ATLANTA -- Deciding where to eat, where to travel or where to shop may seem easier in the digital age since your phone or computer can put thousands of online reviews at your fingertips from sites like Yelp, Google and Amazon.
But can you trust online reviews? Not always, because some businesses are buying them! A Harvard study estimates 15 to 30 percent of reviews you see online are fake.
"We get a lot of complaints about this sort of thing and I believe anecdotally that number is growing simply because this practice is mushrooming," said Georgia Governor's Office of Consumer Protection Director John Sours.
A brief online search turns up of hundreds of people who are willing to make money writing fake reviews. On the job website Fiverr.com people can advertise tasks they are willing to perform for $5. Hundreds of Fiverr members have postings offering to review products, services, restaurants and more for $5. I contacted a few of them to ask if they would be willing to write a review for an Atlanta restaurant. Within minutes I had two responses. One was from someone in another state and the other was from a Bangladesh resident who offerred to write a fake review.
Tainted reviews are prompting San Francisco based Yelp to investigate those it suspects are gaming the system. "Yelp's Consumer Alerts program began in 2012 to let consumers know when we've detected attempts to mislead them behind the scenes," said spokeswoman Rachel Walker.
Yelp slaps some businesses' Yelp pages with a red Consumer Alert Banner that reads: "We Caught Someone Red Handed trying to buy reviews for this business." Recently a Forsyth County storage facility, ValueSpace Storage received the alert after Yelp claimed it caught the manager red-handed trying to buy positive reviews from a Yelp member, who flagged the message and reported it to Yelp's Security Team.
I spoke with the owner of ValuesSpace Storage by telephone He said, "What we did was not a good decision and I regret it. We are a small business and probably haven't done enough to educate ourselves about how online reviews work."
The ValuesSpace Storage Yelp Page got this reaction from the Governor's Office of Consumer Protection: "This is a red flag. We need to look further at this sort of activity," said Sours.
To avoid reviews that may be dishonest, Sours suggests consumers visit more than one review site. Also, watch out for overly positive language or multiple reviews of the same product that have similar writing styles.