Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Fake Recommendations on Listservs

While the problems of fake recommendations appearing on popular websites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp have been much publicized, shilling permeates neighborhood listservs, too.  The incentive for businesses to post fake recommendations for themselves is high -- and the cost is low. Few shills are called out, and shilling drums up a lot of business for contractors, handymen, housekeepers, even babysitters.

Here are three examples of fake contractor posts from neighborhood listservs:
XYZ just finished our basement, it was a full gut and remodel job, they finished in just under seven weeks and were clean, always kept us updated and the workers were great. Their website www.yzx1000.com isn't great, but their work is.
Hello Neighbors, I am a property manager and wanted to let the community know of our reputable plumber and painting company. If you need plumbing help call X at xxx-xxx-xxxx he will charge a fraction of the cost of what you would pay from a yellow pages company. If you want a quality painting job without the huge markups rent yourself a painting for the day and save with Y at yyy-yyy-yyy or visit their website at www.xyz1000.com.
What a great experience I had with zxy!! I got the estimate for our work to be done on the day after they came to see our project. They finished early and brought our old dog treats as a parting gift. ZXY really goes a step further than other contractors I have worked with and has great quality work. This is the second project we have used them for in the last year and I just wanted to say great job publicly. So thanks to all the guys for doing what was expected and more. I highly recommend ZYX Services give them a call zzz-zzz-zzzz.
In our early days, even on our own companion listserv, the Cleveland Park Listserv, shills slipped through. Ever since we set up our three-tier screening system for recommendations (six years ago) we've been shill-free. All posts on the Cleveland Park Listserv are moderated; all recommendations have to be in response to query; all recommendations are checked against other listservs, and if there's been a similar recommendation made elsewhere, that post won't appear on the Cleveland Park Listserv. (Shills tend to post on multiple email lists.)

Shilling is bad; it's fraudulent. When a business posts a fake recommendation, chances are that the business' quality is so poor that the only way they can get customers is through made-up recommendations.  Chances are that a company that tries to trick people into becoming customers is one that's going to cut corners when it comes to doing actual work.

Shills are sneaky, too: Sometimes a fake message poster will include a local address below their name to give the impression that it's a bona fide recommendation.

So how do you tell if a recommendation for an electrician, restaurant, builder or some other business is genuine? While it would be easy to say "you can't tell," there are some general rules of thumb you can follow to sniff out whether the post you're reading is sincere or not. The post is probably a shill if:
  • The person making the recommendation has never posted before or has only posted recommendations for that business.
  • The recommendation is on a YahooGroup and is from a newly created Yahoo email address -- one that's less than a few months old. (You can view the poster's Yahoo status by clicking on their Yahoo ID from the group's website.)
  • The recommendation appears on another YahooGroup or on Craigslist.
  • The post reads like advertising copy. If your shill-radar is alerted, it's probably for a good reason.
Before using a business that's been recommended on a listserv, post your own query about that business. If you get no responses, or just a response from the person who made the recommendation, well, that tells you something. Also Google the phone number that's in the recommendation and see if that pulls up any suspiciously similar posts signed by supposedly different customers.

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