Gaming the System: Parts 3 and 4 – These People Do Not Exist; The Wild West
by Mick Rhodes | firstname.lastname@example.org
Part III: These people do not exist
At the top of Rooter Hero’s webpage, consumers will find the boast, “4.8/5 Ratings based on 6,584 reviews … Great Service, Great Reviews.”
And yes, on Google Reviews, under “Rooter Hero Plumbing of Inland Empire,” the company, incorporated in Nevada with 10 locations in California and Arizona (but none in the Silver State), has a 4.8 rating (out of five), with 510 reviews as of June 21. It had a four-star Yelp rating from 435 customers on the same date.
But on Yelp, Google and elsewhere, the experiences of the customers leaving bad reviews are glaringly similar to that of Claremont residents the Roberts,’ who in May were surprised when a Rooter Hero tech charged them $2,082 for a six-hour job his own company’s COO called “a minor repair.”
Over on the Better Business Bureau website, Rooter Hero’s ratings drop sharply, to 1.93 out of five stars, with 29 complaints filed against the company over the past three years. “If I had not had the time to do a bit of research and get a second opinion, I would have needlessly paid the $22,000 and hence, gotten scammed,” read one BBB review. “I would avoid Rooter Hero under any and all circumstances, and would hope their founder, John Akhoian, would know what his team is doing to customers.”
The complaints continue at Trustlink, where one consumer, Christopher McGuiness, under an “Absolutely Miserable Experience” headline, wrote there and on Facebook (we left the punctuation and spelling as we found it): “There is a trend, and a terrible scam by Ygrene and Rooter – DO NOT use ANY service with Rooter valued at over $100. We started with a backed up line, that turned into a $3000 project, that we could finance, to an $18k project financing through Ygrene. The total will be $36-40,000 over 20 years … Eventually we had another (Ygrene recommended) plumbing company look at the work and take pics. The work is not up to code, Rooter left all of their trash under our house, and what’s not up to code was done poorly.”
‘We really don’t know why that happened’
Over on Facebook, 399 people had left reviews for Rooter Hero as of June 15, resulting in a five star rating.
But a closer look through the company’s Facebook reviews reveals a strange anomaly: On January 16, 2020, Rooter Hero received 46 “recommends”—all without comment. About a month earlier, on November 24, 2019, the pattern repeats, with 35 recommends without comment. The day before, on November 23, 2019 there are a whopping 60 recommends without comment, and on November 22, there are nine.
This is unusual for two reasons:
1. The most “recommends” Rooter Hero received on any other day in its entire history on the platform was three.
2. Eliminating the 150 comment-less “recommends” from the company’s 399 total leaves 248 presumably legitimate reviews. All but three include comments.
When asked about the anomaly on its Facebook reviews, Rooter Hero COO John Bergeron was unequivocal: “We don’t pay people to create likes or reviews for us in any manner,” he said. “And most people just hit the recommend [on Facebook], you know, the thumbs up button, and never leave a comment.”
But that isn’t true.
As stated, all but three of Rooter Hero’s 245 Facebook reviews that did not get dumped onto its page over four days in late 2019 and early 2020 included comments.
“The bottom line is we really don’t know why that happened,” Mr. Bergeron said.
The COURIER then dug into the 46 Rooter Hero “recommends” from January 16, 2020. IIt turned out all but a handful came from Facebook users located thousands of miles outside of Rooter Hero’s service area of California and Arizona: four were from Brooklyn, New York; five from New Orleans; five from Las Vegas; four from Chicago; five from Tampa, Florida; two from Miami; as well as individual “recommends” from Rochester, New York; Richmond, Virginia; North Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida; San Antonio, Texas; and Dallas.
The COURIER then reached out, via Facebook Messenger, to all 46 of the profiles that recommended Rooter Hero on January 16, 2020. Not one responded. And it wasn’t because they were avoiding us; it’s because not one of the 46 January 16, 2020 “recommends” of Rooter Hero came from a real person. The fake reviews were either created by, or paid for by Rooter Hero in order to boost the company’s ratings online.
How does the COURIER know the reviews are fraudulent? Consider this:
On March 12, 2020, several of the 46 Facebook profiles who left a “recommend” for Rooter Hero just a few months earlier left posts similar to these on their Facebook pages (we left the punctuation and spelling we found it):
“excellent transportation service from cabo airport to hotel.”
