Here's the shocking cost of fake reviews

EXCLUSIVE: Bogus online reviews will influence $21 billion of travel bookings this year. This is what you can do about it.

The travel industry is filled with fakes. But no one knew the cost of the bogus reviews, blog posts filled with affiliate links, and influencer content. 

Until now.

A new study by University of Baltimore economist Professor Roberto Cavazos on behalf of CHEQ says counterfeit content will influence an astonishing $21 billion in travel bookings worldwide this year. Cavazos defined fake online reviews as any review that isn't a consumer's honest and impartial opinion and does not reflect a genuine experience of a product, service, or business. 

Fashion, beauty, entertainment, housewares and electronics top the list for most-faked reviews. Travel ranks sixth on the list. 

Fake reviews will sway about $4 billion of travel spending In the U.S. this year. Overall, they'll cost consumers $152 billion worldwide — and that may be a conservative estimate.

I'm an expert on fakes. I've been attacked by fakes (probably because I'm the real thing). I've covered travel fakes since the beginning. And I think I know how to end it. More on that in a minute.

You probably know a thing or two about fakes too. If you've ever fallen for a fake review or made a purchasing decision based on a review or write-up that you later realized wasn't real, tell me about it. You can push the button or if you're reading this newsletter online, just scroll to the bottom to leave a comment. 

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OK, let's talk about fakes

I've been fascinated by fakes since a gang of uniquely unqualified loyalty program fanboys attacked me many years ago. Their criticisms were silly straw man arguments that I quickly dismissed. But I began reading their blogs. They were poorly-written sites that encouraged readers to fly more and collect as many points as possible. All the while, these wannabe influencers claimed to be the sole arbiters of truth in the travel industry.

Oh, and they loved credit cards. Why? I dug deeper and discovered that they pocketed hundreds of dollars in referral fees for every signup through their affiliate links. But the price was high: Behind the scenes, account managers told them what they could — and couldn't — write. I also learned they were hacking the search engines to attract more visits.

Now in a fair world, trying to discredit a consumer advocate to boost your credibility, manipulating the search engines with "black hat" tricks, and lying to your readers, would never work. 

It's not a fair world. Today, those bloggers make millions every year from their fakery, and their readers acknowledge them as thought leaders and legitimate news sources. 

The University of Baltimore research suggests that we shouldn't dismiss the fakes anymore. Their lies are costing us billions of dollars.

🎧 EXCLUSIVE: I have a few ideas on how to solve the problem of fakes in my weekly podcast. You won't find them anywhere else. Not even here! Here’s how to tune in to the podcast.

Who's faking it?

The study focuses on the most influential sites, which are commonly called user-generated sites. These sites claim to host honest and unbiased reviews, but that isn't always true. Roughly 4% of reviews are fake, according to the study.

The worst offender is Yelp, with an incredible 8% of fakes. Let me say that again: Out of every hundred reviews you read on Yelp, 8 are not real.

Trust Pilot also ranks highly for bogus write-ups. In the travel category, TripAdvisor has an estimated 0.6% fake reviews (I believe that's a low estimate). TripAdvisor has consistently brushed aside the phony review problem, saying its secret algorithm will catch it. What nonsense.

It's one thing for a fake online review to sway your choice of restaurant. There's $80 out the window. But when a fake TripAdvisor review persuades you to spend $8,000 on a resort vacation, that's serious money.

This isn't just a travel problem.

"The fake review challenge is having an impact on all leading e-commerce countries and sectors," the study concludes. "The ease and access to fake reviews is only increasing, whether by humans or botnets, click farms or groups. This makes online reviews one of the largest markets hit by bad actors and among the costliest in economies where e-commerce further expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to grow."

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What should you do about fake reviews?

I've written about fake travel reviews since there have been fake travel reviews to write about. Here I am in 2015 warning about it in USA Today. Here's my 2012 expose of TripAdvisor reviewer hunnyb62 in the Washington Post. And here I am in the New York Times in 2006, questioning the veracity of online reviews.

My advice hasn't changed. As I wrote in my book How To Be The World's Smartest Traveler, you have to cast a wide net when you're looking for advice online. Never trust just one source. Throw out the five-star and one-star reviews because the owners or their competitors probably wrote them. I elaborate on some of this advice in this 2018 post on Elliott Advocacy about spotting a fake review.

Also, pay attention to the quality of the writing. If a review is rife with misspellings, poor grammar, run-on sentences, and other errors, the writer's opinion likely isn't worth anything. That’s what immediately discredited the loyalty program bloggers. Their posts were — and still are — filled with embarrassing mistakes.

So what about the blog posts written by influencers hawking electronics, beauty products or credit cards? Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Reputation matters. People who hide behind anonymous handles can be trusted about as much as … people who hide behind anonymous handles. If they reveal their identities — which they really should — then take a moment to examine their credentials. Are they experts in their field, or do they just claim they're experts? Believe it or not, a troubling amount of travel advice we get today comes from failed bankers and bureaucrats who turned to travel writing as a hobby.

If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. You know the saying, don't you? If anyone uses superlatives or offers you something that seems too good to be true, beware. (Think "best hotel ever" or "worst restaurant in the world" or my personal favorite, "FREE MILES!") 

Don't trust the search engines. Bing, Google and Yahoo! are easily manipulated by reputation management operatives. I've watched worthless travel content get promoted to the top of search engines because someone hacked the system. Don't fall for it. Do a thorough search before your next purchase and read information from multiple sources you trust, which may not be the ones that rank highly on Google.

What should happen

There's real money at stake here. Travelers are misspending $21 billion on airline tickets, hotel rooms, and restaurants — and, of course, they're using their points-earning credit card to do it. 

But we need more people to connect the dots. Fake content isn't a victimless crime. Whether it's a publicly-traded internet company or a blogger pretending to be a travel expert, there's always a villain. 

And there's a victim. That's you

In a fair world, the government would punish sites that knowingly publish fake information. The Federal Trade Commission would either fine them or force them to sign consent decrees that would shut down these hubs of misinformation. I have more solutions in my weekly podcast.

In the meantime, you can make a difference. If someone doesn't have the qualifications to give you advice on travel or beauty products or anything, don't visit the site. Be skeptical of anonymous, unverified reviews and comments. 

If enough people do that, then these sources of bad information will die a natural — and long-overdue — death.

Have you ever followed online advice that cost you money or led to a bad travel experience? The comments are open, my friends. By the way, our hosts at Substack have a comment system that sometimes threads comments, which makes previous comments hard to find.

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