One of the most often pieces of advice I give when speaking to friends and relatives regarding online threats is to research it.
Performing a simple Google search on a product, a strange phone number, or a business, can reveal a wealth of data that can then be used to make an informed decision about what actions to take. And here is where we get to the crux of it all. Just as we now have to contend with “fake news,” some of the information unearthed by web research will be wrong, contain mistakes, or even attempt to deliberately mislead you.
Let’s take an example we often hear about:
- A user has a computer problem.
- They perform a Google search in an attempt to find a solution.
- The results point them to the apparent official technical support for the product they are having issues with.
*Attentive readers will notice that we have touched on this subject in the past.
This is where a careful user should do a little bit of research
A simple Google search of “company name + scam” will often turn up some valuable information. A company that has pages upon pages of customer complaints should raise some red flags.
Some examples of the websites that Google displays when you perform such a search are repositories of customer experiences, such as the online presence of the Better Business Bureau, Pissedconsumer.com, and even the official Facebook page of said business to name a few. Perusing these complaints will help give you an idea of the trustworthiness of a business. Going the extra mile and doing this research also gives you the time to think about the service you are looking at purchasing. This mitigates being rushed in your decisions.
Shills, sockpuppets, and personas
This research phase is also where we sometimes see a strange trend. A search on some of the websites that aggregate consumer complaints might show the first page of results filled with glowing reviews exhorting the awesome customer service they received.
Let’s stop and think about this. Why are random users taking the time to go register an account and fill a glowing review on a site that predominantly focuses on negative experiences? Only a small number of customers will go to the effort of filling out a review, much less a positive one.
This is an effort to artificially bury the negative reviews on these sites, as users rarely visit anything beyond the first page of results. These reviews are created by shills, either employed by the company affected by the negative reviews or by an online reputation management firm.
These are companies that specialize in online reputation management and have been hired to clean up negative comments that would otherwise be prominently be shown as the top search result. As an aside, any company that uses these techniques should fall victim to the “Streisand Effect” and immediately be viewed with extreme suspicion.
Spot the fakes
Some review sites will let you gather a little intel on the authors of reviews. Here are a few pointers for spotting fake ones:
- Are all the positive reviews created on the same date? Organic reviews would be created at different times, fake ones might be done manually or programmatically in a short time frame.
- Look for the age of the accounts with positive reviews. Real accounts would be created at different times, on different dates. Again, fake ones might be done manually or programmatically in a short time frame.
- How many reviews do the accounts have? A real user might make reviews for several sites and services. A shill will almost only ever do the one. Maintaining a myriad of sockpuppet accounts is difficult.
- Do they use a boilerplate? Are there multiple reviews with identical text from supposedly different authors? Boilerplates are a dead giveaway that there’s some reputation management going on.
- Try pasting the review, or a portion of the text used in the review, in Google and searching for it. If the results turn up in multiple different reviews on different review sites, you have found a boilerplate!
- If the first page of reviews is filled with positive comments, buck the trend and check the 2nd and 3rd pages. Reputation management outfits know almost no one checks past the first page. Valuable true negative comments often appear there.
- Read the positive reviews carefully. Are they super polished? Perfect grammar? Real humans write in a way that is difficult to emulate. A boilerplate, or a professional shill, would have proofread the review and removed typos.
- Beware of some review sites. They might be an advertisement for a specific product cleverly disguised as a review site!
- Some reviews are solicited by the technician, only when there is a positive interaction, effectively drowning the review site with genuine positive interaction reviews. This becomes apparent when there’s an unusually large amount of reviews for the website/service.
There are no hard rules in detecting fake reviews and some real ones might exhibit the symptoms of fake reviews and vice versa. A good indicator is critical mass. If there are multiple dubious examples on the review site, you should take all the reviews on the site with a grain of salt.
Attempting to manage negative reviews by having a brigade of sockpuppets bury them with fictitious positive ones is in itself a good indicator of malfeasance.
On the honesty of review sites
As if the waters were not murky enough, the review sites themselves sometimes have a financial stake in either showing negative reviews or conveniently hiding them. Some review sites have been repeatedly accused of providing preferential treatment to businesses that subscribe to their services. Others have been compared to a shakedown or strong-arm techniques based enterprise.
Subscribe to our service, buy advertising space on our site, pay for a membership… Do this and the negative reviews will be buried several pages in, away from view.
This subject alone could fill a separate article.
Reviews, complaint boards, and Google searches are powerful tools at your disposal to help in the decision process when evaluating a service. Having robust online skepticism will help preserve this skill, despite less than reputable online presence management shenanigans.
As always, stay safe, and if you have ever encountered shill reviews, please share them in our comments!
Posted: June 1, 2017 by Jean Taggart
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Senior Security Researcher
Incorrigible technophile who loves to break stuff and habitually voids warranties.