A lot of things in our lives start with an online search.
Just like checking reviews before booking a hotel or picking a restaurant, we also resort to online searches for medical advice. But beware: a physician’s five-star rating may not be what it appears.
A 2018 experiment with hypothetical doctors showed that people preferred using online review websites over government ratings when picking a medical professional.
“When you rely on online reviews of medical providers, you’re gambling with your life,” Niam Yaraghi told NBC News, a business professor at University of Miami and author of the study . “They don’t know that it is possible for people to go and purchase fake reviews.
Kay Dean is a former federal investigator who started digging into online review fraud after her own bad experience with a doctor she found through reviews online.
There are scores of Facebook groups devoted to buying, selling and trading fake online reviews, she said.
“There’s a whole open marketplace,” Dean told TODAY. “The scope of the problem is massive.”
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She started Fake Review Watch, a YouTube channel to educate and warn consumers about the prevalence of inauthentic reviews on platforms like Yelp, Google and Facebook.
A Meta spokesperson said Facebook groups that allow buying and selling online reviews are prohibited. When TODAY asked about specific online groups, Meta then took them down.
“We have removed these Groups and continue investigating the reporting. We don’t allow fake reviews or any Groups or Pages that solicit or encourage them on Facebook.”
To show what a fake review of a medical professional looks like, Dean pointed out Dr. Mansour Zakhor, a “celebrity dentist” in Beverly Hills, California, who has hundreds of five-star reviews on Yelp and comes up as one of the top dentists in the area. Pictures of A-listers like Miley Cyrus, The Weeknd and Hailey Bieber appear on his Yelp page.
But Yelp has removed some of his glowing reviews after deeming them suspicious, concluding certain users reviewing his page were connected to review rings that engage in compensated activities.
Dean found two sets of identical suspicious reviews that Yelp later took down — the exact same paragraph of text written by people in different cities on different days.
One set included the phrase “This is the place to go if you’re looking to do a full smile makeover.”
Yelp later removed those reviews and shut down the accounts that those users were associated with.
Last year Yelp closed 85,000 user accounts due to potentially fraudulent or abusive behavior.
It’s not just on Yelp and Facebook. On Dr. Zakhor’s Google reviews, a suspicious post mentioned that “she addressed my concerns. She did a good job,” but the doctor is male.
“That’s a red flag,” Dean said.
Google has since removed the post and a spokesperson said, “We invest significantly in building technologies and instituting practices that help people find reliable information on Google. We have clear policies that prohibit fake reviews.”
When she mapped out Facebook reviewers of Zakhor’s dental group on a spreadsheet, eight of those Dr. Zakhor patients also used the same Peruvian travel company, the same locksmith in England, the same tire company in Virginia and garage door company in Nevada.
“The most logical explanation is that they’re all fake,” Dean said. Those reviews have since been taken down.
A former patient of Dr. Zakhor, who asked not to be identified, said she went to Dr. Zakhor because of the five-star rating at the top of his page.
“I started reading people’s experiences and they were so happy,” she recalled.
But the woman said she ended up cutting off her treatment plan early, disappointed by the results and after a friend pointed her to a number of one-star reviews.
She had to scroll down to the bottom of the Yelp page to find them in a section of reviews labeled as “not recommended.”
“I started seeing a lot of very upset people with his services,” she said. “That really made me worried.”
Although the front page of Zakhor’s Yelp profile by default shows almost all five-star recommended reviews, that not recommended section lists one-star reviews first.
“If I did know about that section, then I would have not gone and had this entire mess started,” she said.
She’s on the hook for more than $8,000.
Yelp said reviews are put in that section when their automated software determines they are less reliable, unhelpful or biased. Reviews in that section do not factor into the overall star rating of a business.
People relying on Dr. Zakhor’s reviews are likely unaware that the California Dental Board is seeking disciplinary action against him, citing allegations of “gross negligence,” “unprofessional conduct” and “incompetence,” based on allegations from two anonymous patients. The board is seeking to revoke or suspend Dr. Zakhor’s license and a hearing is scheduled for September.
Dr. Zakhor did not respond to TODAY’s requests for comment. On his Yelp page, he once replied to a negative review by writing: “We stand behind our work and if patients are not happy with our work, we gladly redo them.”
How can you spot fake reviews?
Experts suggest staying on alert for these red flags:
- Watch for identical reviews.
- Beware of a large number of five-star reviews following a negative one.
- Look past the stars and skim the text to see if the details make sense for that business.
Bottom line: If you are going to search for a doctor or dentist online, take some time. Your health could be at stake.
Melvin Harris Jr. also contributed reporting.