More than 80 percent of consumers rely on online reviews to learn more about purchases they are considering, according to the Pew Research Center.
There are currently more than a billion reviews online, but experts -- and even companies such as Google, Facebook and Yelp -- have found that many of those reviews should not be trusted.
Positive and negative reviews can help customers select a hotel, a car dealer, a doctor or even a caretaker for children, to offer a few examples. Before Anna Kelly of Hartford makes a purchase for her family, she often reads customer reviews on Yelp, Google or Facebook to try to gauge if a purchase is worth it.
"I just see what does everybody like and what gets good reviews," said Kelly.
Some experts, however, are warning that a lot of those recommendations are not reliable. Internet consultant Jason Brown created the website ReviewFraud.org.
"These are all fake reviews. If you look at them, they're all fake," Brown said about the list of thousands of businesses - many in Connecticut - that he has flagged with fake reviews currently online. "It kind of starts off like a spider web and it just keeps growing and expanding," he said.
One of the examples that Brown provided was a five-star Google review of AutoLandmark, a used car dealership in Plainville. The reviewer 'Elbert Hubbard' wrote, "Outstanding service. Very friendly, highly recommend!". The reviewer even included a photo, and that is what helped alert Brown that the review may not be legitimate.
A simple "reverse image search" showed the photo was actually of a man named Scott Hubbard, who is a professor at Stanford University.
"I have never bought a single car in Plainville, Connecticut," said Hubbard.
Professor Hubbard said he reads online reviews but rarely writes them, and certainly was not a customer of AutoLandmark, which is more than three thousand miles from his California home.
"I was annoyed, even angry, with my image being used to endorse something I had nothing to do with," Hubbard said.
A spokesperson for Yelp told the NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters that about 25 percent of its reviews may be fake, biased, solicited or just unhelpful. Yelp, along with spokespeople for Google and Facebook, said phony reviews violate the companies' policies and users can flag them for removal.
But without a computer's IP address, Brown said it would be quite difficult for consumers to track down who is behind a fabricated review. Brown believes it can often be an "inside job."
"A majority of these businesses are either doing it themselves or doing it with a friend of theirs or they're using a marketing company or PR firm," said Brown.
AutoLandmark's President told the Troubleshooters he had no idea where a fake review would come from. He said the company does use third-party firms for reputation management and boosting its brand online.
"AutoLandmark has not posted any false reviews," Eko R., wrote in a statement. "We will be flagging reviews we believe are false and requesting that Google remove them," he added. "We take customer reviews and feedback seriously and utilize it as a coaching opportunity for employees, management and business practices."
Brown also flagged a favorable review for Definite Impact, an internet marketing company in Milford. "They are always ready to educate us of new opportunities and to solve issues we've hit a wall with", writes reviewer "Kinara Mim." But aside from on online reviews, that name does not show up in any of our searches.
However, the review's photo does have some digital history. After performing a "reverse image search," the Troubleshooters located the woman pictured in the review. Her name is Erika van der Bent and she resides in the Netherlands. She confirmed that she did not write the review.
"This person used my photo without my permission," said van der Bent. "This is quite shocking."
The man behind the Definite Impact website maintains the review is, in fact, legitimate. He also said that his business no longer exists.
Professor Hubbard, meanwhile, has a warning for whoever lifted his real picture for a fake review.
"In the end, you will be found out," said Hubbard.
The businesses mentioned in this story declined to answer our questions on camera.
While it may be difficult to prove who is really behind a fake review, Brown said there can be some warning signs. Brown advises consumers to learn how to do a "reverse image search" to help find the origin of a photograph. Take a look at the instructions below or click here to learn more.
- Save the image you want to reverse search.
- On images.google.com or any Images results page, click Search by image Search by image.
- Click Upload an image.
- Click Choose file.
- Select the image from your computer.
Alternatively, some browsers, including Google Chrome and Firefox will give you the option to search the image when you right click. Simply select "Search Google for Image."
Brown also offers these tips to help identify fabricated online reviews:
- Look at the profile of the poster. Is it a celebrity or a stock photo?
- What are they reviewing and from where? Are there too many reviews around the same time and in locations far from each other?
- Read the review. Are there too many spelling errors? Is the review too non-specific? Is the review contradictory?