When Roman Abramovich, a Russian billionaire and owner of the English Premier League's Chelsea Football Club, appeared to have posted a Google review complaining that a Manitoba moving company lost three of his watches, Chris Pereira knew something was wrong.
The oligarch had never been a customer at Riverbend Moving and Storage, a small business that offers residential and commercial moving services in Winnipeg. The review was fake, and fit a pattern that Pereira, the company's vice president of sales, had been observing for months — a slew of made-up complaints targeting the company's online reputation.
The incident is just one example of a widespread problem that's plaguing Google's popular star-rating system — a growing black market in which some companies pay for fake positive reviews, while others are seemingly being extorted by web firms who post negative comments then propose their "review-fixing" services to get them taken down.
Using data gathering and analysis techniques, a CBC News investigation has catalogued just a portion of one fake review network: 1,279 businesses across North America connected by 208 fake accounts that posted 3,574 fake reviews.
To the average consumer scrolling through Google reviews for a local business, those accounts and postings would appear normal. The profiles have pictures and often have 15 or more reviews. But a closer look reveals that the faces in the photos are often poached from other parts of the internet, and the content they post follows a suspiciously set pattern.
For instance, two apparently unrelated Google reviewers patronized the same pizza restaurant in Toronto, tutoring club in Delaware, counselling centre in Michigan, as well as outlets of the same national lawn care and home security firms in far flung parts of the United States.
And while it's possible that two people could have coincidentally left five-star reviews for the same businesses scattered around North America, it's implausible that of 71 reviewers for a downtown Toronto pizzeria, 50 would also have used that same lawn care company and 20 bought a wig from a single store in Vaughan, Ont.
"It's just not believable," said Kay Dean, a former fraud investigator with the U.S. department of education who now runs a YouTube channel called Fake Review Watch.
Dean has spent the past three years uncovering these networks, spurred by her own negative experience with a medical practitioner in California who had fake reviews.
"The environment is such that cheating, faking reviews is actually rewarded and honest businesses actually suffer tremendously from it," said Dean. "I would argue millions of consumers are being duped and deceived and honest businesses are being clobbered in the current environment."
Why stars matter
Dean found much of the buying and selling of fake reviews is done by brokers on social media sites. Usually, they peddle posts that boost a business. But, Dean says, there is an even seedier side to the industry: fake negative reviews. The kind of one-star customer complaints that Riverbend Moving and Storage has been receiving on a regular basis.
When those negative reviews first started coming in, Pereira suspected a competitor was behind them. Then he noticed that as soon as they were posted to Riverbend's page, an obscure online marketing firm would get in touch with an offer to remove them — for a fee.
"We'd get 14 [reviews] at midnight on a Saturday, we would get 10 in a row, you know, within an hour on a Wednesday night," he said. Sometimes Pereira felt like the review removal company, which sent him screenshots of newly posted negative reviews, was taunting him, he said.
"It's definitely coordinated," he said.
Before Riverbend's Google My Business page became the victim of this coordinated attack, the company's rating was 4.6 stars out of five, Pereira said.
"Now we're all the way down to 3.6."
That poor review score is the first thing many consumers see. Google My Business is the most popular consumer and business review platform on the planet and, according to Google, 1.5 billion people a month visit a physical place based on what they've searched on the platform. Of those using their smartphone to search for "something nearby," 76 per cent visit a business within a day.
Joe Toscano knows how devastating a low review score can be. He worked for Google as a design consultant. Part of his work involved Google My Business.
"If you're a 4.6 out of five versus a 3.6 out of five, that's a dramatic difference," he said. "if you're rated lower on your star rating then you're going to rank lower on the search engine as well."
A lower review score means a lower ranking on the search engine, which means far fewer people will see Riverbend's listing as a result.
"If they're pushed off the first page, say goodbye, [you'll] never see that company" Toscano said.
Periera says Riverbend has felt the impact of the reduced score on its bottom line.
"We still have all of our major contracts," he said. "They're unaffected by the reviews because they know what our service is. But for new customers it's hard for them to trust somebody who has all these terrible reviews against them."
The fake review economy
ReviewSolved is the name of the firm that reached out to Riverbend after their Google reviews page was flooded by negative posts.
In emails shared with CBC News, ReviewSolved sent Pereira a screenshot of a recently posted one star review, and then asked for payment to remove it.
ReviewSolved has two websites, both registered under the same name, Venkatesh Pujari of a company called FirstRank Limited.
Incorporation documents from the U.K. show Pujari is an Indian national and FirstRank's corporate headquarters is a London mail-forwarding firm. And while email signatures from ReviewSolved employees in Canada provide a Toronto phone number, calls to that line are immediately forwarded to the voicemail box of a woman with a British accent.
CBC News spoke with a realtor in the U.K. who had been a client of ReviewSolved. She said she paid them 800 pounds — almost $1370 Cdn — to fix her negative review problem.
When contacted, Pujari initially agreed to answer questions about his company. However, when asked whether his company made money by posting negative reviews and then offering to remove them, he did not respond.
Google told CBC News that there are just two ways to delete a My Business review. The tech giant can do it — or the account holder who posted it.
