If you live in the Bay Area and have looked for something special to spice up a birthday party, you might have discovered the Freakin' Awesome Karaoke Express, a truck that promises to deliver an unbelievable selection of songs to your doorstep. You might have seen a review on Yelp that said it's perfect for a girl's night out or a Facebook review that mentioned it being a crowd-pleaser at a neighborhood block party. You may have been impressed by its 19,000 Twitter followers, and considered hiring this mobile song-slinging truck to drive up to your next outdoor shindig.
What you probably didn't realize was that there is no such thing as the Freakin' Awesome Karaoke Express (or F.A.K.E., for short). I made it up and paid strangers to pump up its online footprint to make it seem real. I didn't do it to scam anyone or even for the LULZ. I wanted to see firsthand how the fake reputation economy operates. The investigation led me to an online marketplace where a good reputation comes cheap.
For $5, I could get 200 Facebook fans, or 6,000 Twitter followers, or I could get @SMExpertsBiz to tweet about the truck to the account's 26,000 Twitter fans. A Lincoln could get me a Facebook review, a Google review, an Amazon review, or, less easily, a Yelp review.
I found all these offers on Fiverr.com, a "global online marketplace for creative and professional services." Launched in 2010 by two Tel Aviv-based entrepreneurs, Fiverr has raised $50 million in venture capital to give a platform to freelancers who want to hawk their services. Most of the gigs there start at $5; Fiverr makes its money by taking 20% of the payment for any gig as its commission. Fiverr's front page offers a variety of sample gigs: "SEO articles," freelance press release writing, and album cover design work, but I was just interested in the fake reputation gigs.
When I identified myself as a journalist and sent messages to people offering to write reviews, they said, ‘We only do real reviews. We really try the products. People send them to us.’ But when I approached them undercover with money in hand, it was a different matter.
Fusion's art department came up with a logo and photoshopped a truck. Armed with that, a new Gmail account and a burner phone number, I created a Yelp profile, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and a page on Launchrock–a start-up that encourages you to make a website before your product is real to gauge interest for it. And I set up Google Analytics so I saw that someone from Yelp visited the Launchrock page before letting my Yelp profile go live. I assume they wanted to make sure the business was "real.” And these days, which is more real: a fake business with a real website or a brick and mortar business with no online presence?
Then I set about finding out how hard it was to make this fake business look like it was thriving. I posted a work request on Fiverr saying I needed help with my online reputation and I started messaging people who offered Facebook fans, Twitter followers and positive reviews. They all went by pseudonyms on the site, but they all had photos of themselves, star ratings based on past work, and short bios that said where they lived and usually describing themselves as "experienced writers." Many were based in the U.S. and described themselves as professional writers. I wondered if these wheelers and dealers in lies could actually fool tech companies that have spent the last few years cracking down on inauthenticity on their sites.
They are well aware of the problem. "Fake friends now command real money," wrote the New York Times last year. Twitter prohibits the buying and selling of followers. Facebook has made going after fake likes a priority. A 2015 Harvard study said that Yelp identified 16% of reviews as fake; Yelp has been particularly aggressive about fighting them, going so far as to shame businesses that have bought them with a kind of digital Scarlet Letter for 90 days. Amazon has been so aggressive in its data-mining to get rid of unfairly positive reviews, such as those by author's friends, that it has scared people when finding incredibly loose connections between individuals.
But we use reviews, followings and recommendations to decide where to go and what to buy, so many businesses feel like they have to buy reputation credibility to succeed. According to surveys by Nielsen, 68% of people rely on online reviews and 93% of the visitors to Yelp usually decide to make a purchase after visiting the site. Harvard Business School's Michael Luca found that a one-star increase in a Yelp rating led to a 5 to 9 percent bump in revenue for a restaurant. Three out of four consumers surveyed by Bright Locals said that positive customer reviews make them trust a business more.
