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Your source for news, updates and guidance on all things trademarks and intellectual property.

What’s Not to Like?: The Growing Problem of Fake Online Reviews & Social Media Accounts

Sara Freixa | August 25, 2021
5 min read

Sara Freixa is the Director of Sales, IP and Security Strategies at Com Laude. Sara is a Trademark Attorney with a master’s degree in New Technologies Law. Sara started in the Domain Name Industry in 2002 and has worked in Law Firms, Registrars and Registries. She is experienced in topics that affect Legal, Marketing, and Security teams. Her background allows her to help clients develop in-house stakeholder groups to ensure internal groups work together in decisions that affect their brand online.

The rapid changes in the way we all interact with each other in the digital world has brought a host of new opportunities for brand and trademark holders to reach new customers and proactively engage with them.  Some of the most successful companies of the modern age are those that have pivoted their brand strategy, using new digital platforms to engage with customers and potential clients. The emergence of social engagement apps such as Instagram and TikTok are now more important for some brand holders than search engine optimization and traditional above the line marketing.

There is a continuing shift away from some of the more traditional, and even on-trend marketing strategies that have been used successfully in the past. For instance, Millennials and Generation Z, or anyone born since the turn of the 21st century, are less likely to be using email than the generations before, which reduces the effectiveness of e-marketing campaigns.  The communication channels of choice for today’s young consumers are based around messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, Snapchat and Instagram.

That’s not to say that other digital services are being ignored.  Internet use continues to grow significantly.  In 2020 for instance, Datarepotal reported that 96% of the UK population classed themselves as Internet users, with approximately 96% of those aged between 16 and 64 owning a smartphone. Providing online access in the palm of your hand has simplified, even strengthened, the way in which we view the digital world.

For instance, we are all guilty of looking online before we book a restaurant or a hotel, buy a product, or use a tradesman.  One of the major advantages of the Internet today is that it has become very easy to find, read, and consequently, leave feedback. In fact, for many small businesses, the one thing they crave as much as new customers are those five-star reviews from recent consumer experiences.

It doesn’t matter if it is a new restaurant down the road, a boutique hotel on a luxurious Greek island, the latest tech gizmo or gadget on an online marketplace, or a new podcast; the number of positive reviews impacts a wide range of factors that can make or break a business, especially one that is relatively new or trying to break into an already competitive and crowded market.

It isn’t a surprise to hear that negative or less than excellent reviews, can drive potential new customers away.  I am sure we have all been swayed to some extent by what complete strangers have said online when doing our own research before booking or buying something.

But what if these reviews are not as truthful as they should be?  How damaging can it be for brands in today’s digital landscape if the feedback processes are being abused or manipulated, either by being deceivingly positive or unfairly negative.  When it is so easy on many of the review and feedback mechanisms, what danger does that pose to brand holders who could be subject to malicious activity through deceitful negative reviews, or to damage their own reputation by publishing or enticing others to leave fake positive reviews in return for free products or cash incentives.

A study by one of the experts in social media engagement, Erik Qualmann, found that 93% of online shoppers’ choices are influenced by social media, while 90% of the participants said they would trust peer recommendations over traditional advertising.  We seem to trust reviews from complete strangers rather than word of mouth. These numbers give some context to the issue facing brand holders in monitoring for fake online reviews.

In 2019 the Federation of British Small Business (FSB) found in a survey of their members that over 20% reported issues in dealing with fake or malicious online reviews. Which?, a UK consumer group, carried out an undercover investigation in early 2021 into the practice of review manipulation services. They found over 50 firms in the UK alone that would provide positive reviews for an organization for cash. They were able to set up their own fictitious organization and then bought a number of fake five-star reviews, even writing their own reviews for people to post.

As with the secret sauce of search rankings, the algorithm used in online business listings is kept close to the chests of the review platforms but there is no doubt that the number of five-star reviews is a key factor. One very popular soccer podcast even mentions on their twice-weekly show that “You can say what you want in the comments section good or bad, just leave us a five-star review so we can stay at the top of the charts”.  However, most review platforms, including Google’s local business reviews, have terms and conditions that expressly forbid the use of fake reviews.

Paying someone, whether in cash or product, to say something that is untrue is misleading, false advertising, or at the worst end, fraudulent. For example, leading global travel website TripAdvisor has attempted to take action against entities who either wrote their own positive reviews or negative ones for competing businesses.

The practice has been with us for some time. Fake liking, or “Fliking”, as it has been dubbed, has been used by fraudsters for many years to essentially buy credibility.  It isn’t just reviews that can be easily bought online. Twitter retweets, Instagram likes, Facebook shares and TikTok followers are all available, quite openly, online.  A bad actor who is looking to launch a nefarious campaign will create the air of authenticity through their social media platforms by simply buying it.  We all know some of the most common warning signs of an online scam, but would you doubt a company that had thousands of followers on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook?

For brand holders, the challenge is to monitor this malicious activity across a wide range of digital platforms. Most social media networks work on a first come, first serve basis for setting up accounts, which means that many global brands do not own the social media accounts that match their brand or trademarks.  A famous example of this is John Lewis, a Computer Scientist from Blacksburg, Virginia, who has over 81,000 Twitter followers. Lewis legitimately claimed the Twitter handle @johnlewis in November 2007, three years before the well-known UK High Street store of the same name, John Lewis, established their social media presence. As an unfortunate result, Lewis patiently tries to handle questions and complaints that are directed mistakenly to him rather than the UK retailer.

Fraudsters use the same methods and channels as legitimate brands, utilizing social media, review websites, and launching their own email campaigns.  The reason why so many legitimate customers are defrauded is because of the sophisticated approach taken today.  While the traditional 419 scams, named after the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code which outlaws the practice, are still with us and still using the outlandish claims of fake royalty, disposed government officials and dying widows, the level of sophistication used in many illicit activities has increased significantly.

For brand and trademark holders, it is no longer enough just to use traditional Intellectual Property monitoring and enforcement.  While infringing domain names are still used for fraudulent purposes, the growing threat of fake social media accounts and online reviews is one that needs to be carefully considered by brand holders.

A robust brand protection strategy today encompasses all elements of the digital landscape, monitoring the dark corners of the Internet where threats can emerge from at any point.  Fake reviews damage revenues and reputation, while copycat social media accounts could be used to harvest personal and financial information that is then sold or used in more elaborate and damaging scams.  Finding these brand infringements and taking immediate action against the fraudsters is now an essential element in a brand protection approach that an organization should undertake on a regular basis.

While the social media and review platforms have increased their own monitoring to detect fake accounts or malicious and abusive activities, brand holders also have a responsibility to keep a watchful eye on the online world for infringement. The digital landscape will continue to expand, with new apps and ways that we will interact both as businesses and consumers of information, creating both opportunity and risk that the bad actors and brand abusers will look to exploit.

It may be an old adage but now it is more important than ever that we are all part of the solution rather than the problem of brand and IP abuse online.

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