Facebook, Google and Trustpilot can be easily infiltrated through a booming industry of fake review brokers peddling reviews for as little as £4, a Which? investigation reveals.
With many of the UK’s biggest online platforms claiming to have checks in place to detect or prevent fake reviews from misleading customers, we went undercover with a fake business – Gold Lion Labs – to find out just how effective these are.
We also discovered the real impact of fake reviews on businesses and customers, highlighting a small business being targeted by malicious fake reviews on Facebook, and a solicitors firm misleading customers with paid-for positive reviews on Google and Facebook.
Finding fake review brokers that help to artificially inflate business listings was easy after a quick Google search. We signed up to one called Xealme*, which can create reviews for all three platforms. Business is clearly booming – this single broker claimed to have created nearly 16,000 reviews for a total of 570 customers, and offers its service in nearly every country in the world.
Profiles of the reviewers showed they had all reviewed a selection of the same businesses – we linked 168 that had been reviewed by the same 19 profiles as our fake page. When we expanded this to include the friends of the reviewers, we found hundreds more with many reviewers in common.
The reviews were for businesses all over the UK and beyond, demonstrating the scale and scope of this practice. One person had reviewed a mobile mechanic in Hayes, west London, and a bed shop near Leeds, plus a wheel repair service in Texas, a bail bondsman in Connecticut and a removal service in Canada. Every person that reviewed our fake Gold Lion Labs had also left a five-star rating for a Mexican restaurant in Oregon. Many had also reviewed a UK-based property management company.
Initially Facebook removed just 18 of the 29 fake reviewer profiles we shared with it, and Which?'s fake business remains live on the platform at the time of writing. Facebook finally removed all 29 profiles after pressure from Which?, more than a month after the findings were first reported.
The vast majority of the business pages the consumer champion shared remain live and continue to have at least a four-star rating. The Hayes-based mobile mechanic now has 767 reviews and a five star rating. More than one hundred were added in June alone – nearly 30 of those since we reported our findings to Facebook.
Another business we reported to Facebook has, at the time of writing, 2,168 reviews and a five star rating. Reviewer profiles that we flagged have gone on to continue reviewing other businesses, including several adding reviews on to a page advertising bulldog puppies for sale.
A Meta spokesperson said it is investigating the accounts we flagged, has dedicated extensive time and resources to tackling this issue and that fraudulent and deceptive activity is not allowed on the platform, including offering or trading fake reviews.
We uncovered dozens of sites offering review manipulation services for Google, simply by Googling for them. Within a week, Xealme had added 19 reviews to the Google business page for Gold Lion Labs. Four reviewers had also reviewed a tennis racket shop in Surrey, while two others had only reviewed companies that were based in the US.
This isn’t the first time we’ve uncovered gaps in Google’s detection systems. Last year, we went undercover and . At the time, Google told us that automated detection systems scan every review before it’s published and that it deploys teams of trained operators and analysts who audit content, too. But that didn’t stop us being able to add another fake business, or prevent our fake reviews from appearing.
A Google spokesperson said its policies clearly state reviews must be based on real experiences, and that it takes swift action when these are violated. it said it monitors 24/7 for fraudulent content and encourages users and business owners to .
Our review broker told us that Trustpilot doesn’t like people buying reviews for the platform, but that ‘millions of businesses still do’.
Reviews were added more slowly on Trustpilot, but within three weeks our fake business had gathered 19 five-star reviews and a 4.6 TrustScore (which is based on the average of reviews, but includes other factors such as age and number of reviews). Our TrustScore was significantly higher than the business category average of 3.6 stars.
A review that was written in French, which translated to ‘This is a fake company and fake reviews. Five stars!!!’, had been added twice, by two separate reviewers, within two days of each other.
We found that one of our fake reviewers had also given five stars to a business that has a Trustpilot alert on it for misleading behaviour. The business still had a 4.9 star TrustScore, based on 974 reviews, and 91% of the five-star ratings had been left by first-time reviewers – those who hadn’t reviewed any other businesses before or since.
It’s a suspicious pattern, and one which Trustpilot appears to be aware of. So why did this business have a near perfect TrustScore?
