The Internet's Dirty Little Secret

I consider this article to be more important and consequential than anything I've written. Whatever I've written before, no matter how important it was, remained within the confines of sport fishing and the fishing industry. This one though extends beyond the fishing trade to touch on the great majority of products and services you use.

As I type I'll insert illustrations, some will be directly related to the paragraph next to it and some will be items related to the issue in general. As usual, I will not include links because URLs change and move requiring constant updating of addresses, but if you want to fully read any of articles pictured here you can Google sentences from them between quotation marks. For example if one of the screenshot says "the reaction of Kermit the frog to the video was pretty realistic", you can find the original article by Googling "reaction of Kermit the frog to the" between quotation marks to find it. If you do it without the quotation marks you will get results for scattered words. With this out of the way, I'll begin.

It's 2018. Brick and mortar stores -big and small- are closing down in unprecedented numbers. Printed publications are vanishing or rushing to change format before it's too late. Some professions such as travel agents and news stand vendors are quickly disappearing. And postal services are struggling to remain viable. The world is changing because of the prevalence of the internet, where people now read their news and magazines, book their own flights and hotels, send messages, do their shopping, and more importantly read reviews of the merchandise and services they intend to buy.

It's that last bit that I'm interested in; the online reviews. People used to buy something based on a word from a friend or a neighbour, an advertisement in a magazine, a chat with a shop owner or an employee, etc. This is no longer the case, and you probably wouldn't remember the last time you picked up the phone to ask your mate what he thinks about something you want to buy. A most powerful acknowledgement of the supremacy of internet reviews is the fact that some TV and magazine advertisements now cite the online reviews the product has. Imagine paying the big money for a TV or a print advertisement, only to use a good portion of it to tout the internet reviews of the product. This dominance of the internet as the primary source of product reviews did not only happen gradually with the normal demographic cycle (older shoppers going and younger ones replacing them), but it was boosted by the popularity of hand-held devices in the past years. At one point being online meant sitting on a desktop computer or carrying a laptop, but suddenly everyone could access the internet on tiny devices that they carry in their pockets. Well, or sometimes in their brassieres, as was the case with the ample-bosomed lady who sat across from me in Frankfurt airport's gate A28 last November. If you ever read this, please get in touch. I was wearing a blue shirt and smiled at you, and you gave me a look of absolute disgust then changed your seat. I felt a connection though and hope to hear from you if you felt the same. But I digress....

As with every new phenomenon, some have been actively seeking ways to exploit online reviews to make money fraudulently, and they have succeeded in a way that I think surpassed all their expectations. Not talking here about the run of the mill "sponsored" reviews we see in magazines and on websites, rather talking about the volume reviews responsible for product ratings found everywhere on the web, from trade sites such as Amazon, to online shops, search engines, social media, rating sites, businesses and services own sites, etc. In other words, all the "user reviews" you see almost everywhere. I'll give you the short version in a few words first: the vast majority of all the positive reviews you read anywhere of any product or service are fake, and virtually everyone does it no matter how respectable you perceive them to be. The exceptions are too few to the point of being statistically insignificant. This is the short version and you can stop reading now, or you can continue to read if you want the long and painful version that will most likely make you hate the world.

In the past fake positive reviews were not very hard to spot, because you'd either look at the review and find no proof that the person actually bought the item, or you would visit the profile of the "reviewer" and find no other reviews at all or a bunch of positive reviews for products of the same company. Yes, some fake reviews today still follow this primitive formula, but the majority of fake reviews in existence have long moved past this to become extremely sophisticated and almost impossible to identify.

