If you rely on online reviews to pick restaurants, businesses and services, beware: the reviewers you're depending on may be fake.
The NBC4 I-Team uncovered hundreds of apparently fraudulent reviews for Southern California businesses, and online experts warn there could be millions more. The suspicious reviews appear on Google, Facebook and Yelp, and praise the services provided by restaurants, dentists, doctors and home remodelers, among many others.
Beverly Hills dentist Dr. Rodney Raanan told the I-Team he could not explain the source of what appear to be dozens of online fake reviews for his practice on Google and Facebook.
"Interesting," he said, when told about Google "reviewers" whose online profiles feature allegedly made-up names paired with photos of actors, actresses and other well-known personalities.
One reviewer, identified as "Janet Downer," gives Ranaan a "5 star" rating on Google, but her profile picture actually belongs to Whitney Miller, winner of the first season of Fox TV's "MasterChef."
"I'm not Janet Downer," Miller told the I-Team. "I've never heard of [Raanan]."
Miller says her photo was taken off the Internet and used to create a fake reviewer profile.
Other celebrities whose images are being used in online reviews for Raanan include actress Abigail Breslin, who appeared in the films "Little Miss Sunshine" and "American Girl," Broadway star Ben Rappaport, and the big screen's "Incredible Hulk" Mark Ruffalo.
"That's not him," confirmed Ruffalo's publicist, when shown her client's photo, matched with a profile of a reviewer named "Mark Hengry." A public records search found no evidence that a person named "Mark Hengry" even exists.
Publicists for Breslin, whose image is used in a profile for reviewer "Zara Emily," and Rappaport, whose image is used in a profile for reviewer "Daniel Lewis," told the I-Team their clients did not submit the reviews, and have never been Raanan's patients.
Asked if knew why his practice's Facebook and Google pages have so many apparently phony reviews, Raanan said "No."
"I have to get to the bottom of this," Raanan said.
"There are easily over a million fake reviews online," says Internet consultant Jason Brown, founder of reviewfraud.org. The website is dedicated to informing consumers about suspicious reviews and lists thousands of businesses with apparently phony reviews.
Athena Air Conditioning & Heating of Burbank is another local business given 5-star reviews by what appear to be phony online reviewers.
On Google, "Marilyn R. Park" thanks Athena AC "for sending your technicians to my home so quickly to fix the furnace late in the night!!"
The photo for "Marilyn R. Park" actually belongs to Alicia Kozakiewicz, a Pittsburgh-based crime victims' advocate and motivational speaker who was abducted by a stranger when she was 13 years old.
"[The use of my image] is another form of exploitation," Kozakiewicz said.
"The review implies it's safe to invite this company's employees into your home late at night," she continued. "Considering my background, I find it really troubling."
The I-Team also found suspicious reviews on Yelp, including several for The House Next Door construction company in North Hollywood. One reviewer for the company, "Alexis R.," complimented the company's work on her kitchen, and posted a photo of the finished space. However, NBC4's research shows the picture is actually a professional "stock photo," which anyone can buy off the Internet. And "Alexis R.'s" photo appears to belong to a Russian model who lives in the Russian city of Novocheboksarsk, on the banks of the Volga River.
The I-Team contacted representatives of Athena Air Conditioning & Heating and The House Next Door for comment. Representatives of both companies promised to investigate and get back in touch, but neither did.
Google declined to speak with the I-Team about suspicious reviews. Instead, the company said in a written statement that "We use automated systems to detect for spam and fraud, but we tend not to share details behind our processes."
Yelp did speak with the I-Team, acknowledging that the website does not recommend about 25 percent of reviews submitted to Yelp, including reviews that are fake, biased, or unhelpful rants and raves.
A Yelp spokeswoman says the company employs proprietary software to "weed out suspicious content, and it's evaluating hundreds of data points across millions of reviews on an ongoing basis."
Yelp also allows users to "flag" suspicious reviews. If an investigation determines the reviews aren't authentic, Yelp will post a "consumer alert" to make users aware of the issue.
Amazon has also taken action to crack down on fake reviews. A spokeswoman says the company has brought lawsuits against thousands of defendants for reviews abuse, and "we will continue to pursue legal action against the root cause of reviews abuse — the sellers and manufacturers who create the demand for fraudulent reviews."
"You shouldn't just take one website's reviews as fact," Brown said. "I'll check Google, Facebook, Yelp. I'll check the Better Business Bureau."