Fake Online Reviews? Here's How to Spot Them

It’s probably a big part of your shopping routine: checking out online reviews before you make a purchase, visit a restaurant or consider a contractor.

But can you trust them?

But it turns out some five-star reviews are not what they appear to be.

Consider the online recommendations attributed to one "Scott Hubbard."

The real Scott Hubbard helped NASA send probes to Mars and plumb the depths of space for signs of intelligent life.

"I’ve been involved in that and been looking for life elsewhere in the universe for 45 years," he told NBC 6.

But rather than finding alien life in the stars, he found deception in the five-star reviews attached to his picture and last name on what he says is a fake Google profile – one used to give glowing reviews to businesses across the country.

"I was truly surprised," he said – and none too happy. "My first reaction was to be angry. Because this is, sort of, a form of identity theft."

NBC 6 found the California man’s name and face attached to five-star reviews across Florida and the nation – including a review for M3 Artificial Grass and Turf in Medley.

The company’s owner, in an interview outside his offices, told NBC 6 he had no knowledge of anyone misleading his potential customers with fake reviews.

"Misleading people about what?" responded Juan-Carlos Mereles. "I have no reason to."

Asked how Hubbard wound up online as one of his most satisfied customers, he said, "How am I supposed to know?"

The Federal Trade Commission has taken an interest in fake online reviews.

"Fake reviews are illegal. To buy or to sell a fake review is illegal," said Mary Engle of the FTC, noting the agency can cite and fine companies that mislead consumers. "We see ourselves as traffic cops – trying to keep the worst violators off the roads knowing that we’re never going to prevent all speeding."

Mereles said he uses other companies for "reputational marketing."

Asked if the presence of Hubbard – who is not a customer – among his five-star reviewers suggests his reputational marketer may be deploying fake reviews, Mereles said, "I pay for a service" and questioned how he or anyone could know whether they were fake.

Just ask Scott Hubbard, who said, "I have never bought any artificial turf in Miami, Florida."

Nor has he used M3’s painting operation in Fort Lauderdale – though it is also lauded by a review attached to a Hubbard profile.

"You should have your guard up," warned internet consultant Jason Brown. He tracks fake online reviews and says millions of them mix real people and real photos with fake names and fake feedback.

He lists some suspicious review activity on his website, reviewfraud.org.

"There are just countless businesses all across the United States that are falsifying reviews," he said.

Yelp.com estimates 25 percent of the reviews on its sites are bogus or biased.

While there’s usually no proof businesses benefitting from fake reviews are behind the fakes, there is money to be made from good reviews.

A Harvard study found restaurants see a revenue spike of 5 to 9 percent when an online rating increases by just one star.

As for Mereles’ companies, they do have real-live satisfied customers; we found no lawsuit against him or his companies.

But there are some suspicious profiles offering big props to M3 businesses.

Someone supposedly named "Barbara Stevenson," who’s given 13 five-star reviews from Fort Lauderdale to Paris, uses a picture of a Czechoslovakian karaoke performer.

And "Elizabeth Helsley," a dead ringer for a teen actress from the movie "An American Doll," posted two glowing mentions of MS businesses, as well as blinds stores in Morocco and a search-engine optimization service in Portugal.

"That’s awesome. Maybe she’s a world traveler?" Mereles suggested, though adding he cannot recall if she was ever a customer.

"I don’t recall any names," he said, adding, "I have plenty of customers. I’m not going to give you my customer list."

But one name apparently not on it: Scott Hubbard, who hopes whoever is behind fake reviews would cut it out, warning, "In the end, you will be found out!"

To help identify fake reviews, open the user’s profile to see all the reviews. If they are vague, but 100 percent positive, take those posts lightly.

And check where the reviews are going. If the same reviewer is active in multiple cities for the same product or service, that could be a red flag.

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