CONSUMER ALERT: Fake online reviews -- and a person who writes them

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APPLETON, Wis. (WBAY) - Whether it's booking a vacation, deciding on a restaurant or hiring a handyman, a lot of us make that decision after checking online reviews.

However, those reviews aren't always legit.

Action 2 News spoke to a man who says he's been getting paid by businesses to write fake reviews for the past three years.

When it comes to online reviews, it's sometimes challenging to separate fact from fiction. So when a local Fox Valley business owner contacted us after receiving an unsolicited email offering to write fake reviews for him at a cost, we decided to pose undercover to find out how it works.

That led us to set up a Skype interview with a man who goes by the name of Jay and says he lives in California. However, he would not appear on-camera.

Once connected, Jay told us, "I will do good work, okay. I'm always trying to do good work for my customer, so my customers are very happy."

Jay said he's willing to write reviews on just about any platform, but what we wanted to know was, for how much?

We asked, "How about 50 reviews for Google, 50 for Wedding Wire, and we'll just say 50 for Facebook. So how much for that?"

Jay replied, "Okay, okay, so I simply ask ten dollar for every review."

We continued, "Ten dollars for every review?" Jay replied, "Yes."

Jay's only request is that we send him two legitimate reviews that he can craft his fake ones from.

Susan Bach at the Better Business Bureau of Wisconsin says the issue of fake online reviews has attracted the attention of the Federal Trade Commission.

"It is not illegal to compensate people for reviews," said Bach, "but it is illegal not to disclose that you compensated them for that."

Bach says a recent study the BBB conducted shows 93 percent of people read online reviews before making a purchase.

While some web sites try to weed out the fakes, others don't.

So it's up to consumers to spot them.

"Do they all kind of read the same? Is the user name similar? Different but very similar to all the other ones? Is there a real picture if it's on a site where you have to create an account?" Bach suggested. "If it's too generic, that could be a red flag."

As part of the deal with Jay, he promised to post a handful of initial reviews first. If we liked them, we could pay him through a PayPal account and the rest of the reviews would follow; if there was no payment, any reviews he wrote would be deleted.

"I will write all the reviews myself and on my own feelings," Jay told us.

Bach reiterated it's illegal for companies to buy these reviews and not disclose that they've paid for them.

In February, the Federal Trade Commission brought its first ever charges against a New York company for doing just that, paying for fake reviews for its weight-loss product.

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