own star rating for an Amazon product based on the remaining unfiltered reviews.
What Can & Should Be Done About Fake Online Reviews?
Once you have identified a review as fake, or have legitimate suspicion that it is fake, knowing how to remove it is crucial. Again, the website is not likely to help. The best practice, whether from a legal or business perspective, is always to act quickly.
What Are Your Options When Dealing With Fake Online Reviews?
Handling an onslaught of false reviews takes immediate action, preservation of evidence, and determination. Use the following strategies to deal with fake customer reviews:
- Preserve the evidence,
- Flag and report the review,
- Unmask the anonymous reviewer,
- Search and monitor similar online platforms, and
- Document evidence of any damages caused by the defamation.
We delve further into each strategy below.
Preserve, Preserve, Preserve
Always preserve the review in question as an initial step. While more sophisticated preservation software is available, taking a screenshot or using a snipping tool (or even CTRL+PrtScr) are free and effective ways to preserve vital evidence you may need down the road.
We recommend preserving the following evidence:
- The review itself;
- The URL where the review is located;
- Any user account or profile page;
- Where the review or review page appears in your internet search results; and
- Your current average star- or point-rating with the review.
Fake negative reviews can be extremely damaging to your business. Litigation may be necessary to identify the anonymous reviewer, stop future inauthentic reviews by that individual, and compensate you for your losses. In that circumstance, contacting an experienced Internet defamation removal attorney is essential.
At Minc Law, we utilize professional preservation software tools—such as Page Vault and Visualping—to document online defamation and malicious internet attacks. Both Page Vault and Visualping ensure a proper evidentiary foundation and establish a “chain of custody.”
These steps are critical in the digital age where any named defendant can simply delete the review and spoil the evidence.
Flag & Report the Review
If you suspect a review is fake (whether negative or positive), it is recommended that you flag and report it to the platform where it was published. Think of flagging a review as a nudge to the platform that something is amiss.
For example, to flag fake Google reviews, simply:
- Navigate to your Google My Business page or search your business in Google Maps;
- Locate the questionable Google review;
- Click the gray flag or three dots to the right of the review;
- Classify its violation type (advertising, spam, hateful, inappropriate, off-topic, conflict of interest);
- Provide your email address; and
Do not simply flag a review because you disagree with its content. In the case of a negative review, this action can aggravate the situation if you turn out to be dealing with a legitimately dissatisfied customer. Instead, try to approach that customer directly to resolve the issue or concern.
While flagging a suspicious review is a fairly easy process, it is usually ineffective, especially in the case of a fake review.
Some platforms offer an option to escalate a dispute if your report is initially rejected. But when escalating a report of abuse or other violation of the Terms of Service, it is important that you carefully and properly present your argument. You usually only have one shot at this process, and once a decision is made, it is final.
At Minc Law, we strongly recommend against going at this process alone. An experienced internet defamation attorney can help you properly explain:
- What evidence supports the suspicion that the review in question is fake; and/or
- How it violates the platform’s policies and review guidelines.
But if all non-litigation efforts are rejected, it is time to consider a lawsuit against the author of the review.
Unmask & Identify the Anonymous Reviewer
If the fake consumer reviews in question are highly damaging or ongoing, you may need to unmask (identify) and sue the anonymous poster responsible. Filing a John Doe lawsuit is normally an available option when a reviewer’s identity is unknown. John Doe lawsuits enable you to file your lawsuit against an unnamed defendant and then unmask the reviewer’s identity through the discovery process.
Many complex legal considerations attach to John Doe lawsuits, such as the best jurisdiction in which to file the lawsuit for both the discovery process and ultimate relief. We strongly recommend reaching out to an experienced Internet attorney to assist with this type of consumer review removal.
Search & Monitor Similar Online Platforms
Just because you have found and successfully identified a fake review on one website, it does not mean you should conclude your investigation. Look for similarly suspicious activity on other platforms.
Make sure to conduct a thorough Google search of your or your business’s name. Go several pages back in the search results using specific keywords that may be used in a suspicious negative review. Several common specific keywords to include in your search are “scam,” “cheater,” “fraud,” “ripoff,” and “liar.”
We also recommend setting up a free Google Alerts account to monitor your online presence. For example, Google Alerts enables you to “create alerts” and receive notifications anytime you, your business, or inputted keywords are mentioned anywhere in Google Search. Or you may want to consider engaging with a more sophisticated internet monitoring service, such as Minc Law’s digital risk protection service.
