Russian agency offers fake restaurant reviews ahead of World Cup
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[May 21, 2018]
By Polina Ivanova and Natalia Shurmina
MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian marketing
agency has offered to help restaurants in cities hosting the soccer
World Cup use fake reviews to bump up ratings on review site
TripAdvisor, the agency's owner has confirmed.
Marketing company Bacon Agency says it can circumvent TripAdvisor's
algorithm for detecting fraudulent posts and publish reviews in
foreign languages ahead of an influx of fans from abroad.
"What can you do if no Serbs and no Swedes have ever been to your
venue and left a review?" Bacon Agency asks, in a brochure received
by a restaurant in Yekaterinburg, which hosts Egypt and Uruguay in
their first round matches.
"You write it yourself!" the agency says.
For 35,000 rubles ($570), the agency promises a spot in
TripAdvisor's top 10 list. "We are offering to help tourists find
you, and to leave their money specifically with you," it writes.
"We oppose any attempt to manipulate a business' ranking,"
TripAdvisor said. "Our dedicated investigations team is proactive
and extremely effective at catching those trying to solicit fake
reviews for money."
Fake reviews are widespread, but it is unusual for a company
involved in the practice to discuss it so openly, or to link it
explicitly to a sports event.
The World Cup has created lucrative opportunities for businesses in
the 12 host cities hoping to benefit from well-to-do foreign fans at
a time when Russians are feeling the pinch from a fragile economy
and Western sanctions.
FAKE REVIEW INDUSTRY
Contacted by Reuters, Bacon Agency confirmed it had offered the
service, but said it only wanted to act as the middleman between
restaurants and freelancers posting fake reviews.
"We understand that all this is illegal in the sense that
TripAdvisor is against it," said Bacon Agency's owner Roman
"We were just testing this niche, because we see high demand. It's
not because we're bad guys who came in and said, look, you've got to
start swindling ... All restaurants know that reviews are ordered,
and many use this service," Baldanov said.
He said nobody had yet taken up his offer. "The response we got was:
thanks, but we are already doing this ourselves."
SCALE-UP IN SCAMS
Reuters tracked restaurants in six World Cup host cities over two
months, noting an uptick in suspicious-looking posts.
An event like the World Cup increases incentives to post such
reviews, said Stanford University's Jeff Hancock, an expert in
detecting fake reviews.
[to top of second column]
A general view shows of Peperoncino restaurant in Kaliningrad, a
host city for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Russia May 18, 2018.
"Any time you start seeing reviews come in all at once, look sort of
similar, have the same kind of language, then alarm bells should
start going off," Hancock said.
At least six restaurants in the TripAdvisor top 30 list for
Kaliningrad, which will host Croatia and Nigeria, appeared to fit
Peperonchino, a cafe serving Italian cuisine 20 minutes' drive from
the World Cup stadium, used to get around one review a week.
But two weeks ago reviews began to flood in - 45 in total - the
majority from accounts with stock photos, created this year, and
rating the cafe five stars. Peperonchino rose from 28th place to 2nd
on TripAdvisor's list.
Sister cafe Peperonchino 2 also received a flood of reviews in the
past fortnight, also 45 in total, 32 from such accounts.
"All our reviews are real and are left by our customers,"
Peperonchino said. "It's just we have a big loyalty system, a mobile
phone app, and so on."
AVOIDING THE ALGORITHM
In a strategy document seen by Reuters, Bacon Agency explains how to
avoid detection by TripAdvisor.
"The issue is that TripAdvisor has developed algorithms which
monitor user activity and when they spot an attempt to manipulate
the numbers, they sanction the venue," the agency writes.
To trick the algorithm, fake reviews are published using different
IP addresses, devices, browsers and operating systems. Each account
has a "back story" of earlier posts.
The reviews will be "full of real details about the menu and decor,
as well as 'real' photographs, which we will ask you to take."
(Reporting by Polina Ivanova and Natalia Shurmina; Writing by Polina
Ivanova; Editing by Christian Lowe and Giles Elgood)
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