Small Business Reputation Management Scam

As a small business owner, my online reviews are extremely valuable and can really affect my prospects for new business. Yesterday, I discovered that Nerd Busters had become a victim of a new trend in online scams that’s known as Reputation Management.

Basically, the scheme is that false negative reviews are posted on your business, then shortly after, a representative of a company contacts you and lets you know that they noticed some negative reviews and are just the right people to help get those removed and better yet, can help you get more positive reviews. I was contacted by Alex Fink at Allied Reputation Management. Here is the exact transcript of the message:

Dear Nerd Busters,

Last week I noticed some very negative reviews about your company on the internet, on a popular review websites (Google Places). See here:

These negative citations are affecting your business, since studies show that almost 90% of all customers check reviews online before choosing an IT/Computer Service Company. You are losing customers, and to anyone searching for your business online your reputation looks very negative.

I don’t know whether these reviews and reports are from real customers, or from disgruntled employees / competitors with malicious intent. Review websites allow anyone to post and do not verify the content of the accusations, so there is no way of knowing who posted these reviews or why.

You are not alone – many businesses find themselves in this tough situation every day. Luckily, with good planning and careful execution there is a way to remove the negative citations and restore your online reputation.

My name is Alex Fink and I work for a company that specializes in online reputation management, as well as PR and image-making. We have extensive experience in managing large-scale campaigns that:

a) remove negative reviews and reports from the web,
b) add a healthy amount of positive reviews to all major review websites, and
c) monitor your reputation continuously to make sure that it remains clean and positive.
We are currently working with several small businesses in your area, as well as two national retail chains.

If you are interested in fixing the negative reputation you currently have online, please contact me so we can start working on it asap!

Sincerely yours,
Alex Fink
Senior Technical Consultant
Cell: 510-585-3388 (turned out to be a Google Voice #)
Email: (email since removed, website shut down)

I don’t often check Google Places reviews and was surprised to see a one star and two star review. I immediately realized these were bogus as I neither recalled the name nor service of the reviews. I did a little research and compiled a list of all the companies that the two fake reviewers had contacted, as well as noted the other handles of fake reviewers and their associated reviewed companies. I then start emailed as many companies as I could, at 1:00AM no less. Let’s say my blood was boiling and sleep was not an option. I received several responses from other victims which confirmed what I already knew. This guy was trying to extort us and his actions are considered racketeering akin to mafia style “protection”.

I then made a list of all the appropriate agencies and consumer groups to contact to report this guy, but first, decided I’d give him one chance to fix his mess. I contacted him and demanded he remove all reviews and even gave him until Monday to do so. Here’s my message:

Come on Alex? Really? Your scam is so blatantly obvious. You start the “company” in March, start posting negative reviews shortly after, then try to hit up businesses to remove those reviews and even post fake positive ones.

Here’s the deal, you need to remove all of the false negative reviews from Google Places immediately for my company as well as all the others businesses that you have contacted. If you don’t do this by the end of the weekend (let’s say Monday morning to give you extra time), I will contact the FBI, Cheyenne police/DA, Wyoming & CA State Attorney’s office, Google, any and all consumer/business protection groups I can find and begin my own personal crusade to stop your mischievous activities. What you’re doing is illegal and as best I can would be considered racketeering.

I have already begun contacting all of the businesses that you’ve posted false reviews on to tell them about your scheme. Please say hi to all your imaginary SF friends: Stephen, Alice, Diana, Mary, KYap, DannyL, Tina, TrinaTan, etc. I can only imagine how many other locations you’ve hit up.

He responds:

Wait a second, I have no intention of scamming anyone and the project you are referencing hasn’t gotten me a penny of revenue yet.

I did start a reputation project recently, and hired people on Odesk to find businesses with 3- stars and send them emails on my behalf. I especially asked them to spend some extra time and find companies with recent negatives, since these are more likely to respond; of the 4 people I tried only one produced good response rates so I kept him and fired the rest.

Are you saying that the negative reviews he emails people about aren’t real? How can you tell? I guess it could explain the high response rate, but it would be incredibly stupid and unethical.

Please give me a few days to figure this out.
If he posted any fake reviews I’ll make sure he removes them all and gets fired immediately after.

Thanks for letting me know about this. I’ll keep you posted on the results.

Feigning ignorance to your contractors or employees is no excuse and after speaking to some of the other victims, it’s clear that Mr. Fink is indeed at the core of this operation. Low and behold, just an hour or two later, it appeared that the fake negative reviews had been removed as well as his entire website! That sure screams guilt to me. Anyhow, the purpose of my writing this is to help others avoid such illicit behavior and do your homework to fight back. I was shocked that it took some aggressive work on my part to put an end to this nonsense despite the fact that he defamed well over 30 area businesses.

Stay tuned for a post regarding online fraud prevention.