“Ive been pretty active for most of my life. Years of basketball, football, boxing, you name it,” a Yelp review of Regenics, an IV hydration, cryotherapy, and weight loss center in Tarzana, California said. P G, the writer, gave Regenics a great 5 star rating and even checked-in to the business to show they had actually been there.
P G’s review was more important than most because they were a member of Yelp’s so-called Yelp Elite Squad (YES). Elite members receive a special badge on their Yelp profile to signify to visitors that they are more trustworthy. To become an Elite member, people have to apply to Yelp directly and typically provide much more detailed information than an ordinary reviewer such as photos.
But P G hadn’t really been to that business. They hadn’t realized their “growth hormone and testosterone levels were both low,” nor did they do cryotherapy at Regenics on days where they pushed themselves too hard physically, as the review said. Instead, P G betrayed his Yelp Elite reputation and accepted money from a third-party to post that review, according to screenshots and analysis by Kay Dean, a former federal investigator who now runs a YouTube channel tracking social media scams called Fake Review Watch.
We know that this review is fake because P G admitted it to Dean and provided screenshots of the conversation between him and the person who bought the review. P G also explained his dip into writing fake reviews in a phone call with Motherboard.
For years, Dean has been following online scams that harm consumers. She has found a thriving ecosystem of people seeking to buy fake reviews from trusted Yelp writers, and Yelp Elite members happy to meet that demand.
“Cheating is rewarded. The playing field is pretty much just unfair” between companies that pay for Yelp Elite reviews and those that don’t, Dean told Motherboard in a phone call.
Do you know anything else about fake reviews? Do you have documents about their prevalence? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on firstname.lastname@example.org, or email email@example.com.
To become an Elite member, users have to apply directly to Yelp and provide their real name, a photo, and explain why they would like to be a member. The benefit to Elite members themselves is that they may be invited to special events and meet-ups.
“Real people. Real reviews,” Yelp writes on the Elite section of its website. Being an Elite member “isn’t just about recognizing folks who share a ton of pictures or write long reviews, it’s also a mark of trust,” the website continues.
But some Elite members are undermining and using that trust for their own wallet by selling Elite-stamped reviews to those willing to pay. Dean shared with Motherboard a cache of screenshots and other files she has collected while investigating Yelp Elite reviewers.
In Facebook Groups with names such as “Yelp Reviews Exchange—East Coast USA” and “Yelp Review Exchange” people post that they are looking for Elite members to provide reviews.
“Need some YELP Elite Account review, Must be Female Account, Please PM me, thank you,” one person posted. Two replies read “Check Pm,” and “Hi I have many elite yelpers available.”
Another post from 2019 reads “Looking for Elite Reviews in CA—Payment (PayPal) after Review Live—PM Ur Profile & Price.”
Dean has found evidence that Yelp Elite members do take up some of these or similar offers. A series of Instagram direct messages she says were leaked to her by the pseudonymous P G show how the exchange sometimes goes down.
“I will pay you $30 for each review I need many reviews in our different yelp pages,” an Instagram account called thecalifornia2021 wrote to P G, according to the screenshots. “I will provide you yelp page and review text, you have to just post it. Can you please help me?”
“Yeah, I can do that,” P G replies.
Thecalifornia2021 then pasted a long body of text that they apparently wanted to be used as a review for Regenics, the weight loss center. P G agreed and posted the same review text on Yelp, according to another screenshot. (Regenics acknowledged a request for comment but did not provide a statement).
They also used Yelp’s check in feature, which signifies the reviewer has actually visited the business. In another message though, P G said they had a way to manipulate their GPS location to use Yelp’s check-in feature. This is likely using a GPS spoofer; Motherboard previously used such a tool to artificially place our phone’s location in North Korea and trick an app into thinking we were there.
Dean found that thecalifornia2021 followed three other apparent Yelp Elite members on Instagram, and found that all of them also provided detailed 5 star reviews for Regenics, suggesting they may also have been solicited to do so. A fourth person who was seemingly the husband of one of the reviewers also left their own 5 star review.
Later, thecalifornia2021 asked P G to review another business, this time SureSir, a contractor in Beverly Hills. P G left them a 5 star review with the text that thecalifornia2021 provided. Then P G did the same for Mona’s Auto Insurance, according to the screenshots.
A local NBC website wrote a brief interview with P G in February. Dean said Yelp removed P G’s profile after the article was published. P G told Motherboard that he spent five years building up that account. He became an Elite when Yelp contacted and invited him, he said. Once Yelp banned P G he wasn’t disappointed in the loss of status as much as the loss of a network of other Yelp Elite members which he had become friends with after meeting them at Elite events.
“My network kind of shrank after that,” they said. “Losing my friends was the most disappointing thing about losing the account.” He said the first Elite event he went to was a tour of a Sriracha factory.
P G said he made around $120 in total for writing 3 or 4 reviews.
Dean has used a similar methodology of checking which accounts others followers and comparing reviews to find what she believes are other Yelp Elite members likely selling reviews. In total, she thinks she has seen “hundreds” of potential rogue reviewers.
Dean used to work as a Special Agent in the Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General, where she dug into fraud cases. She later left that job and more recently started researching this different sort of online fraud when she had a poor experience at a doctor in California, she said. Curious about why it went so badly, she looked up reviews of the business online. She then found the same doctor in a Facebook Group soliciting Yelp reviews.
“I really believe it is affecting the marketplace, distorting it,” Dean said.
There is, of course, a huge market for fake reviews on other platforms like Amazon. These and Yelp reviews are important to a business; if they receive too many negative reviews or are unfairly targeted in a campaign of review bombing, it can lead to a drop in customers. On the customer side, fake reviews can give the impression a business is better or more accommodating than it actually is.
Since then she has used her “eyeballs and spreadsheets” to spot how these fake review buyers and sellers organize themselves.
Yelp told Motherboard that over the past year the company has tied less than 0.05 percent of Yelp Elite reviewers to suspicious review rings or to taking money for providing reviews, with tens of thousands of Yelp Elite members in the U.S. The company also pointed to the latest version of its annual Trust & Safety Report, in which Yelp says it provided over 1,000 reports to other platforms such as Facebook and Reddit so they could act on suspicious posts on their own sites. Yelp said Instagram typically does not respond to these alerts, and that Instagram does not provide a way for Yelp’s investigators to report people who solicit reviews in direct messages.
Yelp said it places a Compensated Activity Alert on a page if it detects a business has paid for reviews, and typically removes this warning after 90 days if the misleading activity stops. Yelp releases these flags every quarter, with the latest coming out in February. Yelp pointed to two examples of an apartment complex in New York soliciting reviews and a property management company in Vancouver doing the same. Yelp suggested these businesses may have solicited positive reviews on Google too.
Yelp said it has reported companies engaged in this business to the FTC.
Motherboard contacted Yelp for comment on Wednesday. Dean said she noticed Yelp banned more of the suspicious reviewers she had been tracking “within the last few days.”
A Yelp spokesperson told Motherboard in a statement that “We consistently run investigations and audits to detect suspicious behavior, which may ultimately result in account closures. Any Elite members that have been removed from the platform for violating Yelp’s Content Guidelines or Terms of Service in the last few days have been a part of our regular investigations. To be clear, account closure decisions are based solely on our own extensive investigations, as we require clear evidence of the behavior that violates our Terms of Service.”
“To proactively keep compensated reviews off of Yelp, we also regularly monitor, investigate and infiltrate online groups where people may attempt to trade or pay for reviews,” the statement added.