Online reviews: The good the bad and the ugly

How much do you rely on reviews online? One review watchdog speaks with CityNews about the problem of fake reviews and how they harm consumers looking to hire a business. Pat Taney reports.

By Pat Taney

In response to a sharp rise in home renovation fraud across the GTA, CityNews has been looking at ways to prevent consumers from becoming victims. Today, we’re taking a look at online reviews.

When searching for a service to hire, many of us start our search online. Most businesses have profiles on Google and other websites which show a star rating followed by write ups from former customers. We’re all looking for that glowing five star profile backed up by detailed reviews from what we often assume are legitimate customers.

Francesco Ferro, who lives in Vaughan, did a deep online dive before hiring a contractor to redo his home.

“The reviews were fantastic, five stars,” he told us about the contractor he eventually hired.

But that contractor took a hefty deposit and failed to finish the work. Ferro later found several other customers of that contractor with similar stories.

“What we later determined, through our own research after the fact, is those reviews were fake, posted by family members and not actual customers,” Ferro told us.

It’s a problem that’s more common than most people realize said Kay Dean. She’s the founder of Fake Review Watch, a website dedicated to exposing the problem of fake reviews and the victims who fall for them.

“I don’t trust them at all,” Dean told us from her home office in San Jose, California, where she’s based.  “There are just too many fake reviews out there right now.”

Dean is a former U.S. federal investigator and after personal experience with dealing with bad online reviews, started a new mission.

“The focus of my research has been on the role and the culpability of the tech companies regarding the fake review problem.”

She says giants like Google make it too easy for people to fake reviews.

“They are not self-policing, as my research has shown. They need to devote more resources to the fake review problem.”

Through her website and YouTube channel she works to investigate and uncover cases of fake online reviews.

It’s just a great way to show the public what’s going on with real examples,” she said.  “The fake review problem is so large, I find that showing the public real examples as case studies, works very well.”

On her website, she looks at several cases where businesses are either asking family members to write reviews or even hiring companies overseas to do the same.

“There are numerous companies out there where you pay them to write fake reviews, they are not real customers and often times these so-called reviewers aren’t even in the area of the business being reviewed.”


Dean says the problem doesn’t only cost consumers who fall prey to fraudulent reviews by hiring a business that may end up not providing the service promised. It also hurts legitimate businesses with real reviews.

Really the small businesses, who are playing by the rules, are most affected by this. Businesses live and die by their reviews today and too many reviews from bad acting competitors are fake.”

Dean points to a Canadian business she recently highlighted in one of her YouTube videos.

Alena Saric and her husband own Direct Cell a cellphone sales and repair company with several locations in Ontario. They’ve been in business for more than 10 years and heavily depend on their customers who post legitimate Google reviews.

Saric claims a competitor, located less than a mile from one of her stores,  hired a company overseas to write them fake positive reviews. Saric filed complaints with Google and the Canadian Competition Bureau but told Dean nothing was done.

“This competitor had 98 five-star reviews coming in within a 12 hour period,” Dean said in the video posted in 2022. After investigating, she determined the people claiming to be customers were  located in India, not Ontario.

Google did end up removing more than 200 of the reviews they determined were fake but Dean says it did little to affect the competitor’s rating.

“So Google apparently removed 210 reviews for that location yet the business retains its five-star rating,” Dean said in her video.

Dean’s also seen numerous cases of legitimate businesses being unfairly targeted by competitors.

“They’ll write a fake negative online review damaging that company’s reputation.”

Dean puts the blame solely on the tech giants who she says are not doing enough to tackle the problem.

They’re in the best position to be doing more because they have all the information. They need to be doing more and devote the resources and they’re not.”


In a response, Google said it does police reviews posted on their platform 24-7.

“Using a combination of people and technology,” a spokesperson told us. “When we find scammers trying to mislead people, we take swift action ranging from content removal to account suspension and even litigation.

The spokesperson says In 2022, Google blocked or removed over 115 million policy-violating reviews, with the majority of them being caught before they were ever seen. 

“As bad actors continue to evolve their strategies, we stopped 20 million attempts to create fake business profiles. We also put protections in place for more than 185,000 businesses after detecting suspicious activity and abuse attempts,” the spokesperson told us.

Dean did point out that Google has taken some action, removing millions of fake reviews, but as large of a number as that is, she says it’s a small dent in what she describes as a massive problem.

“Look, they talk a good game but the fact of the matter is they’re still not doing enough to address this,” she said. I use no automation in my research, and the amount of fraud that I can uncover is shocking, so it should be eye opening to Google and the other sites. How can they not see this?”


According to the Associated Press, U.S. federal regulators have been aiming to crack down on bogus reviews which deceive consumers.

In June, the Federal Trade Commission proposed a new rule that, among other things, would prohibit businesses from selling or obtaining fake reviews, suppressing honest reviews and selling fake social media engagement.

Businesses would also be prohibited from creating or controlling a website that claims to provide independent opinions about its products and employing other practices like “review hijacking,” which makes reviews for one product appear like they were written for different ones. If the proposal is adopted, violators can be face penalties.

Here in Canada, the Competition Bureau released a public alert last month, warning customers about the fake review problem.

“Anyone who writes or permits writing reviews that give a false or misleading impression to consumers could be liable under the Competition Act,” the alert read. “Reviews must be transparent and truthful to allow consumers to make informed shopping choices.”

“Online reviews often strike at the heart of a consumer’s buying decision. Shoppers trust that reviews are from real unbiased customers, just like them. When employees post reviews without disclosing their relationship with the business, consumers are misled. We will not hesitate to vigorously pursue enforcement action against problematic reviews,” said Commissioner of Competition, Matthew Boswell.


Some of the most used platforms for travel and online shopping said back in October they’re going to team up to battle fake reviews.

Amazon, reviews site Glassdoor and Trustpilot, as well as travel companies Expedia Group, and Tripadvisor said in an announcement they’re launching a coalition that aims to protect access to “trustworthy consumer reviews” worldwide.

The companies said the members of the group, which will be called the Coalition for Trusted Reviews, will look for best practices for hosting online reviews and share methods on how to detect fake ones. That will include developing standards for what constitutes a fake review and sharing information about how bad actors operate.

While it’s too early to see what impact that all will have, Dean continues her work to expose fake reviews.  She also tries to educate consumers who do rely on reviews online.

“If I see a business with only five star reviews, that’s always a red flag to me.”

She also recommends consumers look for patterns in reviews. For instance, if a business has one negative review, followed by a series of positive reviews, you may want to investigate further.

That could be an indication that the business may be trying to bury legitimate negative reviews.”

She says to pay attention to the online profile of the person making a specific review.

Google allows profiles to be locked or private, so I dismiss locked private profiles. This is a tactic used by fakers to hide their review patterns from you.”

Dean admits there are a plethora of businesses playing by the rules but she cautions anyone from solely using information they find online to hire someone.

“I have gone back to the tried-and-true method of getting your information by word of mouth,” she said. “It takes more time but that remains the gold standard.”

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