“Virginia Walker,” Chicago
“best shuttle from cabo airport to hotel.”
“Linda Banks,” Rochester, New York
“great limousine service from cabo airport o cabo san lucas hotel.”
“Shaun Jackson,” New Orleans
What are the odds of “Ms. Walker,” “Ms. Banks” and “Mr. Jackson” all being in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico on the same day? Nil, because they are not real people.
As if that weren’t enough, many of Rooter Hero’s 46 fake January 16, 2020 reviewers were apparently all in the same nail salon in Taipei, Taiwan two weeks later, on January 30, 2020, because they all checked in there on Facebook.
“Here’s the thing: [Rooter Hero doesn’t] just have fake Facebook reviews,” said online review specialist and consumer advocate Jason Brown, who runs www.reviewfraud.org. “I also was able to pick just one location at random and found a fake profile that was leaving Google reviews too. It’s going to be across multiple platforms, not just the one.”
Mr. Brown “scraped” Rooter Hero’s online reviews for the COURIER and discovered it has been working with an Atlanta-based marketing firm, iBoost. He found several profiles that reviewed iBoost itself, and three of the same other companies.
One those profiles belonged to “Barbara Jenkins.” Google removed some of the reviews “Ms. Jenkins” left in 2017 because it deemed them fraudulent. But “Ms. Jenkins” was persistent. She managed to review many other Rooter Hero locations after Google had already wiped out her previous reviews.
It turns out there is no “Barbara Jenkins.” Her profile picture is of another person, Gloria De Piero, a 48-year-old British journalist and former Labour Party politician who currently hosts a program on GB News, a television news channel based in London. “That’s more than enough to say, these reviews are not legit and they’re coming from iBoost, because iBoost is getting reviewed by these same profiles as well,” said Mr. Brown.
Further exploration of Rooter Hero turned up a host of irregularities and suspicious iBoost-generated reviews for several Rooter Hero locations, not just Montclair, but also Los Angeles, Gardena, Orange County, San Diego and San Fernando Valley.
An an iBoost employee — who refused to provide his or her name despite several requests to do so — responded to the COURIER’s queries via email. We left the punctuation, spelling and syntax intact:
“Fake reviews? That’s not possible at all as we are against to Fake reviews,” the iBoost representative wrote. “It’s better for you to contact Rooter Hero as we are NOT offering any FAKE reviews and Rooter Hero is NOT getting any fake reviews.”
“It’s all coming from iBoost,” Mr. Brown said. “iBoost can sit there and say ‘No, it’s all this other company, these are real customers, nothing fraudulent is happening, everything’s all good and kosher.’ But it’s not.”
Part IV: The wild west
Creating or paying someone to create fake online reviews is potentially illegal under Section 13(b) of the Federal Trade Commission Act (“FTC Act”), 15 U.S.C. § 53(b), as well as in the California Business and Professions Code, section 17200.
“Here, potentially it’s a violation of FTC rules, because if the company knew about it, it would be considered an endorsement,” said Claremont-based consumer attorney, and “lawyer fighting for the people,” Scott Glovsky. “And if they paid for the endorsement, they’re required to disclose who paid for it, and that is was paid for. Because under the FTC regulations, this could be considered an undisclosed paid endorsement.”
But the FTC’s enforcement arm is grossly underfunded and undermanned, said both Mr. Glovsky and Jason Brown, online review specialist and consumer advocate who runs www.reviewfraud.org.
“It really is the wild west and these social media sites or review platforms are just basically looking the other way, because they just don’t really have a way of really tackling it until they’re forced to,” said Mr. Brown.
The FTC has prosecuted similar cases in the recent past, including a $12.9 million judgment in February 2019 against Cure Encapsulations, Inc. and its owner, Naftula Jacobowitz, for boosting the company’s Amazon ranking by purchasing fake reviews.
Mr. Glovsky also said a state court could potentially consider Rooter Hero’s actions an “unfair business practice,” which is a violation of the California Business and Professions Code, section 17200, which prohibits unfair or unlawful business acts or practices.
Rooter Hero COO John Bergeron was at first cooperative with the COURIER’s investigation, sitting for two lengthy interviews. He was given multiple opportunities to come clean about the company’s fraudulent online reviews, but was steadfast in his denial of any wrongdoing from Rooter Hero.
