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Bob Moon: Here's another kind of business you can conduct on the web: You know those sites where you check out the reputation of the apartment, restaurant or other business you might be curious about. Unbiased feedback is helpful and hey, it's free! But some reviews are anything but unbiased. Many are 100 percent, absolute fake. I'm shocked, I tell you! Shocked!
Sally Herships reports.
Customer: I kinda like it -- I think I want to try this on.
Salesgirl: You want to try this on?
Marianne Sullivan has owned a bridal shop in Orange County, Calif. for 25 years. Since a lot of her business, she says, comes from referrals it seems like a lot of her customers must be happy. But she says, it can be hard to tell.
Salesgirl: Thank you.
Marianne Sullivan: Thank you very much for coming in. Nice to meet you ladies.
Customer 2: Thank you.
Sullivan: OK, bye.
Sullivan: Girls are always -- they don't always speak up and speak their mind.
Customers may not speak their mind face to face, but they do when they have the anonymity of the Internet. Sullivan had never checked out the online ratings for her store -- until a year and a half ago. When she did, she was shocked
Sullivan: They were horrible reviews -- they were the worst ratings, one, one and a half stars.
At first, Sullivan started reading the reviews to find out if there was anything she could improve on. But she was in for another surprise
Sullivan: They weren't the truth, they were fictional, and they were just downright deliberately mean and slanderous.
Something seemed off. So Sullivan's husband started doing some online sleuthing. He noticed all the bad reviews were written on the same day with the same spelling errors. Turns out, he says, the negative reviews all came from the same computer, and it was tracked back to a competitor.
Marianne Sullivan was able to get some of the bad reviews removed, but not all. The review sites where they were posted said they have no way to tell who's right and who's wrong. Sullivan says there is an alternative for businesses who get slammed online, but she says it can backfire
Sullivan: I have a friend who also has a bridal shop up north and she tries to respond. And I've read what she's written, and she just sounds defensive and angry and it isn't pretty.
Sounding defensive and angry in responses risks losing even more business. And with wedding dresses going for 1,000 or 2,000 bucks a pop that's an expensive proposition. But buying a wedding dress is an expensive proposition too, which is why potential customers often do online research before hitting stores. But how can they be sure what they're reading is accurate?
Christine Frietchen is editor in chief at ConsumerSearch.com, a product review site. She's always on the lookout for fake reviews.
Herships: They have fifteen five-star reviews?
Christine Frietchen: And 11 one-star reviews.
Herships: That seems like a bit of an imbalance.
And a strong split in the ratings, with no shades of gray, says Frietchen, is another tip off, review are duds. If you click on a lemon -- it's obvious.
Frietchen, reading a review: "Lipoblast is amazing. I feel great, look great and so much more confidence. It's truly wonderful to wake up each morning and feel energized and good about myself. Magic is the best word I can use to describe Lipoblast."
Frietchen says, odds are glowing reviews like this one -- with no down sides for the item listed -- have been written by a manufacturer to boost sales. She says it's the poor reviews that deserve our attention; they come from real consumers who feel frustrated for some reason. You can also tell, Frietchen says, whether a review is genuine just by clicking on the reviewer's name. The author of this review has only posted once.
Frietchen: For Lipoblast extreme and nothing else. Suspicious to say the least.
When I shop I usually check online reviews. And I find this kind of boosterism all over the Internet. But is it illegal? New York lawyer Joe Rosenbaum says employees of a company that make a certain product are free to share an opinion so long as it's their own.
Joe Rosenbaum: And as long as nobody is forcing you to say that, nobody is coercing you to say that, nobody's incentivizing you to say that -- perfectly legal.
But if you work for the same company and are paid or told to promote a product, Rosenbaum says it is still OK, but disclosure is key.
Rosenbaum: If I know that you are selling cars and that you make a living on commission selling cars, I may still believe you, but I may want to ask several other people who I know who are not in this business to confirm your view.
Rosenbaum says as long as reviewers disclose who they are -- so consumers have the ability to judge their credibility -- it's perfectly legal. It's when reviewers don't reveal their relationship to a company, that the law may be broken. But he says, current laws are outdated; they don't cover new media as much as we'd like. The FTC is working on updating legislation. In the meantime, it's up to consumers and businesses to decide what to believe.
I'm Sally Herships for Marketplace Money.