What is Fake Review Extortion Scam?
To Pay Extortion or Not to Pay – That is the Question
Everyone knows about online Reviews. We all use reviews to determine the trustworthiness of businesses.
A Fake Review is when an anonymous individual posts a Review based on – nothing. The individual never called the business in question, never visited the business in question and never had any dealings with the business in any way. Any ‘review’ posted online by this individual is a complete fiction. With fake reviews – there was no contact between the business and the reviewer in any way.
Fake review websites are often located offshore – not in the US. And the website provides no way for a business to respond to reviews. Then, offers to remove the fake review – for a price – begin to arrive via email.
Unfortunately, this type of extortion scam is targeting small to medium size businesses across the US, UK and other European countries. You business could be next – so read on!
Website Owner Liability and the 1996 Communications Decency Act
Do consumers want some degree of protection from deliberately misleading and predatory websites – no matter what the country of origin? If so, please contact your Congressional Representative and Senators and let them know your views.
Controversy: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act
From Wikipedia: Section 230 is controversial with certain people[who?] because several courts have interpreted it as providing complete immunity for ISPs with regard to the torts committed by their users over their systems. See, e.g., Zeran v. AOL, 129 F.3d 327, 330 (4th Cir. 1997), cert. denied, 524 U.S. 937 (1998), which held that Section 230 “creates a federal immunity to any cause of action that would make service providers liable for information originating with a third-party user of the service.”
This rule effectively protects websites with user-generated content that qualify as a “provider or user” of an “interactive computer service.”
Arrowhead Lodge Recovery Has Been Scammed with a Fake Review – $2300+ to Remove It
We have contacted the FBI and there is ongoing investigation. We have also retained an attorney. If you scroll towards the bottom of this article – you can find a link to read the actual extortion demands we have received via email.
Fake Review Website Based in India – Targeting Medium to Large Businesses
The individual running the website appears to be based in India and is an SEO (Search Ranking) expert. Many vertical categories of businesses have been targeted by his website; addiction rehab centers are only one of many types of business targeted.
The Extortion Review Players
- The website owner – not in United Stated; appears to be based in India.
- The ‘fixer’ companies. These companies, not appearing to be connected with the original qustionable review site, contact businesses and demand a sum of money to remove the review; insisting they are a ‘reputation manager’ with no connection to the questionable review website.
- There is no way to know if these entities are connected and to what degree.
Conclusion of law enforcement and our attorney: This is not the ‘first rodeo’ for these players.
How to Spot a Fake Review
In today’s internet environment – it is the Wild West. And for Searches – Google Search calls the shots. There is now legislation being proposed in the US Congress which would add some levels of internet protection against fake reviews, online extortion and more.
As long as there are no regulations regarding internet service providers with a monopoly over online services – and Google continues to claim it cannot remove anything from Search – review extortion will continue.
Elements of a Fake Review Website
Consumers – Caveat Emptor. This is a Latin term meaning “let the buyer beware.”
This phrase has been discovered on business fronts during the excavation of Roman settlements. Apparently, the warning applied just as much 2000 years ago as it does today.
- The review was posted anonymously.
Legitimate review services including Google Reviews, Yelp Reviews, Facebook Reviews and others – all show the account name of the reviewer.
- There is no ability provided for the business to respond to bad reviews.
Some ‘gray area’ review sites demand payment from companies to remove or answer bad reviews. Black hat fake review sites do not provide any way for a business to respond to bad reviews.
- The review describes services the business does not provide.
This is an immediate cue to savvy consumers that the review is not legitimate.
- To increase Search Ranking, a well-constructed Fake Review website will look very clean and have some legitimate content.
This is to give the casual website user the impression the website is honest and ‘real’.
But Aren’t There Laws Against This Sort of Thing?
Yes, in the United States there are laws against defamation, extortion and internet ‘ransomware’.
However, when the website is in a foreign country (India) and the individual demanding ransom is in another foreign country (Singapore) – then the prosecution scenario is no longer straightforward.
Best Outcome: Google removes the fake reviews from Google Search. That ends it.
Chances of Google Search Removing Anything from Searches in the U.S. – With a court order, it may be possible to request removal of items from Google Search.
Have you Been a Target of Fake Review Extortion?
This advice comes direct from our attorney.
1. File a report with the FBI – and also local law enforcement (if reviewer is in the US).
2. Do not pay the extortion ransom! Unfortunately, paying the ransom will immediately identify you as a target for other extortion demands.
3. Retain an attorney experienced in internet law and internet defamation. They can guide you on next steps to take.
4. Lobby for Congress to enact some level of consumer protection regarding the internet.
5. ‘Caveat Emptor’ – Become a savvy internet consumer; learn to spot fake reviews and other online scams.
We hope you never have to deal with fake review extortion. It is on the rise and you may encounter it in your business.
If you do encounter fake review extortion – please know that you are not alone. Together, we can make a difference in current internet laws – and the way in which internet blackmail is handled.
Don’t Pay Blackmail to Online Scammers!
Cyber Attack Online Security Article – From a Google Executive
Although not directly related to fake reviews for extortion, Online Security is critical in 2017. An interesting opinion article was recently published, written by an executive from Google.
“So much has changed since 2014. We’re on the cusp of a new computing era with the emergence of artificial intelligence and machine learning that will help build incredible products for users and power businesses worldwide. Security has come a long way — our automated systems can pick a spear-phishing email out of an internet-sized haystack — and yet, as a society, we’re putting everything in jeopardy by not making a commitment to security.
You don’t need to be an expert to see this. We are all reading the same headlines: hospitals, credit agencies, law firms, media companies, and a slew of other organizations have suffered serious breaches in the last few years. Nuclear power plants have been targeted, along with political institutions and officials — from the UK and South Korean governments to the French and US election campaigns.
Government-backed groups may be behind some of the more sophisticated attacks. But increasingly, weapons and resources that were once only available to governments have become available to anyone. Some of the attackers’ tools are even available for free.
This is not a drill: The threats to our most personal data, our businesses, our infrastructure, our democracy, are absolutely real. So, what can we do about it?
Everyone needs to learn the fundamentals of online security.
According to recent research (ironically, based on anonymized data collected from security breaches), the most common password last year was “123456.” A Google survey shows the No. 1 thing experts do to secure their data is update their software; that wasn’t even in a top-five answer for non-experts in the same study. When I’m out of the “security bubble” and talk to people about important security measures like two-step verification and security keys, I get blank stares.
We aren’t even close to where we need to be regarding internet security
Programs like The National Cybersecurity Alliance’s Lock Down Your Login and Google’s Be Internet Awesome for kids are a great start, but we need to continue these types of conversations in school curricula, and at home with our families as well.”
Kids Game to Learn Online Security
Be Internet Awesome Interland game for kids has great free games that teach kids the basics of internet safety.
Password Vaults / Password Managers – Secure Password Storage That Works Across All Devices
PC Magazine: The Best Password Managers of 2017
“A password like “123456” or “monkey” is easy to remember, but it’s also easy to crack. With the help of a password manager, you can have a unique and strong password for every secure website. We’ve evaluated two dozen to help you choose.”
November 2017 Update
- The ‘fake review’ website is dragging its feet in the legal process; delaying as long as possible to avoid answering questions from our attorney in an effort to avoid any legal consequences.
- Dollar amount required from a self-declared non-connected 3rd party to remove the fake review escalated to more than double the original amount demanded.
If interested, go to the page link below to read Offers to Remove the fake review; including the escalating money demands.