Once it became clear the COURIER would be reporting on Rooter Hero’s fake reviews, Mr. Bergeron stopped returning our calls.
The COURIER also made multiple attempts to interview Rooter Hero’s CEO, John Akhoian. All were unsuccessful.
Fake reviews drive business
All those fake five-star reviews give Rooter Hero’s ratings on the various platforms — Facebook, Google, Yelp, et al — a major competitive edge. They skew its ratings and influence how consumers spend their money based on fraudulent data.
Internet searches give priority to highly rated companies, so Rooter Hero’s fake reviews cause its rating to go up, and by turn, its name to show up closer to the top when consumers search for a plumber. Indeed, the Roberts’ called Rooter Hero specifically because their name came up at the top of their search, with a five-star rating.
Mr. Bergeron had two explanations for the irregularities on Rooter Hero Inland Empire’s Facebook page: he posited the company’s 46 fake Facebook “recommends” from January 16, 2020 had emanated from people who simply moved to Southern California and neglected to change their home location on their profiles. He also offered they could all have been landlords, managing Southern California properties from out of state.
Told his explanations were highly implausible, he responded thusly:
“Here is my statement on that point,” Mr. Bergeron said. “We don’t know, really, okay, why. And we do not manufacture reviews and ratings, okay? There’s categorically, absolutely, no one who is a volunteer or a paid professional who does that with respect to Rooter Hero.”
But clearly, someone is.
“iBoost is doing their marketing,” said Mr. Brown. “In 2017 a buddy of mine, he went in and started reporting 41 fake profiles that he found had been leaving reviews for iBoost and iBoost customers. One of those reviewers, Barbara Jenkins, after Google took out the reviews she had left in 2017, managed to review countless Rooter Hero locations after Google had already wiped out her previous reviews. So, all signs point back to iBoost as being the marketing company in charge of buying and facilitating the fake reviews for Rooter Hero.”
A small victory
As a result of the COURIER’s investigation, an internal Rooter Hero audit of the Roberts’ job revealed the tech had “miscoded” the repair, and the company refunded the elderly Claremont couple $700.
Even with that refund, they paid $1,382 for the job, roughly double what several local plumbing outfits, big and small, said they would have charged.
Knowledge is power
Avoiding being taken advantage of by a contractor is simple, but it takes diligence.
“Before hiring a contractor, we encourage consumers to get three bids, ask for and check references, and check the license on CSLB’s website at https://cslb.ca.gov, or by calling (800) 321-2752,” said Joyia Emard, Public Affairs Manager for the California Contractors State License Board.
Click here to read the license board publication “What You Should Know Before You Hire a Contractor.”
“Consumers should know that contractors can only request or receive a contract deposit of 10 percent or $1,000 in advance, whichever is less,” Ms. Emard added. “Also, we advise consumers not to pay for work in advance, but to make progress payments as work is satisfactorily completed — which is in compliance with California contract restriction.”
If you are having issues with a contractor, you should document things in writing, and if necessary, file a complaint with CSLB.
And of course, be skeptical of irregularities in a contractor’s online reviews. If in doubt, contact reviewers through the various platforms and ask them directly about their experiences with the company in question. You can also do a deep dive into a contractor’s ratings over at the Better Business Bureau at https://www.bbb.org.
‘That just wasn’t being done’
Sixty-year-old Charlie Hopkins has owned Whest Koast Plumbing, in Rocklin, since 1997, but he’s been a plumber for more than 40 years. He got into the trade straight out of Sylvania Northview High School, in Sylvania, Ohio, in 1978.
He’s been around long enough to have seen firsthand the many changes the plumbing business has gone through in his verdant slice of California, 22 miles northeast of Sacramento. The trend toward a commission-based predatory billing model has impacted him to the point where he says it’s soured him on his life’s pursuit.
“Pretty much it has,” Mr. Hopkins said. “I know we can’t really grow beyond where we are at. I’ve gotten too old to want to train any more people. The two guys I have, they’ve got about combined 18 years’ experience. I trained them, and they’ve left and come back. They will not go anywhere else ever again.
“The things that I’ve been told that are going on out there that I kind of thought were … I came from a generation where that just wasn’t being done. It’s happened in the last two decades, really.”