Today's fake review are works of art in a matter of speaking. They have labels next to them stating "verified purchase", "confirmed order", "real customer", etc. to lend them credibility, the profiles of the "reviewers' contain a long history of normal looking reviews of unrelated products with different ratings, and some of these reviews include photographs showing the happy reviewers using the product or enjoying the service. In the world of fishing this usually translates to pictures of nice catches and similar. The evolution of fake reviews leading to this point is quite interesting. Fake reviews used to be posted by people working for the business itself who personally post and ask their friends and family members to do the same, but these generally did not have what it takes to make the reviews pass basic authenticity checks. Then everything changed when professional entities entered the game to do the dirty deed for money, and on a whole new level of complexity. These entities are usually shadowy and don't openly advertise what they do, but they are everywhere. They usually describe themselves using descriptions of legitimate businesses such as "Online Marketing", "Reputation Management", "Website Services", "Search Engine Optimisation" (SEO), etc. For short I will refer to them as SEOs for the rest of this article.

The title is self-explanatory, and the picture is an accurate depiction of the typical tosser who works for these SEOs.

The SEOs recruit huge numbers of these sad losers, mostly via ad sites and social media. Do you know the "make money from home" ads you frequently see? Sometimes these are pyramid schemes or other marketing scams deigned to screw you, but in other instances that's how the SEOs find recruits to write fake reviews and screw everyone else. A sad tosser who doesn't have enough intelligence to make money honestly would agree to write fake reviews for the SEO, and if he/she has a working credit card they will most likely secure the job immediately. If they don't have one or their credit history is terrible, they are instructed by the SEO to deposit as low as $200 in any local bank and get a secured credit card. It takes a week or two, then they would be ready to work.

The way it works is that a business, service, or a product manufacturer would approach the SEO and purchase a package of verified positive reviews for their business. The SEO would then instruct the recruits to commence. These recruits would go to the trade site on which the product is sold, place orders and pay with their credit cards like regular customers, and because they placed an order they get to write fake positive reviews that will have the coveted "verified purchase" or "confirmed order" emblem next to them. The product is never actually shipped or delivered to these recruits because the business/service/manufacturer who paid for the fake reviews knows that these orders are coming from the SEO, and the money paid by the recruits is money that the business/service/manufacturer had already paid in advance to the SEO when the package of fake reviews was purchased. The actual cost to the business/service/manufacturer would then be the fees paid to the SEO, and the percentage charged by the trade site where the product was sold (on average 3%). The fake verified reviews would go online, and the recruits would receive the money they spent back plus an extra for themselves from the SEO. These fake 4 and 5 star reviews would then make the product look fantastic, lure victims to make real purchases, and the business/service/manufacturer would make a large profit and use some of it to order more fake reviews in a continuous cycle.

These recruits need to maintain the accounts and keep them active, they would build a long history of "verified reviews", from time to time they would make an actual purchase of a random item then leave a neutral or negative review for it to maintain a maximum realistic appearance, therefore it becomes almost impossible to identify these accounts as professional reviewers. The SEO usually holds some payment from these recruits and always make a delayed payment, so that when a recruit wants to quit he/she is asked to surrender control of that well built account to the SEO who would assign it to another recruit from the same region, then pay the departing recruit the rest of their money and part ways. The host trade site would not have a problem with a new credit card being used for an existing account, as long as the new shipping address matches the new card's billing address for the first few orders to be placed next.

During my investigation I got in touch with some SEOs to know how they work. I applied to be a fake reviewer to see how the recruits are instructed, I also approached some SEOs as a prospective purchaser of fake positive reviews for my business, and I asked questions pretending to simply be curious about the quality of the reviews I'll be buying. My efforts met various degrees of success, but I got a lot of explanations for things that previously baffled me. I learned how the recruits for certain jobs are chosen first from native speakers of the target language, then if not enough native speakers are available they use the ones who are fluent in that language but tell them to keep it simple to avoid errors. Also, amazingly, recruits are even given lists of mistakes committed by natives and told to repeat these errors in reviews for realism. For example recruits are told to sometimes use an apostrophe erroneously in plural nouns like many native English speakers unfortunately do today, so for example they would write "I bought 3 reel's" instead of the correct "reels". 

