MINNETONKA, Minn. (FOX 9) - The flurry of five-star reviews and vaguely written comments seemed too good to be true.
The same reviewers who recently praised a dental office in Minnetonka were also giving high marks to a locksmith in Florida and a restaurant in Australia.
"These are classic fake review patterns," said Kay Dean, a former federal investigator turned watchdog.
Dean runs the consumer group Fake Review Watch, which identifies business owners across the country who potentially paid for fake online reviews to boost their online profiles.
Consumers rely on those Google and Facebook reviews for everything from locating high-rated restaurants to finding a new dentist. However, Dean says many online reviews are fabricated and purchased through a global black market industry. The FOX 9 Investigators tracked down one industry insider who claims he can produce thousands of fake reviews in a single day.
"The scope of this problem is just shocking, much worse than most people are aware of," said Dean.
That black market industry is now catching the attention of state and federal regulators.
"Lies undermine fair markets," said Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. "People can’t make good consumer choices if they're having to rely on lies."
Fake reviews and a Minnetonka dental office
In recent months, a dental office located in Minnetonka called Dentistry by Design stood out while Dean was researching fake reviews across the country.
"I saw that Dentistry by Design, as well as other businesses, were receiving numerous fake Google reviews from an organized network," Dean said.
With Dean's assistance, the FOX 9 Investigators analyzed 48 recent Google reviews for Dentistry by Design.
More than two dozen of the profiles that created those reviews had also reviewed a smoke and vape shop a half hour away. Six of the profiles also reviewed the same locksmith in Florida. Nine of them reviewed the same restaurant in Australia.
"That's not believable," Dean said.
Those suspicious reviews were removed the day after Dean publicly spoke out about them on her YouTube channel.
The FOX 9 Investigators made repeated attempts to get an explanation from Dentistry by Design but the company did not respond.
The Minnesota Board of Dentistry confirmed it launched an investigation into the company after the FOX 9 Investigators started asking questions about the suspected fake reviews.
Feds consider new rule to hold businesses accountable
The proliferation of fake reviews has overwhelmed the online marketplaces so much that the Federal Trade Commission is now considering a new rule that would crack down on businesses that pay for fake reviews, including hefty fines against offenders.
"Fraudsters are professional liars – this is what they do. They get up in the morning and do it and they lie all day and they do it with these reviews," Ellison told the FOX 9 Investigators.
Ellison joined two dozen state attorneys general to support and provide input on the FTC's proposed rule.
However, holding those responsible for fabricating fake reviews is especially challenging since law enforcement often don’t know who is responsible or where they are originating.
"There's a whole economy in countries like Bangladesh, India, Pakistan – and that's a challenge for regulators to address," Dean said.
The FOX 9 Investigators tracked down one reviewer who claimed to be based in the United Arab Emirates but advertised fake reviews in the United States for as little as $2 per review.
"I can do 5,000 reviews in a day," he said, adding that they can be five-star reviews.
Millions of fake reviews removed
While the federal government is on the brink of bringing more accountability to businesses that pay for fake reviews, the new proposed rule does not go after big tech companies like Google where those fake reviews get posted.
"The tech companies and review platforms themselves are not transparent about how bad the problem truly is," Dean said.
The FOX 9 investigators reached out to Google but the company would not provide comment on the record. However, on its website, Google claims in 2022 it removed or blocked approximately 115 million reviews for violating the company's policies.
"I think with no accountability for third-party review platforms, the fake review problem will not be solved," Dean said.
Dean said the last line of defense from fake reviews is likely yourself – and she provided some red flags to be on the lookout for regarding online reviews.
Ellison urges those who fabricate or purchase fake reviews to remember "the moral weight" that comes with defrauding consumers.
"It's wrong. It's unethical and it's against the law," Ellison said.
If you encounter fake reviews associated with a business, you can report it to the Minnesota Attorney General's Office, which has a team dedicated to helping consumers. Contact the AG Office: 651-296-3353.