by Mick Rhodes | [email protected]
Creating or paying someone to create false online reviews may be illegal under Section 13(b) of the Federal Trade Commission Act (“FTC Act”), 15 USC § 53(b), as well as the California Business and Professions Code , section 17200.
“There may be a violation of FTC rules here because if the company knew about it, it would be considered an endorsement,” said Claremont-based consumer attorney and “lawyer who fights for the people,” Scott glovsky. “And once they’ve paid for the approval, they’ll have to disclose who paid for it, and that’s been paid. Because under FTC rules, this could be considered an undisclosed paid endorsement.”
But the FTC’s enforcement division is severely underfunded and understaffed, said both Mr. Glovsky and Jason Brown, an online review specialist and consumer advocate in charge of www.reviewfraud.org.
“It really is the wild west and these social media sites or review platforms are really just looking the other way because they just don’t really have a way of really going about it until they’re forced to,” said Mr. brown.
The FTC has prosecuted similar cases in the recent past, including a $12.9 million judgment in February 2019 against Cure Encapsulations, Inc. and its owner, Naftula Jacobowitz, for improving the company’s Amazon rankings by buying fake reviews.
Mr. Glovsky also said a state court could consider Rooter Hero’s actions an “unfair business practice,” which is a violation of the California Business and Professions Code. section 17200, which prohibits dishonest or illegal business dealings or practices.
Rooter Hero COO John Bergeron initially co-operated with the COURIER’s investigation and sat for two lengthy interviews. He was given multiple opportunities to expose the company’s fraudulent online reviews, but remained steadfast in his denial of any wrongdoing by Rooter Hero.
When it became clear that the COURIER would be reporting on Rooter Hero’s fake reviews, Mr. Bergeron stopped answering our calls.
The COURIER also made multiple attempts to interview Rooter Hero CEO John Akhoian. All were unsuccessful.
Read Part I: “How Much Is Too Much?”
Read Part II: The Scam
Read part III: The Wild West
Podcast: Part I
False reviews encourage companies
All those fake five-star reviews give Rooter Hero ratings across the various platforms — Facebook, Google, Yelp, et al — a major competitive advantage. They distort ratings and influence how consumers spend their money based on fraudulent data.
Internet searches prioritize highly rated companies, so Rooter Hero’s fake reviews drive the rating up and, in turn, move the name closer to the top when consumers search for a plumber.
The Roberts specifically named Rooter Hero because their name appeared at the top of their search, with a five-star rating.
Mr. Bergeron had two explanations for the irregularities on the Rooter Hero Inland Empire Facebook page. He posited that the company’s 46 fake Facebook recommendations as of January 16, 2020 were from people who had simply moved to Southern California and failed to change their home location on their profiles. He also offered that they could all have been landlords, managing properties in Southern California from out of state.
When he said that his statements were highly implausible, he replied as follows:
“Here is my statement on that point,” said Mr Bergeron. “We don’t know, really, okay, why. And we don’t make ratings and reviews, okay? There is categorically, absolutely, no one who is a volunteer or a paid professional who does that in relation to Rooter Hero.”
But there is clearly someone.
“iBoost does their marketing,” said Mr. brown. “In 2017, a friend of mine went in and started reporting 41 fake profiles that he discovered had left reviews for iBoost and iBoost customers. One such reviewer, Barbara Jenkins, after Google removed the reviews she left in 2017, managed to rate numerous Rooter Hero locations after Google already wiped out her previous reviews. So all signs point to iBoost being the marketing company responsible for buying and facilitating the fake reviews for Rooter Hero.”
A small victory
As a result of the COURIER’s investigation, an internal Rooter Hero audit of Roberts’ work revealed that the technician had miscoded the repair, and the company refunded the elderly Claremont couple $700.
Even with that refund, they paid $1,382 for the job, about double what several local plumbing companies, large and small, said they would have charged.
Knowledge is power
Preventing you from being abused by a contractor is easy, but it takes care.
“Before hiring a contractor, we encourage consumers to get three bids, get and check references, and check the license on the CSLB website at https://cslb.ca.gov, or by calling (800) 321-2752,” said Joyia Emard, Public Affairs Manager for the California Contractors State License Board.
Click here to read the licensing board’s publication, “What You Need to Know Before Hiring a Contractor.”
“Consumers should know that contractors can only request or receive a 10 percent down payment or $1,000 upfront, whichever is less,” Ms Emard added. “We also advise consumers not to prepay for work, but to make prepayments when work is satisfactorily completed — which is consistent with California contract restrictions.”
If you have a problem with a contractor, put things in writing and, if necessary, file a complaint with CSLB.
And, of course, be skeptical of irregularities in a contractor’s online ratings. When in doubt, contact reviewers across the various platforms and ask them directly about their experiences with the company in question. You can also take a deep dive into a contractor’s ratings at the Better Business Bureau at: https://www.bbb.org.
‘That just wasn’t done’
Sixty-year-old Charlie Hopkins owns Whest Koast Plumbing, in Rocklin, since 1997, but he has been a plumber for over 40 years. He entered the profession directly from Sylvania Northview High School in Sylvania, Ohio, in 1978.
It’s been around long enough to have seen first-hand the many changes the plumbing business has gone through in its leafy California patch 22 miles northeast of Sacramento.
The trend toward a commission-based, predatory billing model has influenced him so much that he says it has soured him in his life’s work.
“Just about,” said Mr. Hopkins. “I know we can’t really grow beyond where we are now. I’ve gotten too old to want to train any more people. The two boys I have have about 18 years of experience together. I’ve trained them, and they’ve left and come back. They will never go anywhere else.
“The things that I’ve been told and that happen out there that I thought were… I came from a generation where that just wasn’t done. It has really happened in the last two decades.”