Buy fake reviews to improve your rating on Google Maps? In French-speaking Switzerland too, traders give in to this illegal practice. RTS has found two networks of accounts that have posted hundreds of false comments.
“The place is truly magical. I loved it and I recommend it.” The comment, left by Daniel C. on Google Maps, makes you want. It boasts the Escape Game of Orbe (VD), baptized “Protocol 1408”, very well rated on the platform with an average of 4.8 stars out of 5. However, it is probably a purchased opinion, posted through a bogus account. These fakes continue to invade Google, according to the investigation of the data cell of the RTS and the program A Bon Entendeur (ABE).
To identify the most suspicious reviews, we collected all the comments posted by people who had rated an establishment. First clue: places strangely far from the Escape Game come up very frequently.
Of the 143 people who gave their opinion on “Protocol 1408”, 25 also appreciated the same Lebanese restaurant in Paris. This is the establishment that shares the most customers with the Escape Game. It is followed by a phone repair shop in Marseille (18 reviews) and another Lebanese restaurant (13 reviews) from the same group as the first, also in Paris.
“Victim of a malicious ex-employee”
In fact, it is a network of accounts, probably fake, that have rated the same establishments. Fifteen of them commented, always with 5 stars, on the Escape Game, the Lebanese restaurant in Paris and the phone shop in Marseille. Other establishments, for example a building materials supplier based in Belgium, also appear regularly. In total, at least 28 accounts linked by these different venues rated Protocol 1408, or one-fifth of its ratings, according to our survey.
Contacted last week, the Escape Game d’Orbe did not answer our questions. However, on Tuesday, hours before our survey was published, 18 comments were deleted. On Monday afternoon, a message from the manager had appeared under 22 other reviews, still online, including that of Daniel C.: “Please disregard this review. It is a fake written without our knowledge. Indeed, our company was the victim of a malicious ex-employee.”
The escape game’s response to the fake reviews. [RTS]
Suspicious reviews in Geneva, Renens and Fontainemelon
The problem of fake reviews on platforms like Google Maps has been known for several years, but it does not seem to be improving. Last October, an extensive survey ofhighlighted the extent of the phenomenon, revealing numerous networks of fake accounts in German-speaking Switzerland and in German-speaking countries. Customers? Restaurants, shops, hairdressers and even medical practices.
In French-speaking Switzerland, the Orbe Escape Game is not unique. We have found another network of accounts selling fake reviews from France which does not appear to have any links with the network mentioned above. Among the alleged customers in French-speaking Switzerland are several taxi and transport services in Geneva, a scooter store also in Geneva, a clothing store in Renens (VD) and a household appliance specialist based in Fontainemelon (NE).
The latter has 24 reviews on Google Maps. At least 13 of them are linked to this network of accounts posting fake reviews. Here too, the analysis reveals incredible relationships between these people.
These so-called Arts & Ménagers customers noted the same creperie in Amiens (northern France), the same electronics store in a village in western France, the same fitness center in Bordeaux, the same gîte in Ardèche, the same beauty institute in Belgium, the same taxi service in Geneva, the same furniture sales site, the same clinic in Paris or even the same erotic massage salon, also in Paris. In addition, reviews are often posted at the same time. These links, as improbable as they are numerous, leave little room for doubt.
“I bought some positive reviews to compensate for very aggressive comments”
Questioned by A Bon Entendeur, the director of Arts & Ménagers, Umberto Faltracco, assures that he has not bought false comments but speaks of replicas of opinions collected from his customers: “In 2020, we called on a specialist in digital marketing based in France in order to improve the referencing of our website at the regional level. During this period, we were asked to collect a satisfaction questionnaire from our physical customers in order to be able to transcribe it online (we do not know the technique of This is in no way a purchase of comments but a replica of the opinions collected from our customers during this period.
Another beneficiary of the opinions left by this network: CD Scooter Shop in Geneva. His boss, Jérôme Dessonnaz, concedes having bought a handful of positive opinions. An approach taken after a customer and members of her family left very aggressive comments about her store, he explains. “I tried to have these comments removed from Google but without success. I even went to the police to file a complaint. And since it is impossible to make these negative comments disappear, I bought a few positive reviews for compensate them.”
The other presumed French-speaking customers of this network refused to answer our questions.
“Why deprive yourself?”
Who manages these accounts? Several elements point to a website which, in addition to Google reviews, also sells “likes” and views on TikTok or Instagram. To convince its customers, the site indicates: “Buying Google reviews can be a controversial subject, however in some cases it is very legitimate.” According to the author, this allows “to improve referencing”, to give “a boost to a new business” or even “to redress the balance” after having received “unfounded negative opinions”. And to add: “Your competitors are surely already doing it, so why deprive yourself?”
How does it work? The buyer chooses the number of stars, writes comments on his establishment himself and the seller posts them, for 14 francs per opinion. According to the site, the accounts are “100% French, with photo, seniority, review history and some Google Local Guide”.
Screenshot of the site selling Google reviews. [RTS]
Several “local guides” are indeed among the false comments that we have spotted. This is a Google certification, easy to obtain, which does not give any guarantee on the veracity of the opinions. A priori credible, these people also present inconsistencies when they are scrutinized.
John L., local guide, noted 57 establishments, most of them in France. And seems to live several lives. He is sometimes a young student in Geneva, then a few months later the father of several children near Paris, and “often” buys his furniture in a city in the west of France.
Another example: Manu B, also a local guide with 126 reviews, who sometimes does things upside down. He thanks for example in his comments a “serious driving school” which allowed him to be “on top on the day of the exam”. However, two years earlier he praised the merits of a traffic lawyer who had allowed him to recover his driver’s license. In less than two years, he also noted four dentists, in different cities, always giving them rave reviews and wrote about the last one having “literally come out reconciled with the dentists.”
Manu B. is actually the name used on social networks by the owner of the site that sells these reviews. With his company in Strasbourg, he has created several similar platforms specializing in internet referencing, the sale of reviews and streaming. Contacted, Manu B. did not respond to our requests.
An illegal practice
Despite these inconsistencies in profiles, fake reviews remain very difficult for users to distinguish. And can therefore mislead the consumer.
Invited on the set of A Bon Entendeur, the lawyer Nicolas Capt, specialist in new technologies law, believes that false comments are punishable by the federal law on unfair competition: “The fact of benefiting from falsely positive opinions on its services which emanate from bogus customers as well as the negative opinions posted by competitors obviously pose a problem from the point of view of these provisions for the protection of competition. I am not aware of any legal cases in Switzerland, on the other hand there are had cases in European countries such as Italy and France. Cases in which were punished sometimes the agencies which published false comments sometimes companies which used them “.
Is Google responsible for reviews posted on its platform? According to Nicolas Capt, the American giant “essentially has a hosting role”. And to add: “It does not mean that we cannot take legal action against Google. We can but it is what we call defensive actions, it is not to seek compensation but to request the deletion of, for example, comments”.
Google says it hunts down fraudulent reviews
The method used in this survey makes it possible to identify major inconsistencies. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Google, with its means and data available, could clean up, at least in part. Several specialists criticize the American giant for not doing enough.
Asked, Google denies it: “We check 24 hours a day, 7 days a week that the opinions are not fraudulent, in accordance with our guidelines. To do this, we rely on a combination of people and technology. If we we see people being misled, we immediately take action, ranging from removing the content to deleting the Google Account.”
At the time of publishing this survey, the majority of the fake comments spotted were still online.
Valentin Tombez, with Linda Bourget