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Deep Dive: The Importance Of Fighting Fake Restaurant Reviews And Social Media Fraud

Social media engagement plays a central role in modern restaurants’ daily business, with eateries using platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to advertise new menu items, interact with customers and drive business to their locations and mobile apps. Studies have found that 72 percent of customers have used Facebook to decide where to eat and 71 percent of consumers are more likely to recommend a business that responds to them quickly on social media.

Review websites like Google, TripAdvisor and Yelp are no less important to restaurants’ successes. More than one-third of customers will avoid establishments with less than a four-star rating, and a ratings increase of just one star on one of these websites can result in a 9 percent revenue increase. These reviews are far more trusted than professional restaurant critics, with 25 percent of consumers preferring OpenTable or Yelp to find reviews over career critics in local publications.

Both types of platforms are wrought with fraud, however, with scammers abounding on social media and fake reviews plaguing crowd-sourced review websites. The following Deep Dive examines how these bad actors can negatively impact restaurants and their customers, and how eateries can counter these problems.

Social Media Schemes

Fraudsters run rampant on social media websites and often target restaurant customers. One popular scheme sees fraudsters asking victims to give them $20 via a peer-to-peer (P2P) payment app like Venmo with the promise of $50 worth of food or credit at a popular restaurant, for example. The fraudster then absconds with the funds and leaves the victim hanging and mistakenly blaming the restaurant for their misfortune. Restaurants’ reputations and customers’ wallets are both hurt, through no fault of their own, and the fraudster gets away scot-free.

Another type of restaurant-related social media scam involves fraudsters running fake restaurant accounts that promise to give away free food or store credit. One such example occurred on Facebook earlier this year: Fraudsters claimed to be distributing Chick-fil-A coupons that asked victims to click links to claim them. This link prompted them to enter their email addresses, telephone numbers, credit card details and other personal information, all of which went directly to fraudsters.

Customer education is key to stopping these bad actors. Restaurants can help by sending periodic emails reminding customers that they will never ask them for their usernames, passwords or payment data, and cut off contact with any individual claiming to be a restaurant representative asking for these details.

Restaurants not only need to protect their customers’ wallets and sensitive data, but their own reputations as well. The biggest threat to restaurants’ statuses and revenues is fake reviews, but there are some steps restaurants can take to fight back.

Flushing Out Fake Reviews

False or misleading reviews can be devastating for restaurants’ bottom lines as a majority of customers take customer feedback seriously when deciding where to eat or from which mobile app they should order. Fifty-six percent of restaurant owners believe reviews to be a more important driver of traffic and revenue than traditional advertising, and there is research to back this up: A ratings improvement of just half a star on Yelp can increase the likelihood of a restaurant filling all of its tables during peak hours by up to 39 percent.

The problem with relying so heavily on these reviews, however, is that a significant number are fraudulent. As many as one-fifth of all reviews on Yelp are believed to be fake, even after the website removes 25 percent of all submitted reviews as likely falsehoods. TripAdvisor is no safer, with the company identifying 60 different review farms in 2015 alone. The company took legal action against these farms, which pay individuals in cash or free merchandise to write reviews for businesses contracting them to build up their reputations or trash their competitors. This problem is set to grow even worse in the future, with researchers developing a bot that can churn out believable fake reviews with zero human input.

This may seem like an unwinnable battle for the restaurant industry, but there are measures that can mitigate this problem. Yelp and TripAdvisor typically only take down reviews if they are confirmed to be fraudulent or if the reviewer had a conflict of interest, so it is incumbent on the restaurant to identify the signs of a fake review. One giveaway is identical language on multiple reviews, either on the same restaurant page or spread amongst several. Googling quoted excerpts can reveal duplicates at other restaurants or other review sites, much like how a college professor can detect plagiarism.

Another signifier is multiple reviews posted on the same day. A restaurant that typically only garners one review a week and suddenly receives 20 in a single day would have fair reason to believe that these reviews are fake. There are also third-party tools like Fakespot that assist businesses by sniffing out fake reviews and bringing them to website administrators.

Restaurants’ internet presences — both on social media and on review websites — is equally as important as customers’ experiences at their brick-and-mortar locations, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic pushes the majority of their business online. Protecting web presence is thus likely to be a vital part of ensuring their continued existence for years to come.

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