HOUSTON - In late October, a woman who does not want to be identified said she was approached at the food court of the Galleria and offered $10 in exchange for a lie.
Her friend secretly recorded the encounter on a phone.
"All I need is reviews," said the unidentified man in the video, who claimed to work for a national moving company.
He offered to write the review for her if she could download the Yelp app. Moments later, he's seen speaking a review into her phone and the exact words showed up on Yelp as a five-star review for Movers Fort Worth.
The company did not return calls for comment.
Paying for Reviews: Deceptive Advertising
According to the Federal Trade Commission, the practice of compensating consumers for reviews and not disclosing it to customers is illegal. The FTC has filed complaints on several companies for deceptive advertising related to online reviews.
A 2011 complaint against a company selling guitar-lesson DVDs forced the company to pay the agency $250,000 for hiring outside marketers to write reviews.
Last year, Sony got into hot water with the FTC when it was discovered reviews written about one of its gaming counsols was actually written by employees for an advertising agency hired by Sony.
In February, the agency penalized Amerifreight, a Georgia-based automobile shipment broker, for offering customers payment in the form of discounts for their reviews.
Since theses companies led customers to believe the testimonials were unbiased and did not disclose that the writers were compensated, the government considers the practice deceptive advertising.
Web of Companies inflating Yelp ratings
The incident caught on camera in the Galleria was not the first time Yelp heard about a company paying to inflate their rating. When Channel 2 Investigates brought the video to the attention of a representative of Yelp, the review search engine was able to connect Movers Fort Worth to a scheme of other moving companies across the country allegedly doing the same thing.
Yelp has placed consumer warnings on the pages for all of these companies, and reviews are no longer accessible.
"It's a tricky, complicated situation, because some of these moving companies use different names and different affiliations and I don't know if we are there yet," said Rachel Walker, a senior public relations manager at Yelp. "But I think this is a really good first step in attacking the problem."
Channel 2 Investigates sent direct messages to dozens of reviewers for the top-rated moving companies in Houston on Yelp. One woman admitted to a similar encounter the woman in the Galleria experienced. She said she was approached at Café Nu in Chinatown and was offered $20 to give a five-star review to a moving company. She agreed to write the review but later said she realized it was deceptive.
She did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation from the company.
Two other Yelp users said they were compensated with discounts off their move in exchange for a review.
Walker said Yelp has software that can identify if a review seems illegitimate and it automatically removes anything from the recommended section of the company's page if it seems bogus.
Red flags for fake reviews
Houston's Better Business Bureau has an employee assigned to verifying reviews on its site.
"For a consumer to look at reviews, they almost need to go out and look at what does Yelp do, what does Amazon do, what does the BBB do to verify reviews," said Susan Schade, the director of dispute resolution for BBB Houston.
Schade said consumers should look for catch phrases like 'best service ever' or really generic language that does not give specifics of an experience. She also recommended reading several review sites to see if the reviews have the same exact language on every site.
The FTC also encourages consumers to be skeptical and consider the source of the information.
You can find more information right here.
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