Trustpilot is enabling crime

A KwikChex investigation into online reviews website Trustpilot has shown that the platform is being used to promote a broad spectrum of illegal activity, from financial scams, through counterfeit documents to illegal drugs.

Whilst the problem of fake reviews has been acknowledged for some years, and governments around the world are tightening laws to help protect consumers against such deceits, the majority of fake positive reviews are considered by many to be more of a way some unethical businesses attempt to gain an unfair competitive advantage. Fake negative reviews tend to cause more harm as they are usually specifically designed to seriously damage a business and its owners.

But on Trustpilot, the situation is very different. This is not about telling lies about the quality of a meal or whether service was good or bad – it is instead a means to defraud and sell products that break the laws of most countries – and Trustpilot has become a ‘go-to’ resource for a broad range of businesses and people acting unlawfully – what can fairly be described as an additional ‘scamtool’.

The promotion of dangerous businesses

Trustpilot has regularly declared actions to remove very large numbers of fake reviews, and to ‘punish’ the perpetrators. However the investigation shows that in addition to continuing failures in this respect, what are known as ‘bad actors’ are constantly and prolifically creating business profiles on the site to enable several different types of illegal activities. Besides fake reviews, there are extended activities on Trustpilot that are helping to enable the promotion of elements such as –

· Fraudulent investment and financial trading.

· The claimed provision of drugs, from the likes of Viagra and Xantax, to steroids, cannabis and even cocaine and heroin.

· Illegal weapons.

· Counterfeit passports, driving licences and bogus qualifications.

There are also other eminently dangerous profiles, such as some purporting to be immigration and visa experts, and purported fraud recovery assistance, which will likely result in victims of fraud being scammed again. Overall, there are far greater problems in both severity and scale than those which Trustpilot is currently dealing with. The Trustpilot boast that their platform is “open to everyone” can be seen in this context as also meaning it is open to criminals, who are certainly exploiting it.

Exaggeration of trust?

The marketing used by Trustpilot seeks to convince the public, investors (the company is listed on the London Stocks Exchange) and businesses that content on the site can be trusted. They use phrases such as

· “Trustpilot – a universal symbol of trust”.

· “Trust is the foundation on which commerce is built. Trustpilot enables consumers to decide who they can trust and to help other consumers.”

· Our focus and commitment to protecting and promoting trust online is unabating. This coming year we’re continuing to push the boundaries with new initiatives that will ensure online reviews on Trustpilot remain a trusted source of information.”

Trustpilot’s terms and conditions include the prohibition of aspects such as committing fraud and other illegal acts and incentivising reviews – but these abuses are unnecessarily rife on their site.

In addition to not preventing such concerning abuse, KwikChex research also revealed that the actions taken by Trustpilot, which include large scale removal of reviews, warnings posted on profiles and claimed legal actions are not adequately resolving the fake review problem in some of the most high risk (consumer vulnerability) sectors.

Even where Trustpilot has taken such actions, the abuses are continuing – and more pertinently, there are failures to follow the evidence of very substantial numbers of connected fake reviews.

There are obvious patterns of review fraud being missed which we would expect to be detected by what Trustpilot describe as sophisticated anti-fraud systems and expert human intervention.

It is difficult to equate what Trustpilot say about their fraud detection resources with the blatant abuse the KwikChex team has discovered – perhaps the volume of corruption is so great that their systems are overwhelmed – but that still does not explain why effective actions are not being taken with regard to known high risk sectors, such as cryptocurrencies / financial investments or when there are extended chains of abuse that can be easily followed, or very easy to detect signs that even basic searches reveal.

On Trustpilot’s own profile, there are even instances of their team thanking obvious review fraudsters who have left positive reviews for Trustpilot – apparently as a part of their ploy to deceive.

Exacerbating factors

The Trustpilot claims of trustworthiness are likely to lower the guards of people using their site to make crucial purchasing decisions.

In very many cases, businesses that are well-established and are therefore considerably safer are ranked ‘bad’ or ‘poor’ whilst scam businesses manage to attain ‘good’ & ‘excellent’ ratings.

Trustpilot have ignored warnings about the prolific degree of fraud and dangers in high-risk sectors, even when the abuses have been highlighted in the media and KwikChex has reached out to warn them.

The use of the word ‘verified’ as a description put against a business or a review can seriously raise the risk of consumer detriment as it is extremely easy to obtain this over-reassuring ‘credential’.

Even when fraud is detected and warnings are published on profiles by Trustpilot, the warning states that the situation has been dealt with and fake reviews removed and future ones will be removed too – but in most cases, more fake reviews have been and remain published – and the business still has a very positive rating.

The situation can cast unfair doubt about businesses that are genuinely earning many good reviews – and in many cases are paying Trustpilot for additional features.

Potential remedies

Trustpilot could pay particular attention to the type of specific, high-risk sectors mentioned above and not allow profiles to be created in these without more extensive checks on the businesses.

Rather than overemphasising degrees of trust and verification, more protection would be afforded consumers if Trustpilot were to advise that the reviews and rankings should not be relied on too heavily when making important purchasing decisions – and that much greater due diligence should be carried out.

Improvements in verification of businesses could be made, and this could then be provided in enhanced profiles which would enable consumers to make a series of additional checks themselves from more reliable sources.

Improvements can certainly be made in detection techniques and in dealing more robustly with persistent abuse.

The above is a summary of the findings of the KwikChex investigation. The specific data which supports this may be provided to vetted journalists, investigators, consumer protection, law enforcement and regulatory authorities.

KwikChex is providing such information to appropriate authorities in order to help reduce consumer detriment and support appropriate actions.

Post by Editor