I learned as well how sometimes the recruits would receive pre-written reviews that include technical details only a genuine user would know, and other times the recruits would search and do a "modified copying". This means looking for existing old reviews of similar products elsewhere, copying them, then changing the wording before posting the fake review to make it impossible to find the original with a search. For example they would go to a site where an old review says "I bought the reel and matched it to a 6' rod and landed red snapper up to....", and they would change it to become "I purchased the reel and paired it with a 7' rod and caught snapper up to". then post the amended review on the target site. These recruits are well managed, each writes a small batch of reviews on one site then moves to another site, then a third site, so by the time he/she cycles back to the first site the frequency of their reviews there would not look very suspicious.

Of course this is just a quick general description of it. The industry is vast and complex, and there are hundreds of complicated scenarios that they navigate successfully. One would ask for example, how could they do that whole fictitious order thing to post verified reviews if the item is sold and shipped by the trade site itself and not by a seller? Easy, look at any item sold and shipped by a trade site itself, and you will find other buying options on the same page. If you buy from anyone on that list of other buying options, your "verified review" will appear on the main page of the product that is sold and shipped by the trade site itself, without any indication that the review belongs to a purchase made through one of the other buying options.

What about items that are sold by a third party, but the orders are fulfilled by the trade the site, meaning there can be no fictitious orders that do not actually ship? Well, an item that is fulfilled by a trade site has not always been like that. The sellers would sell it directly and use SEOs to generate fake reviews, then they would ship a number of the items to the fulfilment centres of the trade site to sell to real victims. The seller would then take over selling the product themselves again and generate more fake reviews, etc. The fulfilment by the trade site is something the seller turns on and off.

I only addressed a couple scenarios here, which some might raise to confuse you and convince you that their reviews can't possibly be fake. There are literally hundreds of other scenarios though that would need tens of articles to cover, so you have to be smart and not let anyone fool you by raising any of them.  

These fake reviews are not just bought by established and well known companies, but their availability created a whole new business model where anyone could buy a wholesale shipment of some garbage product from China, list it for sale on any trade site under whatever business name they come up with that morning, buy a few packages of fake reviews from a SEO, then make tens of thousands of dollars selling off that garbage merchandise at a huge profit. They would then move on and start all over again with a completely different name and product, so for the first quarter of the year they would be "Peeping Tom Corporation" selling night-vision goggles for you to spy on your neighbour in the shower, then in the second quarter the same people would become "Lonely Hearts LTD." selling blow-up sheep for lovemaking purposes.

Not only that, these SEOs also provide different kinds of recruits to be social media fans and make the pages look vibrant and full of happy customers, as well as write fake positive reviews on Facebook pages etc. One of the things these social media recruits do is when someone posts that a product failed, and immediately these recruits would comment on that post with "testimonies" that they have the same product and it works great. This is one of the more popular services offered today, and many established big companies in all fields are some of its biggest customers.

Not directly related to the subject in hand, but it took me a long time hunting until I could be there at the right time to capture this telling example. This is a social media post that hadn't been up for a whole minute yet (therefore the "just now") but it already had 161 likes. The subject of the post itself belongs to a whole different category of scams, but just demonstrating how social media recruits work quickly, efficiently, and in big numbers. Of course when a victim sees this number of likes they would think that it must be such a wonderful thing, and fall for it. Examining some of these 161 accounts I found many to be well disguised fakes, mostly with a ton of friends and realistic activity, and I also found some that were the genuine accounts of the recruits. You might be under the impression that social media sites catch and eliminate fake and abused accounts, but they just can't do that.

Speaking of what can be done about it

In the UK the government has been pushing back against the fake reviews industry, since potentially more than half the adult population of the country is affected.

In the USA the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) is also putting up a fight.

Some SEOs have been busted.

And some trade sites have brought lawsuits against some companies.

How is it all working out?

None of the efforts has put a dent in the fake reviews machine, and it seems to be gaining more momentum according to studies, and my own observations paint a similarly gloomy picture of the situation.