I'm not the first to set up a fake business as a honeypot for fake reviews. In 2013, the New York attorney general’s office went undercover for “Operation Clean Turf.” Pretending to be a fro-yo place in Brooklyn plagued with negative reviews, the office called up “SEO shops” asking for help burnishing its online reputation. Many of them wrote fake reviews, using IP maskers and cheap freelancers abroad. At the end of that investigation, the attorney general fined 19 companies from $2,500 to $100,000 each for breaking business laws.
Yes, writing fake reviews is illegal. False advertising is a misdemeanor crime. You can be fined up to $5,000 for it and spend six months in jail, or more if it’s your second offense. Even writing a real review where you don’t reveal that you were compensated to do it violates guidelines set forth by the Federal Trade Commission, which is one of the reasons why it wasn't kosher for Kim Kardashian to pose on Instagram with her favorite morning sickness pills.
But lots of people are still doing it. Technology research firm Gartner thinks that 10-15% of all reviews online are fake.
For months, @awesome_karaoke depressingly tweeted to 0 followers. But after paying $21 to one of these guys…
… the truck gained more than 19,000 followers over night. The $21 bill for the gig included rush delivery.
My sudden surge in popularity raised no flags at Twitter headquarters as far as I could tell, even though many of the followers had egg avatars who hadn’t tweeted in years.
For another Lincoln, a guy in L.A. took a photo of himself with the F.A.K.E. logo in front of a food truck, perfectly willing to pose just right to make it look like it was my business truck. No questions asked. His $5 gig was for two photos, but he happily sent along four.
I picked up 200 Facebook fans for $5 and glowing 5-star reviews on Yelp and Facebook; my only guidance when I paid up was that they note our “unbelievable selection of songs.” The rest was their invention.“This is a great place to get your groove on,” wrote a woman on Yelp. They called the nonexistent song-slewing truck fantastic and amazing and praised our wonderful service. But they also added details that made the reviews look real: they had stories in them, about hiring the truck to sing with colleagues during a conference and for a kid's birthday party.
The people who reviewed F.A.K.E. on Facebook, I noted, had also given five stars to a chiropractor in Arizona, a hair salon in London, a limo company in North Carolina, a realtor in Texas, and a locksmith in Florida, among other far-flung businesses.
Facebook says it uses pattern recognition to find and eliminate click farms and accounts that exist solely to like pages. Since March, says Facebook, it’s “notified 200,000 Pages that we’ve protected their accounts from fake likes.” I love the way they put this: “Protected,” as if the companies hadn’t paid for them. Facebook didn’t manage to protect me from fake likes.
Yelp was the only company that caught us, hiding both of the reviews I bought behind their “not recommended” click wall and not counting them in F.A.K.E.’s rating. It has software that screens out suspicious reviews, not including them in a company's star-rating. If they see too many of them, they will penalize a business's page, putting a “consumer alert” on the profile for 90 days warning visitors that they think the business is buying fake reviews. People on Fiverr who were selling reviews would often say “No Yelp” in their descriptions, saying it was hard to make those "stick."
Even so, I got numerous real phone calls and voicemails to the burner number I set up for the karaoke truck. The Internet had breathed life into this fake business and people wanted to hire it.
“What do you charge? I have a birthday coming up and a karaoke truck would be awesome,” said one message from a guy named Brandon. I felt bad! I wish it existed. Even though I never returned the calls of Brandon or any of the other people who wanted to hire the truck, they didn't leave the business a negative review.
Yelp analytics informed me that based on the clicks on the Karaoke Express Yelp profile, the F.A.K.E.'s estimated revenue in August was over $500. It encouraged me to place ads on Yelp to increase my business.
After I was finished with my fake shopping spree, I attempted to interview people on Fiverr who sold fake reputation. As I should have expected on such a transactional platform, many of them said they’d talk to me only if I paid them. One sent me a gig offer: $100 for an exclusive interview. I explained I couldn't pay them for interviews, unfortunately.
I tried repeatedly to get in touch with Fiverr about this story, but a spokesperson from Inkhouse, its PR firm, said, "This isn’t something Fiverr can comment on right now."
