Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Scam Tactics: How Easy It Is To Fool Experts and Review Sites, or allow them to fool you

Recently, there's an article at Vice.com, where the author decided to play a hoax on TripAdvisor... They created a FAKE restaurant, which is a picnic table in the back of the author's house, created some FAKE entrees (you'll laugh at the ingredients), got some FAKE reviews through burner phones and whatnot, and got it to be the top-rated restaurant in London... a restaurant that does NOT exist.

I won't spoil the method, let's just say, it's easier than you think.

This wasn't the first prank the author, Oobah Butler, had done. Previously he bullsh*tted his way onto Paris Fashion Week and it was absolutely brilliant. But he's hardly the first to prank experts and succeded.

But then, expert reviews are fooled all the time.  In 2008, wine critic and author Robin Goldstein created a fake restaurant, allegedly stocked with the worst wines Wine Spectator magazine had ever rated. The submitted it to the said magazine. After a while, the fake restaurant had won "award of excellence" by the same magazine.

Wine Spectator called it "publicity seeking stunt", but it exposes something deeply troubling... What sort of experts at the magazine review the candidate for "award of excellence"?  And if they let a fake restaurant get on, what can DELIBERATE manipulation do?

But the pattern ran much much deeper than that. Experts are fooled ALL THE TIME.
And the problem doesn't stop there. There are review and authority websites that secretly signs under-the-table deals with crooks to promote or write nice articles without any disclosure. And this had been a long-standing problem in network marketing.

The problem with compromised authority and under-the-table deals were exposed when ZeekRewards collapsed. That is when we found that some movers and shakers in MLM had under-the-table deals paid by Zeek to deflect criticism of Zeek.

One certain individual was paid $6000 PER MONTH to deflect negative press, conduct interviews to make the company look good, etc, without disclosing was he was being paid to do so.

Another certain individual, was publicly employed as a consultant by Zeek, made Zeek "company of the month" in his newsletter (at estimated cost of 100K) as well as a position in the tree that is estimated to be earning in 40K a month, when he apparently said something that got him fired. What nobody bothered researching was the same consultant had pulled the SAME STUNT before... Made a press-release to help a company do a pump-and-dump without disclosing he was being paid to do so.  SEC charged the perp with wrongdoing 4+ years after the scheme was closed.

I am not going to talk about lawyers that got ensnared in the Zeek mess. They were being PUBLICLY paid to do so, and that's not what we're talking about.

What can we do about it?

If you are thinking about leveraging crowd intelligence, that doesn't work either. Oobah Butler, who organized the TripAdivsor prank, opened his Vice.com report by saying he used to post shill TripAdvisor reviews for 10 quids (that's 10 British Pounds for you yanks) each. Review sites can't get rid of shill reviews, despite suing people left and right.  Amazon has spawned TWO separate "review of reviews" sites (fakespot.com) and reviewmeta.com to check if the reviews are real or fake.  Nowadays, shill review writing are outsourced to people working for pennies in India. And it's gotten so bad, Indian consumers have lost confidence in online product ratings and reviews.

The only one you can trust... IS YOURSELF.  And sometimes, you can't even trust yourself.

It's called "cognitive bias". Admit it, everybody has them. It's BUILT into your brain (and mine).  Everybody has them. After all, conmen and scammers know exactly which buttons to push.

So what can you do? Adopt skepticism. Skepticism is the perfect counter to scammers, and lets you work around biases and detect failure in experts.

  • Skeptics are NOT afraid to challenge bull**** sprouted by leaders
  • Skeptics do NOT accept tales at face value, but always seek verification from trusted sources
  • Skeptics regard arrogance as posturing, NOT proof or validation
  • Skeptics do NOT trust claims of esoteric knowledge of technique
  • Skeptics do NOT accept attempts to delay the inevitable. 

Be skeptical.


  1. Nice post!

    I routinely see Amway apologists exclaim, "Amway has an A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau", as though it actually means something. Not only is that website wrong for trying to sound official, but they are regularly manipulated by the very corporations they are supposedly scrutinizing. It is mind-boggling that people still take these reviews seriously, especially since we regularly see reviews are inaccurate, but more importantly reviews are relatively subjective. Sure, there can be certain standards in place, but for the most part people have inherently different attitudes about everything.

    I also regularly make fun of these car commercials that boast excellent rewards from "J.D. Power and Associates". First of all, who the hell are these people, and why do we care what they think? Second of all, "J.D. Power and Associates" sounds like a sleazy law firm "Saul Goodman" would run. Third of all, "J.D. Power and Associates" seems to hand these reviews out like hotcakes, and they review EVERYTHING. There are reviews for cell phones, cars, cable companies, televisions, etc -- how can someone be an expert in reviewing these vastly different categories? This type of marketing is extremely frustrating as a skeptical person because I know it works, and it makes me sad that people fall for these stupid things.

    P.S. Award ceremonies also make me sick. Talk about a ridiculous ego stroke/unnecessary wasted television air time.

    1. The same apologists will criticize BBB when they get an F rating from BBB, by dredging up that incident from 2010 where it was revealed that accreditation from BBB counts as a bonus on their rating system.


      JD Power is a SURVEY firm, much like Gallup poll.

      But then, crowd intelligence is often wrong.


      The reason for award ceremonies... It's a part of the "love bombing". Once they hooked you, their demeanor changes completely.