Another method to generate fake reviews has been rising in popularity lately, and some sellers/services/manufacturers have either switched completely to it, or are using it in conjunction with the SEO method. This method is what I call "stooging the consumers", which is turning your fellow buyers themselves into unwitting stooges who write fake reviews for free. It works as follows;

Genuine consumers would buy a product or a service. They would then receive an email from the seller/manufacturer/service asking them to write a review, in return for a 5% or 10% discount coupon to use on their next order. That 5% or 10% coupon gives the person the illusion of having money in their pocket, so they go straight away and write the review as requested, then indeed receive the coupon. That round of reviews written by these stooges would lure more victims, who in turn buy the product then receive the offer to write reviews for a coupon, and it goes on to become a perpetual motion of stooges bringing more victims who in turn become stooges. Of course not everyone who receives the offer becomes a stooge and some people do not do it, but unfortunately enough of them  go with the flow and become a part of a chain reaction that generates an endless stream of fake reviews.

This is devilishly smart from the seller/manufacturer/service, because they create a herd that use their own individual accounts to write "verified reviews", therefore they'd be doing job of the SEOs but without the costs involved in using a SEO. The coupons don't really cost them anything. They have a limited time frame to be used, usually 30 or 45 days, which sounds like eternity in the mind of the stooge, but in reality less than 5% of them will actually get around to using these coupons before the expiry date. Even with those 5% who will use the coupons, the seller/manufacturer/service still wins because they'd have just made a new sale at a miniscule discount that many would have given to anyone who asks for it anyway. The stooge who writes a review because someone dangled a coupon before his eyes is not a high end customer who buys expensive stuff, rather he's a person on a budget who usually buys lower priced items, making the discount they get even more worthless. 95% of these "verified reviews" though are written for free because the coupons will not be used before expiry, and the seller/manufacturer/service pockets more money than if they had enlisted the services of professionals.

In preparation for this article I talked to a number of merchants who solicit these reviews for their products or services, and was told what amounts to "we are not doing anything wrong because we just invite people to write what they think of the product". That's an argument that doesn't stand scrutiny. If they have to bribe people with coupons, then they are most certainly doing something that tips the scales in their favour, or they would not have bothered. Let me even take it a step further and imagine a scenario where they are not offering any reward, and only ask people to write a review without anything in return. Does that make it right? No, let me explain why; someone buys a product, they take it out of the box, and they find that it's working and not broken, which happens virtually all the time with the rare exception of a product that malfunctioned right out of the box. The person is then asked to write a review. What is that review going to look like? Will that person who bought the product and found it to be working give the product 1 star out of 5? Of course not. Will they take out two stars for no particular reason and give it 3 out of 5? Why would they do that? They are most likely going to give it 5 stars out of 5, because of the absence of a reason to penalise the product by knocking any part of its rating. When such a review is posted, a full-marks review would have become merely a statement that the product worked at the time the seller/manufacturer asked for the review, instead of being an evidence of a product that was so stellar the owner was inspired to write a full-marks review on his own initiative and at the time he genuinely realised that the product is really good.

When you read reviews, you are expecting them to be organic ones written by own initiatives of people who wanted to write reviews of varied ratings. You are expecting the full-marks reviews to be meaningful testaments to the excellence of a product that motivated people to come and give it that mark in their own time. By soliciting reviews though the merchant would have injected a large number of fake full-marks reviews that mean none of that, and in reality are only acknowledgements that the product was not broken at the time the buyers were told to write the reviews. Soliciting reviews therefore introduces something covertly into the formula, manipulates that perceived balance, and ultimately presents you a picture that has been secretly engineered.

Sites do understand this very well, so they clearly tell everyone not to solicit reviews

This is how Yelp puts it.

And this is how Google reviews does it.

