Spotting the fakes among the five-star reviews

JUDY WOODRUFF: It's a perpetual dilemma. You go online to buy a product, or try a new service, or maybe find a restaurant you haven't been to before, and frequently end up checking what others thought of it. You see a four-star review, a five-star recommendation, but wonder just how legitimate those appraisals are.

Special correspondent Jackie Judd has been investigating those seeking to exploit the reviews and what businesses are doing to crack down.

MAN: It takes me five, 10 minutes per review at most.

JACKIE JUDD: Behind this blurred image is a scam artist, actually a scam writer.

MAN: There's a lot of people looking for this type of work, and there's a lot of platforms from which you can sell and a lot of other people will advertise looking for services such as this.

JACKIE JUDD: The service is writing fake online consumer reviews. And companies typically hired by small businesses advertise in brazen and public ways.

WOMAN:  Silverman Slim, your number one review dealer. We offer Google reviews, Yelp reviews.

JACKIE JUDD: Stephen G., who asked for anonymity, gets freelance gigs online for a few dollars a pop.

If I were to ask you to come up with ideas right here, let's say a cab company in Miami, what kinds of things — have you ever been to Miami?

MAN: I have not been to Miami, but I would certainly take a review from Miami, yes.

JACKIE JUDD: What would you say?

MAN: I would say, Clipboard Cab Company was very prompt in their service. They arrived exactly at 7:00 at the airport, when I had asked them to arrive. I found the driver very, very pleasant and cooperative, and I was very satisfied with the service. I will definitely use it again next time I'm in Miami.

JACKIE JUDD: Ka-ching, $8.

MAN: It doesn't take much.

NICHOLAS WHITE, The Daily Dot: Pretty much all bad — all fake reviews are five-star or one-star reviews. Nobody leaves a fake three-star reviews. What would be the point?

JACKIE JUDD: Nicholas White founded The Daily Dot, which covers life on the Internet.

NICHOLAS WHITE: In the age of the Internet, we are living in the age of the inexpert opinion. We are living in the age where if you can think of it, someone is offering it in both authentic and fake, fraudulent ways.

JACKIE JUDD: The possibilities do seem limitless, especially here in San Francisco, home of the online review giant Yelp.

The number of consumer reviews posted online is mind-boggling. Just in the time that the NewsHour is on the air tonight, some 2,000 reviews will be posted on Yelp alone. That makes the task of identifying deceptive entries, as well as keeping one step ahead of the perpetrators, an ongoing challenge. Yelp is a pioneer in aggregating consumer reviews of local businesses.

Its slogan used to be real people, real reviews. Now, not so much. Yelp labels about 25 percent of submitted reviews as suspicious or not recommended.

VINCE SOLLITTO, Yelp: You would be surprised how many small business owners might just claim their page on Yelp and then actually go ahead and open up a consumer account and write a five-star business review of their own business and a one-star view of their competitor, and leave it at that. And we catch that, of course.

JACKIE JUDD: In just over two years, Yelp has caught 400 companies trying to game the system and has let consumers know with something of a scarlet letter.

It cooperated with an investigation by the New York attorney general, which led to 19 companies being fined for generating false reviews. Typically, though, this behavior goes unpunished.

Fraud detection is a deadly serious pursuit. Yelp spends millions of dollars on it annually and about 10 percent of its employees are on the hunt. The human touch involves workers eyeballing specific reviews for telltale signs of fraud, and software engineers change algorithms multiple times a day.

VINCE SOLLITTO: We're constantly learning more information about patterns, machine learning, data analysis, gathering more signals, figuring out which are more efficacious than others, so it's constantly being refined. There's tons of data points that we use as we sift through the 67 million reviews we have to figure out which ones we can recommend.

JACKIE JUDD: Here in Austin, Texas, there's a little known company called Bazaarvoice. It operates behind the scenes on behalf of some of the world's retail giants, including Costco and Wal-Mart. Bazaarvoice promises to weed out all but the authentic consumer reviews. It even monitors its own clients to make sure insiders are not posting five-star reviews.

