According to this BBC article, the Virginia Court of Appeals has issued a ruling that customers who wrote negative reviews on Yelp for a carpet cleaning service must be identified. The carpet cleaning company claims that the reviews were posted by people who were not customers.
While this may seem like a win for every business owner that had a fake review posted about them, this won’t stop organized manipulation of reviews. In actuality it will negatively impact Yelp’s business as people start censoring their opinions out of fear that a law suit could be on the way after making a truthful criticism.
So, how do organized fake reviewers do it and not have to worry about this legal issue? The answer is quite simple: VPN, fake emails, and fake profiles.
Step 1 Get a VPN
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. A VPN allows you to hide your IP address and makes it look like you are posting from a different geographic location. That part is important so lets take a moment to explain.
Every user has an IP address. This is how a computer on a network knows where to send information. Think of it like a mailing address. You ask their computer to show you a website and so they “mail” those pictures and text to your IP address. And like a mailing address it’s associated with a state and city. An IP can indicate where you are located in the US.
The VPN is important because these Virtual Private Networks cover the fake reviewer’s tracks. Additionally, they make the fake profile look like it’s coming from the city where the company being reviewed is located.
Step 2 Get a Fake Email
Using that VPN set up a fake email account on Gmail.com, Outlook.com, or any other free email provider. They will then use this email account to set up a fake profile.
Step 3 Setup a Fake Yelp Profile
Using the VPN and email address they secured, they set up a fake Yelp profile. Keep in mind, these profiles will look completely real. They will upload a photo that they grabbed off the Internet, fill out all the bio and then they are set to start cranking out fake reviews.
The really smart manipulators will make sure their IP address, profile bio location i.e. where they are from, and the locations they review are all in the same city. Only amateurs looking to get caught or have their reviews filtered would be dumb enough to not make sure the IP address is in the same city as the business being reviewed. It is a dead give away when you have someone with a California IP address reviewing a Boston pizza place. The only exception I can see is for travel sites. A geographic location mismatch is more common as people will return home before reviewing a resort.
Even though the court is trying to help business mitigate the damage done by fake reviews, the real professionals won’t get caught because they use sophisticated ways to hide their identity. What is extremely dangerous to Yelp’s bottom line is the idea that people will start leaving less reviews out of fear that a pizza joint that you gave one star will accuse you of not having been a customer and slap you with a law suit. Censorship is the death of review sites and Yelp knows it.