Since almost all of our buying decisions are influenced by the product reviews we read, it’s pretty important that we can trust those reviews, right?
But a Fair Go investigation has revealed that our trust of reviews can be misplaced, and that can cost us.
We’re also reporting on how consumers themselves can spot fake – or possible fake - reviews and hopefully save themselves some dollars and grief.
A recent Google/Nielson survey shows at least 90 per cent of consumer choices are guided by checking reviews of products or services. It also found that and many customers trust them as much as a personal recommendation. But Fair Go warns – be very careful not to make your decisions based on reviews alone.
Take the case of Auckland-based removals company Moving Kiwis. Fair Go's exposed that the company has used fake Google signs and photos in its reviews, or testimonials, on its website. Fair Go can also reveal the company offered customers compensation to remove bad reviews posted onto an independent removals review page.
Customer Laura Billington says she's "shocked". She posted her review on the independent site after being disappointed by the unexpected high cost of her move.
She says that Moving Kiwis gave her a quote of about $600 over the phone but the final cost was $1800.
She'd only shifted a few kilometres down the road, and she and her husband had moved all the boxes and small items themselves, leaving just the big items like beds and a sofa.
After the move she tried to discuss what she claims were extra charges. She says the company weren't interested and it took three weeks of emails and phone calls before they agreed to refund $300. However, she still felt the cost was too high.
She'd chosen the company based on the dozen or so glowing five-star reviews on their website. These appeared to be Google reviews, so she assumed they were independent and saw no reason not to trust them. But when she tried to post a Google review herself, she found she couldn't.
She asked the company how to go about posting a review on their website but got no reply. That's when she found an independent review site for removals companies and posted there.
She gave Moving Kiwis one star and explained her situation in detail.
“I didn't want to do a nasty review, I just wanted to write 'be aware of hidden costs' and detail my experience to warn other people," Laura explains.
Once she’d posted though, Moving Kiwis started calling Laura, saying it had changed management and promising better service.
“They said please take your review down and that they'd give me $135."
She felt strongly it was more important to warn others than to get $135, and then she also contacted Fair Go.
Fair Go found there were other customers who'd had a similar experience, yet all the company's reviews on its website were five stars.
When Fair Go took a closer look, we discovered that Moving Kiwis wasn't registered with Google, indicating that the Google signs on its reviews are fake.
We also investigated the photos accompanying the reviews and found them to be stock images taken from the internet. The same photos were used for reviews all over the world for all sorts of services from gardening and yoga classes to foster agencies.
A shocked Laura said, "I'm glad I complained now".
When Fair Go took its findings to Moving Kiwis and asked for an explanation, the company said the Google sign and photos “were a recommended feature".
"We now understand this could mislead customers ... and have since removed these two features."
Fair Go repeatedly asked who made the recommendation, but Moving Kiwis failed to provide an answer.
Fair Go questioned whether the reviews themselves were real if both the Google sign and photos were fake.
Moving Kiwis said "we can confirm the testimonials are 100 per cent real", adding, "These reviews have been sent to us by our clients via email."
But Fair Go is unable to confirm this, because Moving Kiwis said it wouldn't put any of the review writers in touch with us, citing privacy.
Moving Kiwis also refuted the claims that any charges are hidden from customers, explaining that "some customers underestimate the costs associated with moving services".
As for asking some customers to remove their less than complimentary reviews, they said, "We have told some customers we would appreciate it if they could remove their review now that we're addressing their concerns. Receiving money from us was never conditional on removing the review."
However, Laura is adamant that the money was an incentive. She showed Fair Go an email from Moving Kiwis that said "we are happy to refund you the $135 first, if you would agree to remove your review afterwards".
Since Fair Go became involved Moving Kiwis agreed to refund the $135 despite Laura's review staying in place. The company has also taken down its website, posting a temporary notice saying that it's "under maintenance".
It appears the problem of dodgy reviews is becoming more serious as more consumers turn to reviews for guidance.
Fair Go spoke to Saoud Khalifah, the founder of Fakespot, a US-based company offering a free review-checking service.
The company uses algorithms and artificial intelligence to analyse a database of 10 billion reviews to detect patterns that indicate fakes and foul play. Even online giants such as Google and Amazon are having to employ similar tactics as fake reviews creep into their systems.
Saoud warns there are now fake review "farms" where companies pay money either to buy five-star reviews in bulk, or for one-star reviews that they instruct to be posted against a competitor.
He says it's like the Wild West in the online review world right now and that consumers need to be increasingly aware.
"I would take anything with a grain of salt online. The onus is on you to research as much as possible."
Tips for spotting fake reviews:
- Look for tell-tale signs such as a group of five-star or one-star reviews all being posted at the same time
- Check for several reviews to have the same bad spelling and grammar
- Be aware of reviews that sound like infomercials
- Photos that look like stock images accompanied by a first name only