The Federal Trade Commission sued a marketing company earlier this week for fabricating glowing reviews of a weight loss product. In the process, the agency brought attention to an increasingly vexing problem for both consumers and freelancers — fake reviews.
“Fake reviews are a huge problem because many of us have an unabashed faith in the Internet,” says Jack Gillis, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America. “We can easily fall victim to people with ulterior motives.
When a fake review involves a product — the FTC’s latest suit was about weight loss drugs — consumers can lose money on something that’s worthless. The stakes are often far higher when the fake review is about a service, says Robert Krughoff, president of Consumer’s Checkbook, a non-profit that rates service providers in a handful of big cities. These can lead people to the wrong doctor; a dishonest car repair company; or an incompetent dentist.
With side hustles, the stakes are equally high. Side hustlers can find their wages stolen, their cars or homes damaged, and their time — arguably their most important asset — squandered. So, how you do you spot a fake review before you’re sucked into a rotten situation? There’s no perfect formula. However, there are warning signs.
Lack of detail
Breathless, exclamation-filled reviews that spout platitudes — “Love the flexibility! Awesome job!” — leave a positive impression while telling you nothing. These are the type of reviews that are often fabricated, says Gillis. The reviewers are light on detail because they don’t have detail. The reviewer was likely hired by a marketing firm, told roughly what to say, and paid by the word for the review.
What are the signs of a legitimate review? The editors at SideHusl look for these characteristics: Who wrote it? Does the review’s author provide any detail about when they used the service, how and why? What specific information — like pay, costs, time spent, contact with management or tech support — were shared? Does the tenor of the review track with other reviews and with other verifiable information? (See “review dissonance below)
Krughoff suggests that you also consider a sudden wealth of reviews to be a warning sign. One poorly rated landscaping company on ConsumerCheckbook, for example, disputed their review by pointing Krughoff to a litany of positive reviews elsewhere.
But Krughoff realized that all of the glowing reviews had been written in a two week period, even though the company had been in business for 15 years. How did it get all those good reviews? By selectively emailing clients and soliciting reviews through a service. Review sites, such as Trust Pilot, help companies with that.
Notably, Trust Pilot will not allow you to filter out bad reviews once they’re written, unless they violate the site’s terms and conditions. But it will allow you to cherry pick the reviews that you highlight on your own site. Other review services are less honest, allowing corporate clients to filter out all negative reviews.
When researching fake reviews written about an unproven weight-loss product, the FTC found claims of rapid and dramatic results, says Michael Ostheimer, senior staff attorney with the federal agency, which enforces truth in advertising laws. These “too-good-to-be-true” claims were a tip-off that the reviewers were lying.
When looking at side hustles, too-good-to-be-true claims are usually about how much money you’re likely to make if you join the platform. One way to inflate income expectations is to list best-case-scenario earnings, without accounting for expenses or down time. This is common with driving and delivery platforms, that will claim “you could earn $25 per hour,” without mentioning that you’re likely to spend at least half of that amount on gasoline, parking and maintenance.
Unsure about a positive review? Look for the flip side. Do a Google search for “complaints” about the same company. Nothing there? Read through the site’s “terms and conditions” to see if the fine print verifies the big-print advertising claims.
Site terms and conditions, often explain the pay formula. So, where a delivery app such as Postmates claims drivers can earn “up to $22 per hour,” their pay formula indicates this is only possible if you make multiple deliveries in an hour, or are able to collect generous tips. Discord among reviewers or between big-print and small-print terms should tell you to be skeptical.
Glowing reviews that show up on a platform’s own website are easy to discount. However, you may also want to be careful when looking at those posted elsewhere on the web.
That’s because many sites offer “affiliate” deals, which pay bloggers and review sites to tout their services. These financial arrangements must be disclosed. However, many disclosures are generic — i.e. “we may accept affiliate income from companies featured on our site.”
While some bloggers and websites provide valid reviews despite the potential economic conflict, others do not. In our estimation, the more forthcoming a site is about its potential conflicts, the less it is likely to try to mislead you elsewhere.