Can You Trust Online Business Reviews?
Every year thousands of people across the country search for business opportunities online. Often it starts with a friend’s facebook post about an essential oils company or a family member shares their story about how they made extra money, you eventually decide that there is something to this network marketing thing. With over $36 billion in sales annually and 20 million people engaged in some form of direct selling, it’s no secret that there is money to be made. Regardless of what your opinion of network marketing may be, it’s worth looking into. It is wise to do your research before you consider joining one of these businesses. The trouble is, can you trust the information that exists online?
The first step in researching a business opportunity is to look up company reviews. Read what real people and experts say. Seems simple enough. Except those some of the “experts” may not be what they claim to be. If you are searching for a network marketing opportunity, the reviewer may have a financial motivation to trick you into buying something else. The review calling a business a scam may actually be made by a real scammer.
In the last four years, multiple websites have sprung up calling themselves trusted scam busters. Let’s review a few of them.
Is Ethan Vanderbuilt the Internet’s Most Trusted Scambuster?
Ethan Vanderbuilt has built a business out of writing negative reviews about companies he considers to be scams. On his site EthanVanderbuilt.com, he calls himself “The Internet’s Most Trusted Scam Buster”. A quick Google search will reveal that his website ranks for most network marketing brands. Often the articles are titled: “Is (company name) a scam? In my opinion, yes“. He says almost every business opportunity is a “pathetic scam”. Could Vanderbuilt be right?
Who is Ethan Vanderbuilt?
Let’s start with the fact that Ethan Vanderbuilt is a fake name. The face of all those YouTube videos that disparage hundred of companies is nothing more than a paranoid failed IT worker who lives in near Sacremento, California. (We will not disclose his full name here since our intent is not to burst his personal security paranoia and will only refer to his real first name; Joel)
Joel’s business is built on a lie. He does not have a professional certification or degree that would qualify him as an expert in business or marketing. His resume lists him as working briefly as a WebEx trainer and a small business computer consultant. If you have a problem connecting to a WebEx meeting, he could be the one who answers your help desk call; trusting him to review a billion dollar company, not so much.
Legitimate reviews are made by people who have actually purchased a product or service. If you have never tasted a particular brand of granola bar or shake, how exactly can you write a review saying it tastes bad? Joel can not prove he has tried any of the products and services he has reviewed on his site because he has not bothered to risk his own money to do so. If a company offered up a product for him to review, he would have had to place an FTC disclosure on each review.
Vanderbuilt’s Fake Review Formula
In his videos, Joel explains passionately how he wants to help prevent people from getting scammed by these dangerous predators who use questionable marketing techniques to sucker you into a business opportunity.
Let’s break down how this works. Here is how you run an attraction marketing/fake review scam:
- Create a blog post and/or YouTube video that uses a brand name, the word review, and asks if it’s a scam in the title.
- Grab basic information off of the company’s website, links to an old compensation plan, and review products you’ve never purchased.
- At the end of the video or blog post, explain how only you can help the user be successful in network marketing and that you know the secret to success. Provide a link to your affiliate program and hope the user signs up.
- Collect money
Joel’s website seems to follow this formula exactly. In fact, he even calls out a company that is notorious for training people on how to run this scam; the infamous Empower Network. It is not a coincidence that Joel kicked off his scam busting career in 2013 with his video on Empower.
Empower Network, a clone of My Lead System Pro (MLSP), help pioneer the tactic of stealing the brand equity of another company to drive traffic to your business through fake reviews. Another company saw this and created a spin on this business by offering an affiliate marketing program that used the exact same unethical marketing tactics. Wealthy Affiliates members have become some of the worst offenders of fake review marketing.
So why does Joel’s one positive review share the benefits of Wealthy Affiliates? Because he is a member of this business opportunity. It is not a coincidence his profile on Wealthy Affiliates was created in 2013.
The fact that Joel’s website was founded to build his Wealthy Affiliates business by driving traffic from fake scam reviews eliminates all credibility he claims to have.
The FTC vs Fake Reviews
Why has Joel not been sued by the companies he defames? He narrowly skirts lawsuits by adding the words “in my opinion” to any seriously libelous claims. He is smart enough to understand that if his posts are opinions and non-actionable facts, then he is released from the liability of his content. While he may appear to be careful, many legal experts could find plenty of violations within his site.
Writing fake reviews can carry consequences. If the content is blatantly false, companies can seek legal action. Regardless if the company being falsely reviewed can actually win the lawsuit, bringing an action against a fake reviewer may burden them with heavy legal costs.
The FTC is responsible for monitoring and enforcing rules against posting fake reviews. Dan Warner, an attorney, wrote this in Tech.co:
“the FTC’s mission is to rid the marketplace of “unfair and deceptive marketing” — and it has the authority to both fine and shut down operations.
“According to the FTC, online endorsements and testimonials can’t be purposely misleading, plus any relationship or connection between a company and reviewer must be disclosed. Additionally, paid reviewers and endorsers can’t publish