This past December, a guest blog was published on the Medical Justice website focused on fake online reviews. Not the kind most doctors complain about. When I hear doctors moaning about a negative review that is fake, they are generally referencing the handiwork of a disgruntled ex-employee, a competitor, or even an ex-spouse. I call these “false negative” reviews.
The guest blog, authored by Kathryn Dean, targeted “false positive” reviews. Ms. Dean hosts a YouTube channel called fakereviewwatch. She has catalogued a thriving ecosystem where businesses purchase reviews from people in Bangladesh, India, and other countries. In one example, the poster was paid less than one dollar. Of course, the review broker who spearheaded the deal, made much more. Ms. Dean has also catalogued review swaps, where businesses offer to “scratch” each other’s backs. You post a review on my site and I’ll post a review on your site. It doesn’t matter that these two parties are not in the same business space. It makes no difference if one business has no understanding of what the other business even does. It is irrelevant that they live in different parts of the country. Review purchase groups and review swap groups are thriving on Facebook and other social medial platforms. And, yes, even doctors are jumping in to juice their online scores.
This is not an isolated occurrence. As a citizen investigator, I have researched online review fraud for three years. The problem is much worse than you might imagine. I have seen literally thousands of businesses faking reviews, and plenty of medical and dental practices are among the guilty parties.
The above case is particularly interesting because the evidence I found is right out in the open in public communications in a Facebook group. It’s all documented in a video titled Bangladeshi Facebook Group Fakes Google and Trustpilot Reviews for U.S. Businesses on my YouTube channel, Fake Review Watch. The Bangladeshi review broker publicly outs his U.S. clients, how much he pays for posting a review, and the text of the reviews he wants posted. The responses from various Bangladeshi participants are also there for all to see, including screenshots of the reviews they posted on Google or Trustpilot in order to get paid. That mental health treatment center wasn’t the only client; there are many others, including other U.S. medical and dental practices.
What about the “You scratch my back; I’ll scratch your back” online review-trading protocol?
A Virginia psychologist traded reviews with a Missouri educational supply store. A Michigan eye surgeon traded with a Seattle martial arts studio. A California dermatologist traded with a Wisconsin home inspector. And a California psychiatrist swapped with a Texas credit counseling business, just to name a few. Businesses often write their own reviews and send them to their trading partners via Facebook private message to post.
Once these businesses were outed and brought to Google’s attention or Yelp’s attention, scores of reviews were removed from the business’ profiles. As to whether these businesses will receive anything more than an online wrist slap remains to be seen.
Still, be careful.
Doctors work and compete in a heavily regulated space. Licensing authorities will eventually pay attention to this emerging problem.
How might regulatory bodies police this? Medical and Dental Boards uniformly have the authority to discipline doctors for “unprofessional conduct.” The list of what qualifies is long. False and deceptive marketing/advertising makes that list. Arguably, purchasing reviews or swapping fake online reviews would be labeled as false and deceptive marketing/advertising. Once the disciplinary process kicks up, it gathers momentum. A ding on one’s license in one state can cascade into a ding on one’s license in another state. Disciplinary action is recorded in the National Practitioner Data Bank. Such action needs to be reported to hospitals where you have privileges, and to insurance carriers with whom you are in-network. The easy button for pollinating fake positive reviews on your website can become the shortcut to defending your license in front of the Board.
The obvious. Resist the impulse to press this “easy button.” You do not want to defend your license based on your purchase or trading of fake online reviews. Once the Board believes you are untrustworthy, it often digs deeper to see if there are other shortcuts that might impact care.
There are other, more reliable ways to populate your online profile with mostly positive reviews.