Gaming the System: Part 4 – The Wild West
by Mick Rhodes | firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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’s 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.”