Document Evidence of Damages
A key element to any defamation claim is proving that you, the plaintiff, suffered damages as a result of the false statement(s) in question.
To succeed in your defamation claim, it is critical that you document all evidence of the damages incurred by you or your business. If you cannot prove that you were harmed by the false review(s), then your available remedies in a court of law will be quite limited. Sometimes those remedies may be outright precluded.
If you are a healthcare professional or own a medical practice that is the target of negative or fake online reviews, there are special regulations and standards, such as HIPAA, that make it difficult to respond in an effecive matter. It is our recommendation to never respond to medical reviews online, due to the many client information protection violations that could be breached in doing so. In the below video, attorney & founder Aaron Minc walks you through best practices for how to respond to medical online reviews, including factors you should consider before filing lawsuit over the review.
Video: How Medical Professionals Can Remove & Respond to Negative Patient Reviews
How Does the Law Protect Against Fake Online Reviews?
As mentioned above, misleading fake positive reviews are illegal under Section 5 of the FTC Act 15 U.S. Code § 45. If a false and misleading testimonial is discovered by a federal agency, state attorney general, or platform, the perpetrator may be subject to up to a $10,000 fine.
If you were misled into making a purchase due to rampant false positive reviews, or believe a competitor is engaging in these actions, you may be able to sue the company on your own or enlist the help of a class action attorney to help build a strong case against the perpetrator.
And as for fake negative reviews posted about your business, you may have the option to file a defamation lawsuit against them. To sue for a bad review, you will need to prove that a legal wrong has occurred by demonstrating that the review:
- Was not based on an actual experience of a customer,
- Expressed matters of verifiable fact (not opinion),
- Was published and can be viewed by the public,
- Is “of and concerning” your business—and a reasonable person would understand that the false review is about your business, and
- Caused your business to suffer damages due to the defamation.
Minc Law Defamation Tip: Suing is not necessarily your only remedy if you find yourself being attacked by false and damaging statements online. Defamation cease and desist letters are often a popular alternative to a defamation lawsuit (when you know the reviewer’s identity). Such a letter would firmly ask the reviewer to remove the negative review and cease any further conduct regarding your business.
How Platforms Are Fighting Back Against Fake Online Reviews
If the fake review is made on a large platform like Amazon, eBay, or others like it, you should generally try reporting the review. Amazon and Yelp both have a history of suing companies and reviewers for posting fake positive reviews.
Understandably, a large number of fake reviews are detrimental to businesses like Amazon and Yelp, whose consumers trust reviews to make purchase decisions. It is in the platforms’ best interests to crack down on fake reviews.
How to Hire an Attorney to Help You With Fake Online Reviews
If you find yourself in need of legal help in dealing with false reviews online, it is critical to hire an attorney who specializes in internet defamation. Just as you would not want to hire a plumber to fix your electrical outage, you should not hire a family law attorney to handle your online defamation case.
It is generally possible to find the right attorney for your case using one of several methods, such as:
- Consulting your local legal aid society,
- Checking with your local bar association,
- Asking friends, family, and colleagues for referrals, and
- Looking on online databases such as Avvo, Martindale-Hubbell, and Lawyers.com.
If you are considering hiring a defamation attorney, we recommend using our 33 step checklist to enable you to ask the right questions and choose an attorney and/or law firm that is right for your internet issue.
At What Point Should a Lawyer Assist You with Your Fake Online Review Difficulties?
If you see more than one suspected fake review in the same 90-day period, there is a high likelihood that the negative reviews will keep happening.
You may want to seek legal help with your online review issue immediately if you are unable to have the review(s) removed through self-help methods.
How Minc Law Can Help You With Fake Online Reviews
Being the target of negative fake reviews can be devastating to your business. When such attacks happen, they often feel out-of-the-blue—and it can be difficult to know how to react.
“Minc Law did an outstanding job on our case, particularly Daniel and his team. They guided us through the entire process of unveiling the individual who was defaming our business online, and then all the way through to getting a satisfactory settlement. They always returned calls and offered sound advice for whatever came up during our case. If I ever need these types of services again, I will definitely go to them first.”
-Jason Moore, May 12, 2021
At Minc Law, dealing with defamatory attacks online is at the heart of what we do. Our law firm has helped thousands of clients remove over 50,000 pieces of content, and we can help you, too.
To learn more about your options for handling fake online reviews that are affecting your business, contact us for a consultation by calling (216) 373-7706, speaking with a Chat Representative, or filling out our online contact form.