The people who let themselves become stooges are not necessarily evil. Many of them just did not stop to question the motives behind the solicitation and consider the potential effect of their actions on others. The ones who are certainly evil though are a different kind, whom I call the "asshats". It works a bit differently; mass emails are sent to random people who did not buy any product, asking them to write reviews on sites where there are no "real customer" or "verified purchase" designations. The people receiving these random emails are not offered coupons, discounts, or anything at all in return, instead they get a promise to be entered in a draw that might win them something. For this type of fake reviews I did not only rely on research and collected facts, rather I include a personal example where I have definitive knowledge of all facts

This is one such email that was sent to me. I never dealt with that company, never bought anything from them or even one of their products from another party. I never even looked at their products anywhere online or in real life. The email address I received it on is only used to sign up for a trade fishing shows, who apparently gave people's emails to advertisers. Giving away my information to these spammers is not the issue here, and I'm sure some fine line in the terms and conditions states that they will do this. I'm only asserting that these email solicitations for reviews were sent in mass to random people they got off a list, and naturally most will be -like myself- people who have zero connection or familiarity with the product or the brand.

The details of the email. You can see how they tell me to write a review using an image of "5 stars" as a part of the sentence, clearly implying the score of the review they demand. To confirm what I've already stated, the email has no reference whatsoever to me potentially being an actual customer, nor do they make any requests to only write a review if I know anything about the products. Purely and simply asking a completely random person to write a review in return for being entered into a draw.

The asshats who actually go ahead and write these kinds of randomly solicited reviews will in many cases be spotted and marked as valuable assets. Their value to the merchants comes from their willingness to write reviews of things they probably have never seen in return for a chance to win something, and they would therefore receive more solicitations from other companies and and their partners/affiliates. In addition they are often promised double entries in draws if they invite friends to write similar reviews, starting another chain reaction of asshats mobilising their stupid friends to write garbage reviews and so on. Now even if these draws are real, the service/manufacturer would have created a ton of fake reviews in return for giving 5 or 10 "winners" 5 or 10 objects worth about two hundred dollars combined. That's pretty much the deal of the century!

You've probably noticed how I've given the people writing these fake reviews some unflattering names. Not trying to insult though. I'm sure some of the people who do this will be reading this article, and I hope that the ones who did not fully understand or appreciate the nature and effect of their actions would take a moment to think, then decide that they no longer want to be "tossers", "stooges", or "asshats". Some of them think it's harmless "advertisement", but it isn't. An advertisement is an openly declared promotional material that consumers know to be coming from the service/manufacturer, and would look at it in the proper context as such. Posting fake reviews that the consumer does not know were purchased or solicited though is fraud, plain and simple. If you aren't an evil person and you just went with the flow without realising, you can stop, and you can in some cases even go and delete your reviews. Yes, they will find thousands others willing to do it, but that's not a justification for you to keep at it. Its never too late to do the right thing.

Moving on to another form of garbage reviews that is not exactly the same, but shares many reprehensible characteristics. It's when a service/manufacturer/seller solicits reviews on their own sites instead of third party sites or trade sites.

One such example of soliciting reviews on the brand's own site. It's not as bad, because anyone reading reviews on the official site of a brand or a service should know that this entity has full control over what's published and will select which reviews you can read. You would have to be insane to think that you'll find honest unfiltered reviews on the official site of a manufacturer or service. Yes, some of them let a few selected negative reviews through to create an appearance of legitimacy, but they make sure the positive ones are overwhelmingly more and censor reports of failures or bad customer service etc. Anyway, looking at the above photo you see that they ask people to write reviews in return for an entry in a draw, the "five stars" graphic is a clear hint at what they expect, you're told you'll get double entries if you post pictures "celebrating" (hit hint wink) your achievements with the product, they tell you that the more reviews you write the more entries you'll get, and of course they remind you that reviews will be checked and approved. When someone writes a solicited review for a reward (draw entry, coupon, etc.) they would not even dare to mention the smallest of criticisms. After all the review is not written by personal initiative and the only reason they are writing it is because they want a reward, so why risk upsetting the people who will decide if you will receive the reward or not?