None of this is illegal. Many companies selling fake reviews do so openly on social media platforms like Facebook. One such group found by CBC News is called, simply, Buy Google Reviews, and advertises packages starting from $5.
As part of her research, Dean says, she has joined 60 of those Facebook groups, where people are openly buying and selling fake reviews.
In one of her Youtube videos, Dean tracks the social media activity of a specific review broker who appears to use their own personal Facebook account to post solicitations. She shows how the broker provides the full text of a fake review, indicating where it should be posted. They also state the fee that is to be paid upon completion: 70 Bangladeshi Taka in this case, equivalent to one Canadian dollar.
The video goes on to show that same review was then posted word for word on the Google My Business page for a pain clinic in California.
"What I've uncovered in this whole review world is that the businesses often provide the text of the fake reviews that they want," Dean said. There's no way someone posting a fake review would know employee names or other business specifics without being provided with them, she said.
Dean believes that the fake review industry is able to exist because technology companies like Google aren't interested in solving the problem.
"So that's been my focus, to try to shine a light also on big tech's culpability in this entire mess," she said, "because it's affecting consumers and honest businesses."
'We need more humans involved'
Toscano says he left Silicon Valley because of Big Tech's ethical shortcomings. He has since co-founded the Better Ethics and Consumer Outcomes Network which works to make companies like Google more accountable.
He says that trying to monitor the torrent of data that reviewers around the world are supplying to Google is "like trying to put a lasso around all the stars in the galaxy."
"They want to tell us that they are going to make an algorithm that is going to deal with it, and the reality is the algorithms aren't ready for it. We need more humans involved."
"They need to hire staff, a lot more staff to deal with this and have call centres and have access points to dispute these things, and they just don't," he said, "and they have no financial incentive to do it."
Google has many guidelines, including sections on offensive language, impersonation and fake content. For example, they specifically say that a review "should reflect your genuine experience at the location and should not be posted just to manipulate a place's ratings."
But getting the company to enforce those rules can be a frustrating experience. Pereira became so fed up with Google's automated responses and lack of follow up that he took it upon himself to expose some shortcomings in the process, writing a fake review for his own business and then complaining about it to Google.
"I created a fake account, wrote a bad review on [Riverbend], flagged it as a bad, fake review, and Google didn't contact this account, didn't look into it whatsoever," he said.
Ten months later, Pereira still hadn't received any feedback regarding his own fake review.
"I mean, all of these are coming from fake accounts, there's no doubt about it. You shouldn't be allowed to post reviews, negative or positive, from fake accounts."
'Google has to see it'
Google receives a lot of complaints about user-generated reviews. According to a February blog post, the company "blocked or removed" 56 million policy-violating reviews and nearly three million fake business profiles in 2020 alone.
"One of the best tools we have to fight back is an understanding of what normal, authentic Google Maps usage looks like," the company wrote.
Google claims their algorithms "can detect if a new Google Maps account in say, Bangkok, suddenly leaves bad car dealership reviews in Mexico City and one-star restaurant ratings in Chicago. The policy-violating content is either removed by our automated models or flagged for further review, along with the user account."
While Google declined an interview request from CBC News on the topic, they did provide more information in an email response to questions.
"Our systems check every single review before it gets published to Google Maps, looking for signs of inauthentic content," they said. "Our machine learning models watch out for specific words and phrases, examine patterns in the types of content an account has contributed in the past, and can detect suspicious review patterns."
When CBC News mapped out the network of more than 200 fake accounts, it looked specifically for those that had posted across a large geographical area and had a suspicious pattern of overlap with other profiles. Two months later, twenty of those accounts have since been removed, but the vast majority remain active.
"Google has to see it," Kay Dean said of the fake review networks she has uncovered on her own.
"I'm not a tech person, I don't use automation, and if I can identify glaring fraudulent review patterns and extensive networks, certainly these tech companies can too," she said.
Regarding their automated systems, Google said "we know they're not perfect as inauthentic reviews can slip through from time to time."
When CBC News asked Google about Riverbend's complaints, including Pereira's own fake review, it was finally removed — along with 32 other one-star reviews. And as a result, the company's star rating went up from 3.6 to 4.1 overnight.
"Why was there a huge removal of fake reviews now? After a year and a half of us pleading, and them saying 'nope,' every single time," Pereira asked.
"Why does it have to come to this, for it to get removed?"
Toscano thinks online reviews are valuable, but that platforms like Google My Business need to be much more tightly controlled.
"I think part of it is we need to be enforcing the same laws that we would enforce in the physical world in the digital world," Toscano said.
Posting fake reviews "should be illegal, right?" he mused. "You're artificially inflating the value of your service offerings, your business, whatever, and in doing so you are damaging competitors who are not able to pay those fees or don't care to pay those fees.
"It's a hack in the system, It's cheating, and in my opinion it should be enforced by law."
There is no evidence that Google is planning to turn away from algorithm-based content moderation, or make the kind of massive human investments that Toscano and others are calling for. And in the absence of any imminent enforcement legislation, businesses that rely on genuine reviews remain at the mercy of Google and other review platforms to separate the true and the fake.
It all makes Pereira despair.
"We're just one company, there's tons of other people that are getting affected by this," he said. "The small business owners and everybody, we're screaming at nothing. We need to be heard and no one's listening to us."
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