Think twice before trusting online reviews as five stars are easily purchased

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Kim Williamson Hightower has built a business by word-of-mouth in more ways than one. She runs Kim’s Kakery, Bakery and Café on the south side of Indianapolis by creating unique and mouth-watering baked goods.

Word spreads quickly about Kim’s cupcakes, but it’s how that word has spread that’s changed. These days, Kim relies on online reviews posted on her Facebook page to attract new customers.

"It used to be word of mouth, now its word of social media,” said Kim. “We all share in this time of social media."

Research published last year by the market group BrightLocal found 84 percent of people surveyed trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation. In fact, 74 percent said positive reviews make them trust a business more. But consumer watchdogs say that trust is often misplaced.

"You could get duped, you could get into a situation where you're spending your money and it really wasn't what you expected," said Tim Maniscalo of the Better Business Bureau.

No one really knows what percentage of online reviews are fake. But some researchers estimate as much as a third of them are bogus. Many are either made up by the reviewed company or actually purchased by companies that sell positive reviews online.

CBS4 decided to find out how easy it really is to buy fake reviews. We created a logo, website, Facebook page and Twitter account for our own fake company, “Naptown Party Planning.” Then, using a website we won’t identify, we took $200 and bought 130 five star ratings on our Facebook page. That money also bought us 16 written, positive reviews. For just $6, we bought 1,000 Twitter followers, all for a business that doesn’t even exist.

"You can say anything, do anything on the Internet and there's really nobody to police it out there,” said Maniscalo.

Experts say the one of the most common ways to spot a fake review is to watch out for excessively positive language. Nobody’s perfect, a legitimate business should have some negative reviews. Check the dates on the reviews. If all the positive reviews flooded in at once, you may be looking at fake comments. Consider the language used on the review. Many fake reviewers aren’t native English speakers. If you notice weird language choices, that’s a tip off.

Finally, experts say all consumers should approach reviews with a healthy dose of skepticism. Don’t just assume they always come from a well-intentioned customer like you.

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