Fake reviews are not only about inserting 4 and 5 star reviews, but also about removing negative reviews. Removing negative reviews from some sites is very hard and involves a lot of time and effort. To remove negatives from these sites someone has to go through the review with a comb to try and find anything in it that goes against the rules, like maybe a frustrated customer using a curse word, naming a rude customer-service representative, mentioning a price on a site where prices should not be mentioned in reviews, etc. Once they find a slip in the negative review they report it and have it removed. Other times if the review is perfect, they would still report it, and falsely claim that it has racist tones, veiled threats, personal attacks, etc., in hopes that the employee examining this report will be too busy and will just remove the review. 

When falsely reporting a negative review they also play on the fact that many giant sites have offshore service centres, where the employees examining the reports speak English as a second language. Therefore if they say in the false report that the review has certain "tones" or "veiled" things, the employee would become scared of missing a "tone" or something that is "veiled" and being accused of poor knowledge of the language, so he would just delete the review to be safe. Another variant of this is falsely reporting a review and fabricating a violation that does not exist. In one such case a false report was made of a negative review, stating that it contains a URL (web address) in violation of rule "31-b" which states "Reviews should not contain any URLs or web addresses". The review was indeed deleted, but the problem here is that there is no rule "31-b" and the apparent quote from the rules about URLs is a fabricated quote that is not actually in the rules! The employee had no idea what the huge list of rules governing reviews says, and instead relied on the fabricated quote in the report in his decision to remove the negative review.

Other methods include mass-reporting of negative reviews, so that when each review receives tens of reports the employee examining the reports would just look at the reports count and delete the review without actually examining it. Also repeated reporting of a review makes it more likely to be removed, because at the end of the day it's about humans making the decision on the other side- if the employee working the 3 o'clock shift decides that the review is fine, the one working the 9 o'clock shift might react differently and delete it. A simpler way to get rid of negative reviews on some sites is to keep the positive fake reviews coming, and these will push the negative reviews from real customers out. Many sites have certain limits on the number of reviews shown, so if they dump enough fake positive ones the real negative ones will be pushed out of limits and disappear.

That's for the sites where it's hard to remove negative reviews, but it's a completely different story on other sites where removing negative reviews seems suspiciously easy

Dealing with many businesses over the years, I would often find links inviting people to see the reviews the business has on Trustpilot. In all these years I do not remember seeing a single page there that was not full to the brim of what I personally believe to be fake reviews. Not saying there aren't any pages that are free of them, just that I have not seen any. Also some negative reviews for some services/sellers/manufacturers who buy a subscription to this site seem to be disappearing at an interesting frequency

Take your time reading the marked parts of following screenshot, because that person's experience is pretty typical

I chose this site as an example for two reasons, one is the incredible irony of being named Trustpilot, and the second is that I have a personal experience on it that is almost identical to the complaints in the two shots above. A few years ago I had a terrible interaction with a cheap travel booking company that charged me extra money without authorisation. I fought back successfully and reversed the charge, and afterwards I went to Trustpilot and left that booking company an accurate factual review. A day later my review was replaced with a short statement that the review was reported by the business and is being investigated, and the following day the review disappeared altogether. I started watching the page closely and investigated the matter further, and found that the booking company was one of a large number of similar entities that have registered addresses in Canada, USA, or Europe, but they actually operate from Asia and rip people off. You'd book a flight, they'd charge your card, then call you and say that the price is not available and that it was a glitch in the system, and ask you to pay much more. If you say no they'd refund your money minus $50 or $80 dollars and tell you it's a penalty for cancellation. When you try to contest this nonsense they would waste your time and money on hold in expensive international calls until you give up. They would also rip you off in other ways that don't belong in this article, but it's usually small amounts that one would let go after a few days of torture. Anyway, I found that these booking companies love to subscribe to Trustpilot, where they have hundreds of glowing fake reviews, and the real negative ones often get reported by the paying business and disappear. That's what happened to my review.

Of course this site is just an example, but by no means the only one where funny stuff happens

Happens in many other places!

Speaking of removing negatives, ebay has been removing genuine negative feedback left for "Power Sellers" for years. Ebay feedback used to be a sure way to know whom you're dealing with, now you'd be buying from someone who screwed people over yet you'll never know because the dedicated customer service for power sellers removed these negatives and left him with the 100% perfect feedback profile. Not exactly in the heart of the subject but thought you should know. Back to fake reviews... 

