A BOOMING business in fake reviews on Google means it has become impossible to trust ratings for companies.
And the tech giant is failing to crack down on an industry that tricks people into buying goods or paying for services that are not up to scratch.
It is a worrying development with Google now acting as a modern-day Yellow Pages for many people, who use it as the first port of call when looking for a firm.
The manipulative tactics are being used by everything from bakers in Edinburgh to stockbrokers in London, Which? found.
The consumer watchdog’s latest research involved setting up and buying bogus reviews for its own fake business listing on Google, which it cheekily called “Five Star Reviews”.
Researchers bought 20 Google reviews for 150 dollars (£108) from one of the ratings sites it uncovered, easily found through a quick Google search, called Reviewr.
It paid to have 20 reviews — all five stars — and was even able to pick the wording.
Accounts post multiple reviews
After further digging into the profiles of these reviewers, Which? then found that many of the Google accounts had rated the same selection of businesses all around the country.
Which? linked together 45 businesses that had at least three “reviewers” in common, including a stockbroker in Canary Wharf, a solicitors’ firm in Liverpool, a dentist in Greater Manchester, a London estate agent and a bakery in Edinburgh.
This suggests that each of these businesses paid the same review trading company to post these glowing appraisals.
Several of the profiles had left reviews of at least 15 businesses.
Of those, all had rated an SEO advisory business in Edinburgh and a psychic in London as five stars — an unlikely coincidence.
Fake reviews mask real worries
In some cases, these fake positive reviews could be masking genuine concerns about firms’ customer service record.
The stockbroker based in Canary Wharf had, for six months in 2020, received a raft of negative reviews, with many citing “shockingly poor customer service”.
In one rating, a customer claimed to have lost £27,000-worth of investments because the business acted against his wishes.
Another branded the company “scammers” and a third reviewer said it was the worst broker they had ever dealt with.
But 30 five-star reviews left in quick succession boosted the company’s rating.
Which? linked many of these reviewers to other businesses identified in its investigation, including one profile that had also reviewed the fake business of Which?.
Also, another reviewer of multiple firms gave five stars to a Liverpool-based solicitor, claiming that it had helped them to get back £45,400 from a bank after being scammed.
If these reviews are based on fabricated experiences, consumers in a vulnerable financial position could end up using the service based on a false recommendation.
Reviewer lives everywhere
One reviewer had left an extremely unlikely series of ratings.
He had praised a Surrey-based limo hire company, stating that he had lived in the area for five years and used them for all airport trips.
Then, in the same month, he used the services of a Glasgow-based electric gate installation firm for his home — locations that are 412 miles apart.
Over the next few months, the same profile used a dentist in Greater Manchester, a paving company in Bournemouth, and praised the services of a locksmith in Cambridgeshire for rescuing his two-year-old daughter from a locked car outside her nursery.
Natalie Hitchins, from Which?, said: “Businesses exploiting flaws in Google’s review system to rise up the ranks are putting honest businesses on the back foot and leaving consumers at risk of being misled.
“The regulator must stamp out this harmful behaviour and hold sites to account if they fail to protect their users, otherwise the Government must urgently increase websites’ legal responsibilities for misleading content on their platforms.
“Google, and other sites, must clamp down on and prevent these manipulative practices to ensure that consumers can trust the reviews that they read.”
Google said: “We invest significantly in building technologies and instituting practices that help people find reliable information on Google.
“Our policies clearly state reviews must be based on real experiences and information, and we closely monitor 24/7 for fraudulent content, using a combination of people and technology.
“When we find scammers trying to mislead people, we take swift action ranging from content removal to account suspension and even litigation.”
Reviewr did not respond to Which?.
Note the value of a Redmi
FANCY having a top-end phone to rival those from Apple and Samsung for a quarter of the price?
Then the Redmi Note 10 Pro is for you – provided you don’t mind having a brand no one has heard of (for now).
They are an offshoot of Chinese tech giant Xiaomi, itself not well known in the UK but actually the third largest maker of phones globally.
Keen photographers will like the camera and its four lenses.
The main one is a huge 108 megapixels, meaning each photo it takes is made up of 108million dots. That is lots of detail.
There is a wide-angle lens for photos of landscapes or large buildings when we can go on holiday again.
A macro lens lets you take close-up snaps of, say, flowers.
And the depth camera helps take artistic portraits where the background is blurred but your subject is in sharp focus.
The display at 6.67in is big and bright, which is great for admiring your photos or watching Netflix and scrolling web pages and apps.
It’s a technology called AMOLED, which is much more vivid and uses less power than standard LED.
One thing I loved was the fast charging.
In half an hour it is half-charged, which is enough for a day of normal use.
It has face unlock but unlike some pricier rivals there is also a fingerprint scanner and a headphone jack.
All of the key features above were lauded as truly cutting-edge, and rightly so, when rolled out by the likes of Apple and Samsung a few years ago.
Now they are on a phone that should cost less than £250 outright, or around £15 to £30 a month on contract.
No price has been announced but expect it to be from about £249, which is the cost of the version it replaces, the Note 9 Pro.
There are compromises. Rather than glass or shiny metal, the back is plastic
And one disappointment with the camera is that there is no “image stabilisation”, which means shots in low light or at night are below par.
They are still better than any camera phone from a few years ago but below the bright, sharp snaps you get on new iPhones and a Samsung Galaxy.
To be clear, this is not as good as the iPhone 12, starting at £699 and going up to £1,399, or the Samsung Galaxy S21, from £819 to £1199.
But it is incredible value for money – and we like that.
4G kicks in
FED-UP with your overworked broadband stalling?
Now with Vodafone, a 4G mobile phone signal will take over when the normal internet goes down.
The Pro Broadband service is aimed at families who will spend more time at home as work patterns change post-lockdown.
If the main router detects the hard-wired signal to the house is down, then the 4G connection kicks in.
There’s also Super Wi-Fi which boosts the signal to any weak spots around the house.
Prices for Pro Broadband, which has other perks like anti-virus software, start at £35 a month.
The 4G kicking in when broadband goes down is almost identical to BT’s Hybrid Connect, launched last month.
That is added to existing packages for an extra £7 a month. Max Taylor, Consumer Director, Vodafone UK, said: “It’s unbreakable broadband without breaking the bank.”
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