Randy Responds

‘Cheating Is Rewarded': Some Yelp Elite Reviews May Be Fake

A few years back, Yelp launched its Elite Squad. Here's what the I-Team learned about when quick cash is too easy to turn down.

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Most of us read online reviews, and many of us rely on them. We consider the opinions of others when buying a product or service.

But as our I-Team investigations have uncovered in the past: some reviews are fake and can’t be trusted. And now they’ve found yet another reason why you can’t always trust the reviews you read. 

If you’re looking for a mechanic, plumber or dentist, you might find somebody on Yelp.

A few years back, the company launched its Elite Squad. Those “yelpers” get a badge. Yelp calls them “a trusted voice” – “real people, real reviews.”

But the I-Team learned - that’s not always true.

We talked to one Yelp Elite, who didn’t want to share his name, who says he’s written some fake Elite reviews. He says it started when someone reached out to him on Instagram, offering to pay him $20 to post a fake review for a moving company in Northern California. 

“I was like, well I don’t live there, but whatever, I’ll do it,” he said.

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He said the offers for posting fake reviews kept coming in, from a carpet cleaning business and an insurance agent. He says the quick cash was too easy to turn down. 

“I did a few already, it was kind of easy, it was a quick $20, no one said anything about it, no one called me out, so I was like, whatever, I’ll just post it,” he said.

Kay Dean says he’s not the only Yelp Elite who’s posted fake reviews. 

“I was shocked at what I was seeing,” she said.

Dean says she started digging into the issue about four years ago, after she had a bad experience with a doctor she found on Yelp, who had great reviews.

So Dean’s now a part-time sleuth, making it her mission to track fake reviews. She calls the problem massive, and says fake reviews can easily trick consumers, because they’re often detailed, can even include pictures, and of course, they can have that badge. 

Dean’s frustrated that Yelp isn’t aggressive enough in taking down fake reviews. She says somebody needs to make them do it. 

“I think there needs to be a change in legislation, to hold the tech companies accountable for everything they’re allowing,” she said. “They’re doing far too little to police their own platforms.”

But it doesn’t look like that will happen anytime soon. There’s proposed federal legislation that would hold Yelp and other companies accountable for fake reviews, but only if someone can show they’ve been harmed by one. 

And last fall, the Federal Trade Commission said it put hundreds of businesses on notice about fake reviews, threatening hefty fines. The I-Team asked the FTC if it issued any fines, but we didn’t get a response. 

“So basically the current environment is that cheating is rewarded, business ethics are eroding, and millions of consumers and honest businesses suffer,” said Dean.

In a statement to the I-Team, Yelp said: “We take significant measures to maintain the integrity and quality of the content on Yelp.” It said it does this using automated software, human moderation and consumer alerts. Yelp also said it “strictly prohibits offering payment for reviews.” And if it finds a Yelp user has been paid, it will remove their reviews and close their account. 

After the I-Team started digging into Elite reviews, Yelp did close some accounts, including the account of the man who spoke to us. Dean says consumers still need to be careful. 

“I would tell consumers to use extreme caution when considering or using online reviews,” she said. “And that you’d be much better off talking to real people and getting reviews.”

If you come across reviews you suspect are fake, report them to the FTC

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