Before I wrap it up a particularly sneaky form of fakery deserves a nod; fake answers

On some sites consumers are allowed to post questions about a product to get answers from other consumers, and these questions/answers remain on the page, effectively becoming a part of the product description. Sadly though the people selling or making the products sometimes use random accounts pretending to be another consumer, only to post a wrong favourable answer that is likely to make people buy the product. In this example the item is 100% Chinese without a doubt, but someone has volunteered a wrong answer claiming that it's German made. In many cases both the question and answer are posted by fake accounts operated by the manufacturer/seller. They would use one account to ask for example "is this reel sealed" or "what are the gears made of", then using a different set of accounts post the wrong answers "yes it's waterproof" or "the gears are stainless steel". Using this sneaky method people would buy the products based on the misleading answers, all while the people behind the product itself appear innocent since the wrong answers supposedly came from a "consumer" and not from them.

What I've posted in this article is by no means a comprehensive list, not even a drop in the vast sea of this shadowy world. The fake reviews industry only reached this size because of the lack of true will to quash it by the parties involved. The bad people here are not only the services/manufacturers/sellers, but some sites where these fake reviews are posted bear a large portion of the blame as well. It's true that a number of sites genuinely try to fight fake reviews and fail, but the majority of these sites only pretend to be fighting them, doing just the bare minimum of superficial checks to protect themselves, while in reality are very happy to let fake reviews flourish so they can make sales, charge commissions, collect fees, sell subscriptions, or generate advertisement revenues.

Studies and market scanning found that indeed the presence of reviews will increase sales, and the amount of money fake reviews bring is so staggering many sites are willing to look the other way, only making a stunt every once in a while proclaiming that they are fighting fake reviews. Look again at the above shot and try to take the number in; 23 billion GBP (32 billion USD) are wasted every year in the UK because of fake reviews, and one can only estimate several times that amount in the US because of the larger population and market size. With this sort of money in play, it's no wonder that all parties are happy to maintain the status quo.

At this point you are probably wondering about the extent to which fishing trade is tainted. In my view it is one of the most infected trades out there. Fake reviews are on trade sites, search engine reviews, the sites of big outdoors stores, reviews sites, social media pages, supermarket chains that sell fishing gear, and some brands/businesses' own sites. It should come as no surprise that many tackle rebranding operations saturate the web with fake reviews, but sadly they are not the only offenders; it's also being done extensively by a large number of reputable mainstream fishing tackle brands, big and small, new and historic, as well as some small family companies that decided to jump on the wagon. There is only a tiny number of brands that I have not seen doing it, but I will not pat any of them on the back because tomorrow they might just change their minds and leap into the mud, and some might even be doing it now and I just haven't seen it or it's done in a language I don't speak etc. It's better for you and myself to always be alert and question everyone and everything.

Usually when I write an exposé article I feel a certain sense of satisfaction. They usually bring me vicious attacks for a long while, yet my sense of satisfaction lingers because I know that I've done what I believe to be the right thing. This time though there is very little -if any- satisfaction, and a lot of frustration instead. Now fishermen know what's going on, but what about everyone else? Who's going to warn customers of restaurants, hotels, car dealers and dealerships, home security systems, self-storage companies, home exercise gimmicks, travel booking companies, sports nutrition, vitamins, shaving razors, law firms, insurers, wristwatches, and the thousands of other services and products that I can't possibly list? Who is going to warn them that the "user reviews" they trust so much are fakes designed to screw them? There are no official statistics on public awareness of this issue, but it's not hard to conclude that a crushing majority of people have no idea. No one in my large circle of family and friends had any idea when I asked, and I bet none of yours heard about it either. To get a rough estimate I reached out to a small focus-group of readers, and from the 78 contacted 52 responded, 50 of whom said that they had no prior knowledge, 1 did hear something but wasn't sure what, and 1 said he definitely knew. That's 2 out of 52, or less than 4%, leaving 96% of you in complete darkness. Let's add a huge margin of error for the sake of argument and say that 90% of people do not know. How disastrous is this figure? Even if it was only 50% of the people who are unaware of such an issue, it would still be a highly troubling number. Imagine how it is then when it's actually more than 90%.

