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 fake or unfounded claims.
The FTC takes this seriously. If a business is engaging in fake testimonials or paying people to post misleading reviews, commissioners have the legal authority to impart hefty fines or even shut down a business, as a result.”
Here is a helpful infographic explaining the consequences of posting fake reviews:
Most of these fake reviews are running small operations and are not on the FTC’s radar. If you feel you have been a victim of a fake review, you are welcome to file a complaint with Federal Trade Commission.
Fake Scam Buster Copycats
EthanVanderbuilt.com attracts a lot of traffic. Joel seems to have a decent grasp on the principles of search engine optimization and recognizes the power of YouTube video ranking tactics. His formula for creating fake reviews to attract traffic has spawned numerous copycats.
The owner AdvertScams.com openly admits to being inspired by Ethan Vanderbuilt and blatantly uses his fake reviews to promote his Wealthy Affiliates business. The website follows the same attraction marketing blog format used by EthanVanderbuilt.com and lists multiple fake reviews designed to steal leads for their own business opportunity.
His review, Kyani Product Review – Is it a Legit Business | Avert Scams is a perfect example of the fake review scam. He targets Kyäni, a $500 million dollar business that receives thousands of search a month with a story about the company and its compensation plan. He goes on to say that Kyäni is not a scam however if a user wants to make money they need to enroll on Wealthy Affiliates page so they can learn how to be successful with their Kyäni business.
Another fake scam buster, Ian Ross runs a site called StoppingScams.com. While he claims to write legitimate reviews about companies, he actively promotes Wealthy Affiliates.
Jack Cao runs another Wealth Affiliates scam-busting site called BareNakedScam.com.
Aside from the obvious conflict of interest, here is the problem with this tactic. Wealthy Affiliates (WA) has nothing to do with any other network marketing business. If you sign up for WA and use their model, not only will it be irrelevant to your MLM, it may even cause you to run afoul of your MLM rules which may lead to lost commissions.
Not only are AdvertScams, StoppingScams and Ethan Vanderbuilt trying to steal you away from the opportunity you are researching, they are openly misleading you with information that could cause you to lose money in your existing business. Most network marketing companies have strict rules on the various ways you can market online, and writing fake reviews is a serious violation.
Top Fake Review Scammers
Jesse Singh is a big promoter of DSDomination, a business opportunity that teaches people how to hawk overpriced drop ship products on marketplaces like eBay or craigslist.
Let’s take a look at the blog posts on his site hotmlmcompanies.com:
- Poofy Organics Review: Good Organic Company or Scam?
- Amway Scam Review – Time To Put The Rumors To Rest
- Pampered Chef Review – Legit MLM or Scam? Find Out Here…
Melaleuca Review – Still good or Stay Away?
In each case, he takes poorly sourced information and complies a blog post designed to trick Google into ranking it for the target company brand keyword. While avoids actually calling any of these companies a scam (mostly due to the fact they are all legitimate businesses) he uses the traffic he steals to promote his business opportunity.
Frank Lam Sheung runs a website called StealthSecrets.com. In the top right corner of the site, there is a picture of the fake review scammer holding a check from Wealthy Affiliates. He follows the exact same formula used by Vanderbuilt and most Wealthy Affiliates members.
Nathaniell Brenes may be one of the worst offenders. He goes so far as to attempt to justify his fake reviews on his site OneMoreCupof-Coffee.com by saying he purchases products and then reviews them. We spoke to representatives at two of the companies reviewed by Nathaniell; Kyäni and Melaleuca. They told us that they have no record of him as a customer. So, Brenes is lying about his product purchase in an effort to convince people he is a trustworthy reviewer. The collusion between the scam busters and fake reviewers is made clear when you read this interview. Ian Ross of ScamBusters.com throws softball questions at Nathaniell Brenes and praises him for his “reviews”. Both Ian and Nathaniell are members of Wealthy Affiliates.
There are hundreds more of Empower Network, MLSP, and Wealthy Affiliates fake review scammers listed online. The logical conclusion to explain this cluster of bad behavior may be that the companies are teaching their members how to write fake reviews. One former member of Empower Network admitted to us that they received training from My Lead System Pro (MLSP), one of the oldest blogging pyramid-like schemes.
Companies Targeted by Fake Review Scams
Our research shows that these companies have been targeted heavily by fake reviews:
- Pampered Chef
- Mary Kay
- Young Living
- Jamberry Nails
Many of these companies have a successful business history dating back 30+ years and billions of dollars in revenue annually. Questioning the legitimacy of these companies could be compared to asking if Costco is a scam.
Are the top direct selling companies a scam? In our opinion, no, but we are not trying to sell you a Wealthy Affiliates membership.