The scale of Bazaarvoice is remarkable. Through its clients, it gets half-a-billion, with a B, unique visitors a months to consumer review pages. But the fraud rate is a tiny fraction of Yelp's because reviewers are verified customers of Bazaarvoice's clients. That still translates to a lot of potential trouble.

J.T. BUSER, Bazaarvoice: Nothing surprises me anymore.

JACKIE JUDD: J.T. Buser's title at Bazaarvoice, head of authenticity, is a sure sign of that.

J.T. BUSER: When we first started this, we would see just typical small-scale attacks. And now that — that's evolved into an entire significant way of getting reviews through the system. That includes high-end evasion techniques, evasion techniques to get around sophisticated anti-fraud systems.

JACKIE JUDD: If it sounds like an arms race, it is, the scammed trying to stay ahead of the scammers, and vice versa.

The advent of bots marked an escalation relation in the race, because they generate vast amount of content.

NICHOLAS WHITE: Bots are machines. They are robots. They're software programs that traffic on the Internet, that use the Internet just like you and I do, but for the purpose of generating clicks, which drives advertising revenue usually. And that is basically fraud.

JACKIE JUDD: J.T. Buser says Bazaarvoice can identify this kind of attack quickly, but he won't say how.

J.T. BUSER: We're being super secret, because one of the reasons is because we have to be. Years ago, we stopped looking at this as a review problem, and an actual legitimate fraud problem. And in that, we look at it in as the same mode or model of an anti-fraud shop at a financial institution.

JACKIE JUDD: If I were to write, create five different e-mails from this iPad and sent it out under different names, would you know it was all coming from this iPad?

J.T. BUSER: Right. Yes.

Yes, but there's also a lot things that we triangulate off of. So, it's not just one simple thing that we look at.

JACKIE JUDD: The reason so much effort is put into generating and detecting false reviews is, of course, money. Last summer alone, according to the government, online retail sales exceeded $78 billion, and that number is growing.

J.T. BUSER: We collect content for our clients. They use that content not only to display on their sites, but they use it to make decisions on how to change their products. So imagine if they spent millions of dollars and made decisions based off of content that was inauthentic.

JACKIE JUDD: So it's not only the front end, the consumer, but it's the back end too?

J.T. BUSER: It's the back end, too.

VINCE SOLLITTO: They actually have 429 reviews that are not currently recommended. And that's a lot.

JACKIE JUDD: Yelp's Vince Sollitto says there's a cost in credibility as well.

VINCE SOLLITTO: If a business misleads consumers by writing fake reviews and you go out and you have a bad meal as a result, so what? But what if you're looking for a pediatrician? What if you're looking for an urgent care clinic? What if you're looking for a pet groomer?

Well, consumers have a right to be able to trust and rely upon this information. And efforts by businesses to mislead them are really quite harmful.

JACKIE JUDD: The confidence of executives at both Yelp and Bazaarvoice about their abilities to catch most scammers may be misplaced. Knowing that with certainty the impossible. Nicholas White, the journalist and observer of life on the Internet, believes the arms race will never be won. It will just go on.

NICHOLAS WHITE: As sites manage to actually tamp down the fraudulent reviews, there's going to be some other way to manipulate money on the Internet and manipulate users on the Internet in a way that will make money. And people are just going to move on to that. So you have to be a savvy user to be a user of the Internet. Otherwise, you are going to be taken in.

JACKIE JUDD: How do you be a savvy user? What do you do?

NICHOLAS WHITE: First and foremost, you use your common sense on the Internet. If you read an online review and you can't imagine a friend saying it — you know, think of a friend. Read it in your head in their voice. If it doesn't sound authentic, it's probably not.

MAN: It's a walk in the park. It's nice, it's easy, it's quick, and it's a little bit of extra cash.

JACKIE JUDD: And you sleep at night?

MAN: I do. I do, indeed.

JACKIE JUDD: For the NewsHour, this is Jackie Judd in Austin, Texas.