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Executive Report : Good reviews or fake news?
If someone writes a fake online review about a business, what can be done about it? Adam Bernstein offers some guidance.
Back in April 2019, the BBC ran a report outlining how a 44-year old man from Sussex wrote fake online reviews for a little as £4. "I have written reviews from numbing creams to eBooks, to downloadable independent films," he was quoted as saying, adding, “Since I started doing it, I tell my family and friends not to trust reviews.”
Fake reviews are nothing new. However, the explosion of online services has made them a very lucrative business. As Gwendoline Davies, Head of Commercial Dispute Resolution at law firm Walker Morris, comments, “It can be difficult for businesses to identify, prevent and respond effectively to fake reviews.” However, she thinks the tide is turning, noting a recent landmark case that saw an Italian court sentence a man to prison for ‘paid review fraud’ - the first case of its kind.
The problem for businesses and consumers alike is that on selling platforms such as Amazon and TripAdvisor, the number of positive reviews a seller has directly affects its prominence in searches, and a seller with a higher rating is likely to sell more. As Gwendoline Davies says, customers have become increasingly reliant on this feedback, “and the weight given to reviews of a business in general when deciding whether to make a purchase is often greater than that of traditional advertising.” She says that this trend in buyer behaviour has opened the door for those looking to exploit the marketplace by selling favourable reviews through ‘review brushing’. This is where people are hired to provide positive feedback to boost the vendor’s online search rankings.
Fake negative reviews can be devastating, especially for small businesses. A 2015 report in the Daily Telegraph predicted that “bad reviews and online ‘trolls’ cost UK businesses up to £30,000 a year.” In America, a newlywed couple once undertook a campaign
of fake negative reviews in respect of their wedding photographer, who was forced to close down his business as a result.
However, as well as review brushing and the posting of fake reviews,
the marketplace is also increasingly experiencing indirect unscrupulous practices. Sellers are offering free goods in return for positive reviews, insisting that a refund to a consumer is conditional on the consumer providing a high or five-star rating, or refusing to provide refunds where consumers have posted honest but unfavourable reviews.
Gwendoline Davies believes businesses can fight back, and suggests reading reviews carefully. “Typically, companies who provide fake review services use several writers for the task, so the first few reviews may appear genuine. However, as more reviews come in, patterns may emerge. A careful analysis may reveal similarities in style and language which indicate that the reviews came from the same source.”
Reputation management software can screen reviews against various data points (language, date, image, and so on) to automatically identify and remove fakes. Additionally, wherever reviewers have profile pictures of any kind, reverse image searching across the internet can detect those ‘people’ or accounts who post repeated reviews. Firms such as Trustpilot claim to take the matter seriously. It says, “…no system is perfect, but computers tend to be more accurate than the average person reading reviews. That's why we combine customised software with an international team of dedicated investigators and compliance agents.”
Gwendoline Davies says that businesses can deal with fake reviews in two ways: either take action directly or hire a marketing firm to
do so (by applying wider strategies for improving a business’ image and ratings). She warns, though, that measures involving review brushing could result in liability, not to mention potential reputational damage.
She points out a number of legal routes that businesses can use
to take action:
• The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. This bans a number of unfair commercial practices that mislead consumers;
• Business Protection from Misleading Marketing Regulations 2008. This includes a general prohibition on misleading advertising which may include false reviews;
• Defamation. This won’t help a business against a genuine ‘bad’ review. However, the tort of defamation can be used against unfounded reviews which damage a business or its reputation;
• Misrepresentation. If, when purchasing, a party has relied on a
fake review which has been solicited by the business, this may be actionable;
• Fraud by false representation. This may apply where a claimant is able to prove the dishonest intentions of the person posting the fake review; and
• Providing fake reviews can also constitute a criminal offence under various other statutory provisions and can be punishable by a fine and/or imprisonment depending upon how the offence is classified. •