Trustpilot told us that it has removed suspected fake reviews from the businesses linked to our investigation, and issued cease and desist notices to those it wasn’t already aware of. Two of the businesses now have restricted access to the platform. It also issued a cease and desist letter to Xealme, which has now removed its Trustpilot review service.
A Trustpilot spokesperson told us that it is continually working to ensure appropriate action is taken against attempts to manipulate reviews. It has introduced new technology and launched legal action against companies buying fake reviews, and works with other social media platforms to remove review sellers. It also said that several of the businesses linked to the Which? investigation were already subject to Trustpilot's enforcement processes.
The impact of fake reviews is wide-ranging, and as part of our investigation we spoke to both businesses and customers who had been affected.
A client of a London based solicitors contacted us after they had paid more than £1,000 to the firm for help with a work visa. After receiving terrible service, the client left negative reviews on Google and Facebook, and requested a refund. The firm initially offered a goodwill payment of £300, but only if the negative review was removed.
And they weren’t alone: multiple reviewers reported being threatened with the same clause for refunds. Many cited serious personal consequences, including one who said her husband had missed the birth of their baby because the firm took so long to process his visa application. Another claimed to have lost £4,000 dealing with them.
We dug deeper and found a string of suspicious activity that suggested the firm had used a review broker to bolster its listing, including more than 10 reviewers on Google who had all left five-star reviews for a business in France. On the businesses Facebook page, multiple positive reviewers had all attended the Los Angeles recording school - a strange coincidence.
We reported our findings to all three platforms. Google removed reviews from the business and Trustpilot added a customer alert on the business page.
It’s not just consumers who suffer when platforms don’t take action against review brokers. A business owner told us that his Facebook page was targeted by fake negative reviews in 2021, including ones left by the same profiles that had recommended our fake business.
Across two dates, a total of 11 negative reviews were left, taking his rating from five to less than three stars overnight.
He said: ‘I’m a sole trader. I work really hard and I know my customers by their first names. My integrity is everything.’
His loyal customer base reported the fake reviews using Facebook’s reporting function, but were told they didn’t breach Facebook’s community standards. He also tried to report the fake review activity to Facebook, but said it was ‘uncontactable’. We let Facebook know that these negative reviews had been left maliciously, and requested that it removes them.
A month later, Facebook hasn’t taken any action or given us any extra information, despite Which? contacting the social media giant multiple times.
All three platforms say they’re taking steps to combat fake reviews: employing dedicated teams, using artificial intelligence and flagging suspicious behaviour.
But as we’ve shown, that hasn’t stopped a thriving industry that appears to easily manipulate their systems in shocking numbers – from our investigation alone more than a thousand reviews have been removed.
Trustpilot is considering legal cases against those selling reviews, something which Amazon has already had success with after launching, and winning, this year. Google also said it would consider litigation as a tool for holding fraudulent reviews to account.
While Facebook told us it takes ‘robust steps’ to tackle fake review activity on the platform, it Initially removed just 18 of the 29 fake reviewer profiles Which? shared with it, and our fake business remains live on the platform at the time of writing. Facebook finally removed all 29 profiles after pressure from Which?, more than a month after the findings were first reported. The vast majority of the business pages we shared continue to have at least a four star rating, with no alerts showing that fake review activity has been detected. It failed to take any action to remove the fake malicious reviews we uncovered on a small business, and at the time of writing hadn’t responded to direct queries on this.
We believe it shouldn’t be up to consumers to wade through a sea of misinformation online to make an informed choice, and tougher measures to prevent fake reviews can’t come soon enough.
Rocio Concha, Which? Director of Policy and Advocacy, said: 'Facebook, Google and Trustpilot are failing to do enough to shut out a fake reviews industry that has been thriving and profiting from misleading reviews for years now.
'Facebook in particular has repeatedly been slow to act in tackling fake reviews, showing a complete disregard for consumers who want to read genuine reviews.
'The government has outlined plans for a new Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill that would give the CMA stronger powers to protect consumers from an avalanche of fake reviews. The Bill must be introduced to Parliament by the new Prime Minister without delay.'
*Which? reached out to Xealme for comment but had not heard back by the time of publication.