A 23-year-old guy named Dinesh, who sells 7,500 Twitter followers for $5 told me he lived in Jaipur, India and had been on Fiverr since March 2012. He claimed he'd created 5 million Twitter accounts using scripts, and had completed 10,000 Fiverr orders for Twitter followers. He’d been banned from Fiverr three times before but says he doesn’t know why.
I also talked to the woman who’d written a Yelp review that said F.A.K.E. was “perfect for a girl’s night out." She didn’t initially know I was also behind the karaoke truck.
A married mother of two teenagers, her name was Melinda. She lived in California and had been working on Fiverr for six months, usually about 15 to 20 hours a week, she said. She finished high school but not college. She writes books, and has self-published two cookbooks and two adult romance novels. She had a high voice like a little girl.
She said she’d written over 100 reviews. When I asked for examples, she said a race car toy, Santa Claus outfits for silverware, and a Bluetooth-powered patch for finding keys. Once someone sent her an unmarked bottle full of white pills that were supposed to improve the health of her hair and nails. She says she refused to review that one and sent it back.
Melinda said she’d always used the products because otherwise she couldn’t give an “honest review.” But I knew from my investigation that wasn’t true. And even if she did actually try a product, according to the AG’s office, it’s illegal for her to review products that she’s paid to review unless she discloses her compensation.
I eventually came clean with her, and told her that I had hired her undercover and that she had written a completely fake review for my karaoke truck. She was silent for a while and then told me she thought it was real because it had a website. She said she’s sympathetic to new businesses that need reviews to get first-time customers through the door.
"I don’t mind helping out a new business or a business that doesn't have much of an internet reputation, even if I haven’t been there before," she said. "Plus, businesses need positive reviews sometimes, because people are more likely to leave a negative review than a positive one."
She said though that she planned to quit Fiverr once her books take off and she gets more of a following as an author. I asked her if she’s ever bought a review on Fiverr for one of her books.
“No," she said. “I'd rather have a no-name Joe come across my books and leave his random feedback. If someone doesn’t like it, I want them to tell me that.”
That response surprised me given the business she's in. I asked her if she worried about the effect of paid positive reviews on the overall marketplace, given how often people rely on reviews on Amazon, Yelp and elsewhere to decide how to spend their money and time.
"Everyone online needs to use their best judgment," she said. “Just because a product has good reviews doesn’t mean it’s good. You can’t believe everything you read online.”
It was disturbingly easy to set up a business online and make it look real. The people who called the Freakin' Awesome Karaoke Express and never got a call back didn't leave negative reviews or report us to Yelp or Facebook as closed. The platforms didn’t figure out my business didn’t exist and for the most part, they didn’t seem to figure out that the purchased reviews, fans, and followers were fake.
And that wasn't even the point. What I really wondered was how hard it was to buy a fake positive reputation. And the answer is: not hard. For less than an expensive dinner out at a 5-star restaurant, I gave a completely invented business a sterling online reputation.
Businesses' desperate need to have an impressive digital presence has allowed a black market for lies to flourish. Online reviews are crucial to a business's survival, and social media followings matter. A bad review can hurt a bottom line. If everyone else's reputation is artificially pumped up, legitimate businesses may start feeling pressured to engage in the dark arts of reputation management just to keep up.
Now that I've seen the Internet's deception marketplace, it's going to haunt me. When I see a review online, unless it's written by someone I know and trust—which apparently isn't Kim Kardashian—I'm always going to be wondering whether I'm looking at a review from a satisfied customer or an undercover paid promoter. While platforms like Yelp and Facebook engage in an arms race to catch and filter out fishy fans, we'll have to take Melinda's advice and take praises from strangers with a pinch of digital salt. An unfortunate effect of the ability to buy effusive praise is the diminishment of accolades that come legitimately.
A version of this piece was presented live on stage in New York on September 14, 2015 at our second Real Future Fair: The Real Future of Deception.