This leads us to the key question; when a problem is this big, how come a huge portion of consumers have heard nothing about it? The articles shown here are not from a third rate tabloid or a small town newspaper, I've used screenshots from such leading global publications as Forbes, Financial Times, CNET, among others, in addition to crisis reports from the British government and the Federal Trade Commission. You'd think that everyone would know by now, not just 5% of so. I mean look this

Important studies by major institutions

Articles written to help you avoid fake reviews

Videos by some of the world's largest publishers 

Guides on WikiHow

Apps programmed to catch fake reviews

And even engines whose only job is to find fake reviews!

So I ask again, how come you are hearing about this for the first time from a mediocre fisherman who can barely keep his own life in order, instead of seeing it all over the TV and national broadsheet newspapers? We're just out of the holidays, where news anchors repeatedly told us that this site or that site has broken sales records for Christmas shopping. Did any of them say a single word about how these sites are infested with fake reviews which rip you off tens of billions of dollars according to official numbers?

Unfortunately you will not get to hear my suggested answer to this question, because that's the part that I was told to remove since it's personal speculations for which I can't possibly have documented proof. It's besides the point anyway, but I was really hoping to share my theory on the possible reasons this colossal issue remains mostly under wraps. Yes, it's been written about here and there, but in today's world being out there does not mean you will see it. When was the last time you actually navigated to an actual website of a news outlet to read articles? For a long time now we've been completely dependents on the algorithms of social media and phone apps to decide what will appear on our feeds. TV and newspapers are largely not the independent entities they once were. Consolidations and intersecting financial interests mean that media groups would either be owned by parties who profit from these practices, or these parties would be investing millions in advertisement in these media groups or platforms, so no one can risk upsetting them. I will just leave it at that, and hope the situation changes regardless of the cause. My main issue is not with the companies that spread fake reviews for their products and services. These are cockroaches without morals or sense of fairness and unfairness, and cockroaches will always act like cockroaches. If my home becomes infested I will not blame the insect, rather I would blame whomever held the information from me and allowed it to spread and multiply under my nose.

If you're expecting me next to tell you how to identify fake reviews you'll be disappointed. Some of the screenshots I included come from guides on spotting fake reviews and engines that filter them out, and you can go and check them out if you so wish. They won't immunise you though, simply because they are out there where the fake reviews industry can see them and adapt. It's similar to my personal struggle with fraudulent tackle sites, where a few years ago I posted a guide on how to spot them, only for the fraudsters behind these sites to react and avoid the red flags I posted, eventually forcing me to publish a straightforward list which at best has only 1% of the scamming tackle sites out there. The fake reviews machine saw the guides and engines created by the good people shown above, and took counter-measures. The telltales found in the guides are being phased out of many fake reviews, and I tried some of these engines on product reviews that I individually checked for fakery and on average 40% of fakes were not caught. I might still have a trick or two for spotting these reviews, but posting and burning them will not benefit anyone.

The well oiled machine seems unstoppable, and fake reviews are prevalent even in the most unexpected places.

The article has come to a conclusion. Very anticlimactic and lacking any positive notes, but I can't change reality and invent hope where there isn't any. Fake reviews are in their heydays at the moment, most of the world remains unaware, and it will only get worse from here unless there is an uproar by governments and global blocks. I don't see this happening though. At least not in the visible horizon.  

I was supposed to post the big freshwater reels' review around this time, but I decided to give this article priority. Creating this one was quite exhausting and took a lot of time and energy, so I'll need some time to rest and catch up with personal matters before that review. I apologise for delaying it, but hopefully you will find it worthy when you read it.

Cheers all and be safe on the water.

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Alan Hawk
January, 14th, 2018

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